Espaliered tree, stay out of my basement!
January 18, 2010 9:46 AM   Subscribe

Fruit trees are very pretty when trained or pruned to a trellis; photos often show these espalier trees up against a wall. Why don't the roots knock the wall down?

I'm interested in planting fruit trees in my very small yard, and have been reading up on the basics of espalier pruning. Do the roots grow differently when you direct and trim the branches so firmly?

Any time you look at buying a tree, the nursery gives explicit instructions to plant it at least 15 feet (ish) from a building or paved surface to keep the roots from knocking in your foundation or heaving up your sidewalk. But then books on espalier pruning talk about how great it is to plant the tree near a fence or wall and espalier the branches on a trellis against the wall. I've seen really pretty photos of espaliered orange trees against a garage, and apple trees stretched out along a fence, and a fig tree espaliered to frame a cottage door. Do the writers just assume that nobody would be that stupid, and they don't have to specify to put your tree "against a wall that does not have below-ground structure"? Or is it pure coincidence that none of the images I've seen are full buildings with an underground foundation, but that would be a fine thing to do, and keeping the branches pruned keeps the roots from spreading?

The primary question is, I have two sites in which I could plant a dwarf cherry tree - one is against the back fence (replacing grassy yard), and one is replacing the boring arborvitae bush in the front plot, basically just a couple of feet from the front wall of the house. If I did that, would the roots end up in my basement (classic New-England fieldstone cellar construction)? I'm 95% sure that the lack of explicit instructions means "such a bad idea they didn't even think I'd consider it", and the tree's going against the back fence, but I'm really interested to ask anybody who knows more about espalier than I do if there's any information on the root behavior.

Yes, it is January, and I'm in Massachusetts. No, I'm not doing this right now. Thinking about spring is really awesome when it's snowing.
posted by aimedwander to Home & Garden (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: According to this doc, many trees suitable for espalier are actually grafted onto dwarf rootstock, which may help a bit. FWIW, I found it on this page where someone else was asking a similar question. Seems like the answer is a resounding "maybe", but the idea of using a root barrier is a good one.
posted by jquinby at 9:54 AM on January 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the yahoo link. I'm embarrassed that I didn't find that question - part of what I was confused about was why it seemed to be so blindingly obvious that nobody else was asking about roots, so it's good to know that's not the case, though apparently I am a Google Moron.

"It depends" is definitely enough info for me to get back to my garden-planning, but I'd welcome any other opinions/advice. Between the dwarf varieties I'm looking at, and the "use a root barrier" advice, it looks like the options are at least somewhat open, but I'm still leaning toward the back yard, just for idiot-proofing.
posted by aimedwander at 10:28 AM on January 18, 2010

Best answer: You might also like this old MeFi post, where this very issue is discussed. (It also comes with a nice PDF from the UF extension with more info.)
posted by Upton O'Good at 11:02 AM on January 18, 2010

The roots do not really grow differently, but most fruit trees like citrus and those on dwarfing rootstock have shallow root systems. Figs can be quite problematic, though.

You do want to look at the aspect of the wall or fence- in order to get full sun, they usually need to be facing south. However, south facing walls can also absorb heat in the winter, interfering with chill requirements of fruit trees. Houses also tend to leak heat, so that's a consideration as well.

You can also espalier as stand-alone trees as well. It's not necessary to have a structure unless you're trying to encourage something like warm winter plants like citrus, pomegranates, or figs on a south facing wall for protection.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:39 AM on January 18, 2010

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