A way to enjoy state tree, even in small gardens

Two ginkgo trees have been espaliered against a wall.

There’s an easy way to get around the garden-gobbling size and leaf debris to better enjoy our official state tree: Up against a wall.

By pruning a magnolia tree flat against a wall or even along wires strung between posts, you can enjoy our state tree and flower in even the tiniest gardens. After planting a foot or so out from the wall, then removing all but a few well-spaced limbs so each has room to grow, all you gotta do is occasionally snip off anything that grows outwards.

Granted, it isn’t as easy as the old magnolia I helped keep flat against Lee Hall’s three-story wall while working at Mississippi State University, but in principle it’s no more complicated than keeping a hedge flat against a wall, creating dividers between different garden rooms or training a climbing rose or confederate jasmine on a trellis. Or staking and pruning tomatoes.

It’s a lot like plucking eyebrows or shaping a beard — remove the wayward bits, leave what you want.

I’ve seen our state’s popular native magnolia pruned flat and tidy against walls everywhere, from my own neighborhood to as far afield as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Japan and cold Scotland. In my tiny cottage garden in Jackson, however, I go with the perfectly formed but diminutive Little Gem cultivar, which is much more manageable plus it is the longest flowering one of all, with flowers from late April to November.

This form of plant training is called espalier, generally pronounced “S-pal-YAY” like the original French. It is a two-dimensional or flat-plane effect, as opposed to the fanciful shapes of topiary.

There are horticultural as well as decorative reasons for espaliering trees and vines. Grape vines and fruit trees are often grown in long flat rows for easier pruning, covering with bird netting, and harvesting. Some, including figs, can be grown farther north against south-facing heat-retaining walls. Espaliered plants have improved air circulation and can have extended harvest seasons.

I have also seen fruit trees grown as tall, narrow posts I could wrap my arms around and as low hedges I could step across. But most common are designs including shaped like a T, palmette or radiating fan, candelabra or freeform. When planted a few feet apart, those trained in V shapes create a crisscrossing Xs effect. Google the word, and you will get some very interesting ideas.

Last week while touring flower shows and formal gardens in England, I strolled through long arched tunnels made of pipe and topped with bent-over and carefully-pruned Laburnum trees, creating luscious, fragrant passageways dripping with bright yellow flowers. We can’t grow Laburnums in our hot, humid climate, but Wisteria and roses have the same stunning effect. Every winter, garden workers prune off all the overgrowth, leaving only long limbs and branches and short flowering stubs.

Other popular landscape plants I have seen espaliered include figs, red-top photinia, redbud, pyracantha, maples, ginkgo and camellias.

Most of these plants need slight bending and tying to some sort of structure. In most cases they are trained to grow against a trellis, arbor or at least some wires tied into sturdy eyebolts screwed into walls. For the vines I planted over my entryway “mixed vine arbor” I use rebar rods and sections of inexpensive concrete reinforcing mesh that, once rusted, all but disappear visually. My landscape architect friend, Rick Griffin, uses barbed wire to keep vines from sliding down.

Can’t wait to see where someone has trained a Little Gem magnolia over an arch to create an evergreen tunnel with fragrant spring, summer and autumn flowers. Unless I get to it first.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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