Branching Out: A Humble Attempt at Growing an Espaliered Grapefruit Tree

What would mankind be without rudely trying to bend nature to their evil wills? Imagine a world where man realizes that any attempts at control are merely an illusion and every creature danced naked in the woods in joyous celebration of total peace and harmony. Ahh, soothing. And the exact opposite of the grotesque horrors in the form of massive and aggressive amputations gifted to my new grapefruit tree. Poor oroblanco, you came here to suffer for my aesthetic whims. Rest easy though, your suffering will be remembered in song and lore.

All of this would probably be more warmly received if I didn’t twirl my mustache and cackle maniacally during the process. But I have my methods and plant sensibilities be damned. But I’m not doing this just to pander to my false sense of control and dominance. There are very practical reasons to espalier a fruit tree. The rather obvious one is that it looks insanely cool as a landscape design feature. Like a white-gloves touch to the garden. Classy as a MF’er. It also makes for a perfect space-saving solution to those with limited garden space.

There’s an even more impressive scientific reason for this ancient methodology of fruit production.  When trained against a wall, the light is reflected back onto the tree and the heat is stored during the day to keep the area warmer during the cooler nights.  When trained in an open space, you can line it up to be parallel to the equator to totally maximize its fruit maturing potential.  Both strategies serve to lengthen the fruit maturing season.  Science is amazing. Be sure to science more than you do now.

“The word espalier is French, and it comes from the Italian spalliera, meaning “something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against.  During the 17th Century, the word initially referred only to the actual trellis or frame on which such a plant was trained to grow, but over time it has come to be used to describe both the practice and the plants themselves.

Espalier as a technique seems to have started with the ancient Romans. In the Middle Ages the Europeans refined it into an art. The practice was popularly used in Europe to produce fruit inside the walls of a typical castle courtyard without interfering with the open space and to decorate solid walls by planting flattened trees near them. Vineyards have used the technique in the training of grapes for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years”

-Brown, Sydney Park; Yeager, Thomas H.; Black, Robert J. (September 2007) [May 1985]

For my specific reasons, I had a very unruly back planting strip behind my house. I let it get out of control and many of the plants there were leftovers from the previous owners. Just look at this hot mess…

I also found that metal bed headboard in the trash a while back. I grabbed it because I thought it could serve some purpose in the yard and because I have a serious trash collecting problem.  For years it was annoyingly moved from place to place while I cursed myself for taking it in the first place.  When the idea for an espalier tree formed, the usage became all too clear. Thank you past Jim for being wiser than current Jim. Which is historically the opposite of what occurs. I’m looking at you all-of-the-drunk-Jims! Dickholes.

All this is well and good but the first order of business was to remove all the plants that stood in my way. Including that terrible bush, of which I have no idea what it is. All I know is that it never grows very well, never produces any flowers or fruit, and has a nasty habit of staining the back of the house with a wicked glee.

It fought me to the bitter end though! Those roots ran deep and strong and it was most likely a much older bush than it appeared to be from the surface. In the end I was victorious and I held the gnarled root ball aloft and let loose a primal roar. Which got dirt in my eyes so I cried like a baby.

With a nice clean landing space, I was ready to install the recycled (or up-cycled?) bed frame headboard. I opted on cementing in the posts as this is going to be a long process training this grapefruit tree and I didn’t want the whole thing to fall apart in a couple years.

I also wanted to amend the soil and create a small raised bed as the soil back there isn’t of the highest quality. I cheaped out and used some cut logs I had sitting around in lieu of pricey masonry. All that was left now was to find a grapefruit variety I liked and that would do well in my area. Grapefruit are different than other citrus as they really really love the heat.  I can grow any other citrus in my zone, but grapefruit wants to be super hot. Like the middle of the desert kinda hot. Another reason I wanted to plant this in a super sunny and hot location while taking advantage of the heat radiating from the house in the evening from stored solar energy.

I’ve heard that oroblanco do well in Southern California and they lack the sour acidity of regular grapefruit. So that will save me the trouble of adding sugar come breakfast time. All in due time of course, because I’ll be pushing a shit ton of nitrogen through my tree to focus energy on the green growth and not the fruit. I’ve already emotionally prepared myself for no grapefruit for the first few years. As best I can at least.

Before I went out seeking my grapefruit, I wanted to have a clear design idea in my head so I could pick out the perfect specimen. So I did a quick sketch in Photoshop to bring with me to the nursery.

With design in hand, I set out to the nursery. A found a tree with some decent branching at the height I was looking for and planted it in my new mini bed.

I apologized profusely to her as I began chopping away her young tender branches that didn’t fit into my master plan. Total dominion or bust.

I kept one little baby grapefruit on, although I’m positive it will drop off soon due to the shock the plant is now undergoing.

Realizing that this was going to be a long ass wait, I decided to add something to the bed that would give me a more immediate satisfaction. So I added some strawberry plants. One of which was harboring a seed of the invasive, yet extremely edible and nutritious purslane plant. More on that in my next post.

Here’s the tree all pruned and ready to grow. I also added a photo of the tree two weeks later to show how well everything is going.

Make note also of the change in color from the before and after photos. I’ve been going rather heavy with the nitrogen fertilizer in the form of blood meal. I’ve also been giving it a healthy dose of fish emulsion. The extra nitrogen will help focus the growth towards leaf and branch production and less fruit production. Remember, this is a long game scenario so one must be patient.

I also measured out and made marks for my target branch training. With the aggressive fertilizing and the great amount of heat in that location, it won’t be too long before the tree begins to look like something other than the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. In the meantime, I’ll just keep nibbling on strawberries and random uninvited purslane. Keep an eye out in the next two weeks for a post about that. Here’s a detail of the above photo that shows the sneaky bastard popping out from underneath a strawberry plant…

Until then, if you have any tips on growing espalier style plants, I’d love to hear them. Even with my bonsai experience, I am generally a noob when it comes to this.







11 Replies to “Branching Out: A Humble Attempt at Growing an Espaliered Grapefruit Tree”

  1. Lovely mini fruit tree guild there! Does the purslane mind the higher nitrogen levels now in the raised bed?

    I love espaliered fruit trees, I was looking to start doing that to some of the peach saplings I have, thank you for sharing how to do it!

    1. The purslane doesn’t seem to mind at all. It probably minds me nibbling at it though. Once I found out about its nutritional value it became a target of consumption.

      I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the grapefruit will work out design-wise. I’ve done so much Frankensteining with bonsai that I figured this should be similar enough. Time will tell. A lot of time.

  2. I’ve always been curious about why people espalier fruit trees. I assumed it was to save space and make the fruit easier to pick. Guess I was right about that. The bedframe is a great idea (and looks good). But, something in me wants that old plant you dug up to make a comeback. I really respect plants who refuse to die (except for crabgrass, bedstraw, and oxalis)!

    1. Well if it does, it’ll take about fifty years to do so. That was the slowest growing bush I’ve ever seen. I also totally demoralized the roots. I think it’s safe to say that it’s properly deceased.

  3. Ive thought of doing this in a long strip between house and driveway. But it’s very hot there, we probably having lead paint in that soil, and I’m not sure what would grow decently. That as well as laziness/lack of money and servants has kept me from it. Maybe I will will get inspired by your progress!

    1. How hot is very hot? What part of the world are you in? There certainly are crops to grow that thrive in those conditions. I’m assuming this is a South facing wall of your house.

      If your house is older that the early seventies, then lead paint is a possibility. The non-sustainable option would be to remove and replace the topsoil. But you can do some things to repair the soil.

      Adding organic material will help alter the pH with ammendments that are alkaline. That will battle the lead and make less bioavailable.

      Adding phosphorous also decreases availability of lead to plants, as it binds to the lead and forms pyromorphite crystals, a form of lead which is non-toxic and not bioavailable. Some good sources of phosphorous are fish bones, bone meal (calcium phosphate), bat guano and chicken manure.

      You can then do a couple seasons of cover crops to help pull those metals out. And whatever you finally plant in that area, you can do a heavy metal flush (rock!) with organic molasses mixed with water before the fruit is harvested.

      Or go with an ornamental plant.

      So many options. So much work 😉 But it’s worth it.

  4. Am I the only one amused that your mini bed is topped off with an actual headboard? Intrigued by oroblanco…I just looked it up, and it seems they’re seedless? 👍🏼 I foresee many citrus purslane salads in your future.

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