Can I espalier fig trees?

Creating an espalier involves pruning a tree so that the branches grow in only one plane. Fruit trees, including the fig, are often the subjects of espalier. Helping to utilise limited garden space, add an architectural feature to a building facade or to improve fruit set on horizontal branches, the espalier provides many benefits. Figs, which appreciate lots of sunlight and heat, make sound choices for a large espalier against a wall.

Plant size

While fig trees make good espaliers, they naturally attain a large size, up to around 9 metres (30 feet) tall and wide. Pruning to reduce size is a legitimate means to maintain the fig espalier, but excessive pruning reduces production of fruits. Moreover, the root systems of fig trees also grows large and wide. It behoves the gardener to plant a fig for espalier where there is ample space for the roots to spread even though the above-ground branches are pruned to conserve space.

Espalier advantages

Many different cultivars of figs exist for gardeners to grow. Each carries some preferred characteristic such as fruit size, flavour or mature plant height. Typically fig trees survive winters in temperate climates. Training a fig as an espalier against a warm, wind-protected building wall that is exposed to full sunlight provides improved growing conditions in regions with cold winters or summers that are a little too cool to ripen fig fruits.

Espalier basics

Fig trees naturally possess a strong trunk and branch pattern that makes it good as an espalier. If possible, select a cultivar of fig that is considered dwarf, or matures to a size that best matches the dimensions of your wall or fence. Plant the fig so the trunk is 30 cm (12 inches) from the wall face or fence line. Horizontal wires on a wall allow you to tie branches with twine to train the fig tree to remain flat and sturdy. Maintain main horizontal or fan-like branches by pruning in late winter to remove incidental twigs and any branches that grow outside of the flat plane of the espalier. Light trimming in summer is also needed to manipulate new growth that has occurred since spring.

Other considerations

If you want an espaliered fig simply for the architectural beauty or horticultural challenge, you can prune freely to maintain the plant. However, if you desire a good fruit crop, keep in mind fig trees flower and set fruit on branches that are one year old -- those branches that matured the last growing season. Once the main espalier form is created, avoid heavy late winter pruning as you remove tissues that yield flowers and fruits for that year. You may trim back year-old branches lightly so that some flower buds aren't removed, but don't go overboard. The best time to prune figs is in early autumn, right after figs are harvested. You can then prune for espalier shape and retain new growth that will produce next year.

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About the Author

Jacob J. Wright became a full-time writer in 2008, with articles appearing on various websites. He has worked professionally at gardens in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Wright holds a graduate diploma in environmental horticulture from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a Master of Science in public horticulture from the University of Delaware.