Ask the Master Gardener: Espalier method is an efficient and elegant way of growing plants

Espalier isn’t too difficult, but it does require commitment. The method involves training a plant by pruning and tying the branches to a frame so they grow into a flat plane, limiting their height and width to a defined area.

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An espalier Eyrignac, France. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: Is espalier too difficult for a fairly novice gardener?

Answer: Espalier is a method of training a plant by pruning and tying the branches to a frame so they grow into a flat plane, limiting their height and width to a defined area. This efficient use of space allows you to grow more plants in a smaller place.

Developed in France in the mid-17th century it is an efficient and elegant way to grow fruit trees, vines (such as grapes), and shrubs. Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, France is one of the most famous displays of espalier. If you are not planning a trip to France, you can see an espaliered apple tree at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: The potency of a potager is in its practicality for produce A potager, French term for kitchen garden or vegetable garden, is an ornamental kitchen garden that combines aesthetics and practicality.
Espalier isn’t too difficult, but it does require commitment. The espalier is formed and maintained by using pruning techniques. Timing is crucial. It is definitely a high maintenance addition to your landscape and pruning and training will be an on-going project.

Mastering espalier technique involves understanding how the plant responds to pruning cuts and shape manipulation. It involves choosing which buds will form branches into the desired shape. There are at least four techniques to master for success. The first one involves cutting and bud orientation, pruning above the bud facing in the direction you want the stem to grow. The second technique is how to bend a branch when it is young and flexible. Attach the branch to a splint before the desired bend and over the next few weeks, angle the branch five to 10 degrees at a time. The third skill involves restricting the plant’s shape by precise pruning of the branch laterals and sub-laterals. This limits the length of stem growth and encourages the development of fruiting spurs. The fourth technique eliminates unwanted buds by rubbing off any bud that is in a place where you do not want a stem.


To develop your own espalier, choose a young tree in its first or second year of growth. Apples and pears lend themselves most readily to espalier – with apples probably being the best choice. You can always take the easy way out and purchase a pre-trained one.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Plenty to do for gardeners to keep busy in winter Research, indoor projects and preparation for spring are good options for gardeners in winter.
Dear Master Gardener: One of my Phalaenopsis orchids has brown, smooth bumps on the leaves and the leaves are looking distorted and turning yellow. What are the bumps?

Answer: It sounds like you unfortunately have scales, one of the most difficult insects to control. Getting rid of them can be a frustrating experience. There are two kinds of scales. Soft scales are the most common and produce honeydew (a shiny, sticky substance). Armored scales do not produce honeydew. Both types are tiny crawlers that have legs and are mobile and use sucking mouthparts to feed on plant sap. The tell-tale signs of scales are discolored leaves and/or honeydew. Just like us during a pandemic, infested plants should be put in quarantine to prevent the insects from moving to other plants. Wash or scrape off scale insects and wash off honeydew if present. Make sure to check the undersides of the leaves, stems, and leaf mid-veins. If the non-chemical treatment isn’t working, you can treat the plant with an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil labeled for indoor plants. Certain houseplants are sensitive to horticultural soap, so read the product label to make sure it can be safely used for that particular plant. Or, use a systemic insecticide labeled for scale on indoor plants. You will probably need to make several applications – the key to success is persistence. In addition to orchids, ferns, schefflera, zebra plant, weeping fig, citrus trees, and ivy are also common hosts. When I have a plant that is heavily infested, I cut my losses and toss it out.

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Dear Master Gardener: I purchased an air plant last year and it looks like it has little babies around the base of the plant. Should I cut them away from the mother plant to have new ones?

Answer: Air plants (Tillandsia) are very trendy and easy-care houseplants. In the wild the pups stay attached to the mother plant until it dies, but if you want to increase your collection you can easily remove them. Make sure to let them grow up a little until they can survive on their own – they need to be at least one third to one half the size of the mother plant. Just cut the pup away from the mother at its base with a sharp knife. Sometimes the pups are positioned in such a way that you can easily snap them off with your fingers. Once you remove them, they can be grown just like the full-sized plant.

Dear Master Gardener: My jade plant has branches that are drooping down and some of the leaves have fallen off. Should I prune the drooping branches? What is causing the leaves to fall off?

Answer: The jade plant (Crassula ovata) is a succulent and easy-to-grow houseplant. Jade plants grow best with bright light and some direct sunlight. Your drooping branches could be due to inadequate light. Over-watering may also be causing your leaves to drop. Jade plants, and succulents in general, do best when the soil is allowed to dry out between watering.

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The best time to prune a jade plant is in the spring because the callus tissue will form over the wound better. Jade plants can be top heavy so pruning will encourage the growth of a thick, main trunk to help support the weight of the plant. Pruning also helps root growth. Always prune a jade back to a lateral bud or branch, but not into it, and do not leave a stub. The cuts will heal within a few days and you will see new growth within a few weeks. Never remove more than 25-30% of the plant at one time. To form a compact plant the terminal ends of the branches should be pinched off regularly. Jade plants can also be pruned into small trees or a bonsai. It is a good idea to repot your jade plant every two to three years or when it becomes too top heavy. Like pruning, the best time to re-pot a jade is in the spring when new growth begins.


You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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