Monday, December 15, 2008

Of pollards and espaliers

Of late, our legislators were engrossed in analyzing the Bolante funding technique of agriculture, an endeavor that fizzled out. Their search for agricultural innovation and ultimately food security would have produced more fruit if instead they studied two words in the dictionary: pollard which can restrain deforestation and produce alternative fuel, and espalier which can create fruit trees that serve as decorative boundary markers and landscaping.
Pollard definition: 1. A tree cut back to the trunk; 2. An animal that has its horns removed. Pollard is not merely cutting off the top of a tree which is technically just called topping -- a very harmful practice for trees. Pollarding is a pruning technique whereby the small branches are cut back to about the same place annually, creating knobby "fists" on the branches from which the new shoots grow. One explanation for the origin of the practice is that in medieval times the landowners and kings would prohibit the cutting of large trees by peasants, in order to protect their forests. The peasants still needed fuel wood, so they were allowed to only take stuff that was smaller than a certain size. By cutting the branches at the same point every year, they avoided the size issue, got the wood they needed, and still kept their heads. The practice has since become a formal pruning technique.
In the wild, trees manage well enough, so why do we prune them? The first reason is simple: safety. Trees are big and when pieces fall off, they can do considerable damage. Another reason, particularly for fruit trees, is to stimulate flowering and fruit production. Occasionally, pruning may be needed to remove disease or malformed branch work. Rarer still, pruning is sometimes needed for timber production, such as veneer wood. But, the most common reason of all is to control the growth and appearance of the tree for aesthetic reasons (particularly in cultivated varieties) or to control a perceived nuisance.
Mini-forests preserved in the center of megacities such as New York Central Park and London Ashmore Common are attended with care and management. Veteran trees are designated as such due to their great age, size or condition, and are of exceptional value culturally, in the landscape, or for wildlife. The pollarded oaks on Ashtead Common are true veterans, their trunks broad in girth and crowned with majestic boughs. A legacy from a time when the landscape was more open, they formed part of a habitat known as wood pasture. Veteran trees often provide a range of rich, but scarce, habitats supporting many rare and endangered deadwood species, as well as other invertebrates, fungi, bats, small mammals and birds. They are an integral part of England’s cultural and biological heritage, and so receive special attention in the management of the Common. Metro Manila has no such distinction, uprooting trees without compunction when traffic congestion demands it.
In the U.S. willows pollarded since the 1800s provide wood for charcoal, a major component of gunpowder. If, instead of cutting the top of a tree, the trunk was cut at about ground level, it was a "coppice" and would produce shoots that were also used for charcoal. Some Pinoy farmers who practice this method for their firewood needs are not bothered by erratic fuel and LPG prices. Using this technique, our generals could obviate begging Congress for supplemental budgets to buy gunpowder for shelling the MILF rogues – and it would create some savings for funding the travels of their peripatetic Commander-in-Chief.
Espalier, a trellis or lattice used in horticulture for training (contorting) a tree or vine flat against a wall, either for ornament or to fit it into a small space, allowing it to get a maximum of air and sun and bringing the fruit within easy reach for gathering. The plant may be trained into various shapes, such as a fan or a fork. The term is more commonly used for the tree or vine so trained. 

An old horticulture practice of controlling plant growth in a flat plane against a solid surface is called the art of "espalier." Espalier originated with the Romans and the technique was refined through the years by the Europeans.

Garden designers and enthusiasts are rediscovering the ancient practice of shaping tree branches into classic, stylized forms. Today, many top garden designers and landscape architects are taking a second look at this haute form of horticulture. Espalier has a time-honored place in the history of gardening. Egyptian tomb paintings circa 1400 B.C. reflect images of espaliered fig trees growing in the Pharaoh's garden. In medieval times, European monks carefully trained fruit and nut trees to grow flat against the walls of great monastic gardens. During the 17th century in England and especially in France, espalier gained widespread popularity, appearing on humble village walls, as well as in elaborate configurations in the Versailles kitchen garden of Louis XIV. (The term espalier is derived from the French word for shoulder, ├ępaule.)
Espaliered plants are prized for their symmetry and versatility and for their ability to add ornamental beauty to both compact and sweeping spaces. They can be used either as privacy screens, to adorn bare walls, to define walkways and driveways, or to create the living architecture of an arbor. As an added benefit, espaliered plants produce more abundant fruits and flowers because the roots of the clipped plants have less area to nourish.
Depending on the desired size and shape, a tree or series of trees takes approximately four to five years to hand-sculpt into centuries-old classic European forms, such as the horizontal cordon, fan, Belgian fence, or candelabra. These forms can be precise and geometric or slightly looser and more romantic.
Knowing where to prune, where to influence, and how far to bend without breaking a stem are the keys to espalier success. While books instruct novice gardeners in espalier techniques, it is best to leave this delicate and time-consuming process to the experts -- especially for complicated and multiple plant arrangements. 

Espalier fruit tree at Standen, West Sussex, England May 2006

This file has been (or is hereby) released into the public domain by its author, Graham Bould. This applies worldwide.
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