An Espaliered Apple Tree

When Steven and I first moved into our Ames house with its small yard, we puzzled over how to squeeze in some apple trees. First, we bought the rental house next door, in part to expand our growing space. Then we tore out our driveway — the backyard was essentially paved over by the former owner’s attempt to make a big enough driveway to turn a car around — moved the garage door to the side and had a new, smaller driveway poured across the shady half of the small backyard. This gave us a few dozen square feet of sunny garden space (aka “The Expensive Bed”) and a place to build a raised bed to help buffer the yard and house from the traffic on the busy street behind our house. Into the center of this raised bed I planted a Queen Cox apple, which was advertised as being grafted onto a superdwarf stock named M27. The enthusiastic copy said the tree would top out at 4-5 feet and start producing in 2 or 3 years. I imagined the beautiful apples we’d soon have. Queen Cox is a sport of Cox’s Orange Pippin, a gorgeous apple.


Apples on dwarf stock are generally the way to go whether you have a few square feet or a whole orchard. My parents and sister run DragonGoose Farm, an orchard of several hundred trees in northern Utah, all very productive dwarfs. They are easier to care for — all pruning and picking can be managed without a ladder — and begin producing within 3-4 years. The M27 super dwarf stock on the Queen Cox, I soon learned, was not particularly productive or particularly hardy compared with the dwarf stock that is good for this area, Bud 9 (a proper dwarfing rootstock) and M26 (a sort of semi-semi-dwarf rootstock). Still, the tree was fairly sheltered and I figured even a few apples a year would be worth while.

Three years latter the tree, now known affectionately as “Queenie”, was growing like topsy and had produced nary a single blossom. So I set to work on a very vigorous early spring pruning, muttering threats to the tree as I worked. While attempting to spread a too-tight angle between the main leader and an upper limb, there was a sharp crack and both the main leader and the limb I was working on snapped off. I stood back and eyed the damage, now cussing myself. Then I saw that what was left had the rough shape of an espaliered apple tree.

Being a programmer — programmers never read the documentation — I just jumped in and started training the tree into what I thought might be an espaliered form rather than doing any research first. When I finished, Queenie looked pretty nice, I thought … and grew prodigiously the next year. The next two years continued in kind: threats to take out the tree, severe pruning, no blossoms, a huge growth spurt during the summer. It became apparent that this was no superdwarf, or even a dwarf. Queenie had been grafted onto semi-dwarf stock. Oops. I also learned that Cox’s Orange Pippin and its sports can be difficult trees. Indeed! Queenie has clearly developed a ‘tude.

Here is Queenie in her sixth season after this spring’s pruning:


This spring, Steven attended a plant conference in France, near the Palace of Versailles. He came home with photos of proper espaliered apples:


Hmm. In my defense, Versailles does have some of the best gardeners in the world. We Shall See if Queenie deigns to produce any blossoms this spring. But I have to admit to enjoying the challenge of training her against the fence. My threats of taking a saw to her if she doesn’t produce this year aren’t quite as genuine as in the past since I’ve learned how to keep her out of the way of the vegetables in spite of her size.


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