Living Willow Sculptures and Fences

Find inspiration on how to work with willow rods and create your own unique fences, arbors, and more.

| Spring 2017

Willow is an exciting material you can use to create beautiful, unique sculptures for your property. Here, I’ll introduce you to the basics of working with willow to create unique living structures of your own design, including fences, chairs, arbors, tunnels, or whatever you can dream up. Because these structures are actively growing, you’ll need to understand how to prune, root, grow, and maintain the type of willow best suited to your project.

Working with willow is environmentally friendly. The cycle of growth followed by harvesting and then more growth provides a sustainable source of rods for new structures. Most cultivars are tough, quick-growing, and easy to use. There are several hundred species of the willow genus (Salix). Stem colors vary from bright yellow to deep purple and are most apparent on fresh, one-year growth. The color will fade as the willow ages, but heavy pruning will promote new growth and therefore more color. Color tends to be brightest on plants grown in direct sunlight, but it will vary with soil type and weather conditions. In general, the stem colors of hybrids are less interesting than those of traditional varieties. Leaf color and shape also vary from species to species.

To start out, the easiest way to obtain willow rods is to buy bundles from specialist growers. It’s also worth talking to local basket-makers, who sometimes grow their own willow. You may be able to cut rods in the wild — possible sources are parks, cemeteries, and roadside and parking lot plantings — but you’ll need to get permission. You could also ask staff at local wildlife trusts to suggest other sources.

Happily, willow takes root quickly, and it’s easy to grow your own. Willows can be propagated from 12-inch cuttings from live rods. You can also obtain rooted plants from nurseries. Some varieties of willow are prone to infection from rust and disease, so talk with a local grower about which cultivars are suitable for your area. Growth rates vary considerably, from dwarf varieties to the very fast hybrids that can grow 10 to 13 feet per year. Remember that vigorous plants need lots of maintenance or they’ll quickly go wild.

Willow is usually cut after leaf drop in late autumn, when most of the tree’s energy is stored in the stem for new growth. Cutting can continue to early spring, but is best done while the plant is still dormant and before buds start to form. Traditionally, rods are cut right back to the base of the stool, which then regrows the following spring. This cycle of harvesting is known as “coppicing” and has been used to manage woodlands for centuries. After cutting, you must prevent the rods from drying out by storing their ends in water.

I use different ages of willow for different parts of a structure. One-year rods are suitable for fine work, such as weaving. Two-year rods are less flexible, but they’re good for diagonals in a fence or bower. Three-year-old material is useful for stakes and uprights in tall projects.

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