Sunday, November 2, 2008

Squeezing a lime

Garden science has overtaken me somewhat. These days growers are producing an astonishing array of dwarf fruit trees which are around half the height of the regular trees, yet they produce full-sized fruit. Long before I had ever heard of dwarf fruit trees, about seven years ago, I decided to squeeze a Tahiti lime tree into my little backyard the old-fashioned way – by turning it into an espalier.

I could have succumbed to the nervous virgin's lament of "I've never done this kind of thing before" and chickened out, but instead I just plunged in like a enthusiastic foolish boy, telling myself that it's the long list of things that you regret not doing that will bug you more in your old age than the long list of things that you regret doing. Espaliers, ho!

Before I grind you through cyberspace with all the nitty gritty detail of espaliers on a limited budget, this photo is the 'happily ever after' shot of a contented espaliered lime tree producing yet another season's crop of margarita juice and guacamole cream. (The stripey leaf behind belongs to a 'Bengal Tiger' canna lily, by the way.)

Here's the result after seven years. If I never move from here it might also be my last espalier, but it has worked out fairly well and wasn't that difficult to do. The main thing is to take time picking the right plant in the first place. What I did was simply sort through all the 20-or-so Tahiti limes for sale at the local large garden centre until I found one with three evenly spaced 'pairs' of branches aligned opposite each other up the main trunk. (Yes, a few people gave me strange looks at the time, but don't even think of trying to explain what you're doing. It's not worth it!). Once I got the chosen one home, set up the espalier frame and planted the baby tree, I cut off all the branches that weren't part of my sets of pairs. All of a sudden it looked like a small but perfectly formed espalier, almost from day one. Well, all right, a small and rather puny espalier, if you must.

For the uprights I used two tall metal fence posts designed for swimming pool fences. After concreting the two posts into the soil (allow about one-third of their length below ground, and two-thirds above ground), getting them nicely vertical with a spirit level and letting the concrete dry for a day, I braced the uprights with a small primed and painted timber cross-beam at the top. The 'tie' pictured here holding the tree in place is adjustable and is quite loose. It needs to be checked every six months or so (say, in mid spring and late summer).

For the lower cross-supports I chose good old galvanised clothes line wire. It isn't ageing much, is mostly not visible and is way cheaper than the admittedly superior and more expensive alternative, stainless steel wire.

At the other end the wires are tensioned up with adjustable turnbuckles, but over these seven years they haven't slacked much at all and I can't remember the last time I tightened them. The hardwood brace at the top is essential, by the way. If you don't have it, the tensioning of the lower wire rungs will tend to bend the metal posts inwards.

Adjustable Velcro ties connect the growing branches to the wires. These are the seven-year-old originals which have been out in all weathers and yet still unzip and zip with a pleasing, efficient swish every time. A truly useful garden tie, these guys.

The only trimming needed is to remove growth that is going in the wrong direction (ie, outwards from the espalier, instead of along the espalier's 'lines'). This trimming keeps the profile of the plant fairly 'flat' and is only necessary about twice a year (spring and late summer). The tree itself is healthy and produces good crops, although in the first two years it dropped almost all its baby fruits when scorching hot spring days surprised us all, as they usually do. These days I have learned to thin the baby fruit by half as soon as they have formed, and I'm probably more diligent about watering the tree, too. However, I suspect the tree itself has just grown more roots and should really take most of the credit for its good performance!

In the end I'm happier with the espalier than I would have been with a dwarf tree mostly because of the satisfaction of trying something supposedly difficult, such as an espalier, and succeeding. But deep down I feel the real satisfaction is simply discovering that it's actually easier than it looks, and spreading the word! When I size up the ultimate size of a dwarf tree, I think my espalier is smaller and takes up less space, which is why I chose that method. Sure, it will need trimming for the rest of my days if it is to stay small, but right now that isn't an issue. And it produces more limes than we can squeeze, anyway!


Anonymous said...

this is AWESOME

so well done for this post. majorly inspiring.

although I'm a huge proponent of Dwarf Fruit Trees your Squeezing a Lime post and it's pictures on the wonders of squeezing any fruit tree into a small space via espalier is totally inspiring.

great job!


p.s. just as a bit of counterpoint on a benefit that might not have occurred to you for having the potted versions of dwarf lime trees have a lookie see at Lilian Too's advice on lime tree feng shui...Lilian Too has sold 10m (that's 10 million) feng shui books worldwide and she says Dwarf Lime Trees Absorb Bad Luck and Kill Evil Influence. espalier is cool but so is killing evil influence.... : )

Unknown said...

Thanks for the step-by-step instructions. I want to try your technique with several kinds of citrus along a sunny fence in California. Your instructions are the best I've seen yet!

Tree Service Brooklyn said...

Indeed, thank you so much for the great tips and tricks!

-Samudaworth Tree Service
Tree Pruning Brooklyn

Unknown said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along.I'm impressed. You're truly well informed and very intelligent. You wrote something that people could understand and made the subject intriguing for everyone. I'm saving this for future use. Birmingham Tree Services

Rebecca A. Maynard said...

but they did not let me have it. So we had the bacon burger and the Icelandic lamb fillet which came with a soup.
cedar wood fence panels