Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Espalier Fig or Stepover?

I've been attempting to espalier a Celeste fig against the corner of my shed since last summer.  It's a young plant so I've had some success with the flexible new growth, but I've got a long way to go.  The following picture shows the tree in mid-summer 2010.

Fig in early stages of espalier training.
When I first planted it I thought "Okay, I'm going for an espalier." Most of you probably know it's a bit more time-consuming than that.  My first mistake was not building a strong framework to guide the plant's growth.  I got lazy and simply dug a few metal supports into the ground and tied down the growing limbs with string.  I know most plants want to grow upward, but I was still surprised when the young limbs were strong enough to pull my supports out of the ground.

Note that the lowest limbs are generally horizontal to the ground.  I say "generally" because the nice lush leaves hide alot of my mistakes. The top 2/3 of the plant grew last summer.  Talk about some serious growth.

I finally wised up this past weekend and built an appropriate "ground level" support/frame for the lowest limbs.  I drove 2-foot cedar stakes into the ground and used a plastic coated metal pole for the horizontal guide section.  I used plastic ribbon to firmly secure the pole to the posts. I then pulled down the wayward growth and secured it tightly (but with enough slack/space to allow for growth without strangling the limbs) to the horizontal pole.

Cedar stakes and horizontal pole to train lowest limbs.
I didn't build a massive structure because I'm still deciding whether or not I want to have a multi-tiered espalier or opt for a stepover.  A stepover is essentially a 1-tier espalier close to the ground.  I'm thinking that I'll probably go with a stepover because individual fig limbs can grow multiple feet in a season.  All new growth starting close to the ground will have plenty of vertical space for full growth. It also means I'll prune the central leader back to the level of the horizontal limbs.  And the greedy ants will likely thank me for creating orderly tightropes that lead to tasty figs in late summer.  Sybil knows that it's a race between human and ant when fig harvest begins!

If I opt for a stepover, I will cut the central growth you see at the corner of the shed.
If you think I'm crazy for considering cutting off such lush growth, you need to check out the following pictures of stepover figs in Japan. They get multiple feet of growth per growing limb each season and the farmers heavily cut back each limb every winter, leaving a unique appearance.

Vertical summer growth from a stepover fig tree trained horizontally.  You can also see small figs in this picture.
Lush stepovers in active growth.
Stepover figs in the fall after leaf drop.  Note the massive limbs that grew during the main growing season.
Here is a set of heavily pruned stepovers.  They don't necessarily look pretty, but they are extremely productive in a relatively small growing space.
What do you guys think of this?  Does anybody have experience with espaliered fruit trees?  Do you have any pictures, links, or suggestions to share?  Let me know, I'd love to hear from you.


  1. I would definitely have a go at the step over espaliering. Those Japanese photos are amazing (some of your photos aren't may have to fix them). I am espaliering some apples using a 'knee, naval, nipple, nose method. There is a link on my blog sidebar. As you say, trees want to grow UP. My trees have had a bit of a set back...the goats ate the growth..but they are coming back.

  2. Goats are indeed hungry creatures! I will have a look at your link sidebar. Knee, naval, nipple, nose is a great name.

  3. Hazel, I think I fixed the pictures. Let me know if they still don't show up.

  4. I can't believe I've never even heard of a stepover. Those pictures are amazing. I guess if the Japanese can harshly cut back their figs without causing a heart attack to both the Japanese and the figs, I guess I should give it a go! It just always scares me cutting off that much of a tree. Plus, I'm impatient and hate to wait for the new growth. But seeing as these grow so quickly in just one summer - and still produce figs - I think I will follow your lead. I planted a Celeste Fig from HD about two weeks ago - I purposely bought one with a kind of weird, flat growth pattern b/c I figured it was already like an espalier. Now to pull everything more horizontally and tie down... Oh, and I guess cut that glorious central leader down to nothing! -Carrie

  5. I think the two-directional espalier is such a neat idea!

    Now I'm inspired - I need to cut our figs. Dave, If you want any unusual variety cuttings, let me know!

    We've pruned figs (our own and others) for years and I can vouch that you can cut even a mature fig to the ground and it will not only grow but produce that same year. Depending on variety, most figs here only the new growth main crop, not a breba crop. Figs are much more adaptable to horizontal growth than apples and pears.

    Hazel, I love your "method" too. What a hoot!

    Sybil (

  6. Sybil, thanks for the absolutely awesome offer...I'm in! Just sent you an e-mail. Enjoying your blog too.

  7. Hi - I love that stepover idea! I'm planning an edible landscaping patch, but I only have room for one or two trees - this is an awesome technique. I can picture a row of figs, a row of apples, a row of peaches --- spring fever dreaming! I have a dry stream bed running through my patch, but I could make this curve with the flow. Marvelous!

  8. Thanks for the info! The first time I saw an espalier, I was in love!!! I will be doing this for sure in my future garden (when I actually have land). I'm curious though, if you planted close to the wall of the house, would the roots mess up the foundation??

    I would love to see an update! :)

  9. Anonymous and Sheila, I'm planning on posting more about the espalier fig this month. Stay tuned!