Real Estate

Espalier: creating an edible aesthetic

Pruning trees encourages fruit production while decorating the garden

Alex Fernandez doesn't buy into the old credo "form follows function." For him, practicality and ornamentation aren't contradictory design goals.

Fernandez is neither a builder nor an architect. In his 16 years living and working as garden manager at the historic Filoli estate in Woodside, his medium of choice has been neither brick nor beam but the fruit tree.

A practitioner of the ancient horticultural practice "espalier" -- a pruning process that trains trees to bear more fruit by removing trunk growth and encouraging the development of fruit-bearing limbs -- Fernandez likens his fruit-orchard custodianship to being the caretaker of an evolving art installation.

"Caring for trees is a long-term process. You have to be here in five years to see the outcome of your work. A painter who starts a painting doesn't want to move on to the next one and not see its end," the jeans-clad manager said.

"Trees just take longer."

Fernandez will offer a series of pruning courses when Filoli reopens for the spring season, the first introducing pruning apple, pear and peach trees in the espalier style. He'll coach participants on pruning new, young and mature trees. See box at end.

"You need to have three things in mind when you prune; you need to know what you're pruning, your desired outcome and how the tree will respond to pruning," he said.

Fernandez oversees the maintenance of the 17-acre formal gardens and eight acres of fruit orchards. Every deciduous plant is subject to the 14-person horticultural team's pruning shears.

"This is my favorite time of year at Filoli. Most of the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, and you can really see the form of the trees and plants," Fernandez said.

Fernandez is responsible for those forms, notably the espaliered apple and pear trees that run along frames in the Upper Orchard. When he moved to Filoli after getting his masters degree in horticulture from Michigan State University, repairing the neglected trees' posts and frames was his first task.

"The trees hadn't been pruned and were supporting the wires and frame, not the other way around. I've spent 16 years restoring them," Fernandez said.

Gardeners using the espalier pruning style train trees to grow along a flat plain and encourage them to grow angled fruit-bearing branches rather than vertical trunk growth. To accomplish this, gardeners prune the vegetative upright growth in the summer and thin out the spurs in the dormant winter season, bending and binding branches along the way.

Gardeners' original goal was to extend the fruit-ripening season in colder locales.

"The practice dates back to colder climates in Europe. The fruit requires more heat and more time to ripen there, so they'd grow the trees against a south-facing wall or fence, and heat would radiate."

Espalier pruning evolved to be decorative, as well. Gardeners can choose from an informal espalier approach in the same style as many of the trees at the Upper Orchard, or a structured, symmetrical style.

"It's gone from being a practical strategy to an ornamental approach and a strategy to produce more fruit in a given space," Fernandez said.

Fernandez analogized the desired effect to the tendency for oaks to drop many acorns in the year following a drought.

"The more you bend the branches, the more you reduce the vigor of the tree and encourage it to produce more fruiting branches. You're looking to stunt the tree. Trees respond to stress in their structures by producing more fruit."

While space isn't the main concern on the expansive acreage at Filoli, Fernandez suggested that espalier pruning may be a good strategy for backyard gardeners.

"In formal gardens, everything needs to be pruned to a specific scale. ... In a smaller-lot Peninsula garden, more pruning is required if you want the space for trees," he said.

Participants who have taken Fernandez's pruning courses in years past have mostly been female home gardeners, with the occasional garden professional, he said.

"Pruning seems to fall on the men most of the time. But this is a neat, detail-oriented approach," he said.

Despite his passion for espalier pruning, Fernandez said that natural spaces, such as the woods around his residence beyond the formal garden, also have their appeal.

"When I stop work, I can get away to nature and away from trees I feel I have to constantly prune," he said.

What: The Espalier in Winter, Part I

When: Friday, Feb. 4, or Saturday, Feb. 5, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.

What: Fruit Trees I workshop

When: Friday, Feb. 4, 1 to 3 p.m.

What: Wisteria I workshop

When: Saturday, Feb. 5, 1 to 3 p.m.

Where: Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside

Cost: $40 for nonmembers, $35 for members for each class

Info: 650-364-8300 or

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