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.
You can use extra-thick rods or poles to make nonliving frames for some types of projects, such as a bentwood chair that needs a sturdy structure but can have a living back. Hazel or chestnut poles are good to work with, but you can use whatever is available locally.
Working with Willow
Keep these important factors in mind when choosing a site for your living willow structure. Willow roots naturally seek out any source of water, so they must be planted well away from underground drainage systems. Stem color is brightest when the plants are grown in full sunlight. Although willow can tolerate some shading, it won’t grow well in deep shade and will eventually die back, so consider the shade that will be cast by surrounding trees in summer.
You must also remember that your sculptures will change shape with growth. You can leave this new growth wild or prune it back in autumn.
Avoid cutting your willow rods too far in advance as they’re best stored uncut on the plant. Cut rods must be kept wet to prevent dehydration. Wrap them in a damp cloth when transporting them. Prior to planting, rods are best stored in shade with their butt (thick) ends standing in rainwater, preferably in the shade. I use an old plastic water tank, but a bucket is fine for a small quantity of rods. Label your willow rods so you know which cultivar is which.
To create a living willow sculpture on your property, you’ll actually plant willow rods in the soil so they can sprout and grow. Willow rods can be planted from late autumn to early spring, but plant them as early as possible so roots can form before the rods start sending out shoots.
Willow is adaptable to different soil types. Most types prefer moist soil, but some — usually those with smaller, narrower leaves, such as S. Daphnoides — are better in dry soils. None will tolerate permanently waterlogged or too-dry conditions. When planting in a dry area, you could install an irrigation system, such as a soaker hose. It’s also always a good idea to incorporate water-retaining compost.
If your site is dry, soak the soil with water several days before planting, because planting is much easier in soft ground. You can use an auger or a metal spike and hammer to make a pilot hole. It’s possible to plant directly through a mulch mat; a diagonal cut across the butt end of each willow rod will create a point to help with penetration. Always place the butt end of the rod in the ground.
Short cuttings should be planted at least 8 inches deep, leaving several buds above ground level for new growth. Long rods should be planted 12 to 18 inches deep, depending on thickness. Generally, the drier the ground, the deeper you should plant the rod. Dig a hole with a narrow-bladed spade, and then loosen the soil until you can push the rods in deep enough. You could dig a trench if you’re planting a number of rods close together for a wigwam or a fence.
Be sure to stop all grass and weed growth around a newly planted structure. Mulching will reduce weed growth and help conserve moisture in the soil. Plastic mulch mat is ideal for this purpose, but you could also use old newspaper, cardboard, bark chips, or straw. Bark chips are a good alternative to a plastic mulch mat, but you’ll need quite a thick layer of them. The mulch you apply should extend at least 20 inches in all directions from the planting. If you’re using a mulch mat, it must be anchored to prevent it from blowing away.
Weaving can be used to strengthen a structure and to fill in open parts for decoration or shelter. Remember that weaving rods will not grow unless their butt ends are planted in the ground.
The weaving characteristics of willow vary from species to species. Some hybrids, such as ‘Bowles Hybrid,’ are too brittle for weaving, but many cultivars are pliable and can be bent to flowing curves. When weaving, try to avoid kinking the rods because such damage will usually cause a rod to die back. Sometimes, as with woven chair projects, you must make sharp bends in the willow rods. If you’re very careful, the rod should stay alive despite being bent.
There are no hard and fast rules about weaving techniques for willow structure. In my opinion, any method that works is fine. The simplest technique for weaving living willow is a free weave, where the rods are woven in wherever they fit best. Normally, weaver rods must be thinner than the upright rods, or the uprights will bend. However, if you want a thick weave, you can use several thin rods together.
You can rely on the tension in the weave to keep the shape of a structure but, more often than not, tying rods together where they cross each other will provide more strength to a structure.
Temporary ties, made with garden string, twine, or jute, will be useful while you’re making the structure and adjusting its shape. You can eventually discard some of them after they’ve served their purpose, but most structures will benefit from permanent ties. These can be made with the same materials as temporary ties, but thin, pliable lengths of young willow are more attractive and traditional. Life will be easier if you can cut lots of short lengths before you start work, and a quick way to do this is to use a string board: Simply wrap a lot of string, twine, or jute around a short length of grooved floorboard, and then cut along the groove with a sharp knife to produce many equal lengths of ties.
To join willow rods to create a structure, wrap around the join several times and tie it off with a square knot. As the willow grows and thickens, the ties will tend to cut into the willow stem, so remember to keep an eye on them and retie the joins as necessary. Some willow workers avoid this problem by using strips of rubber cut from old inner tubes that will expand as the willow grows.
Sometimes, when two willow rods are tied together very firmly, they will slowly graft or grow together. This creates a very strong, uniform structure and eventually the ties can be removed.
From time to time, as your living structure grows, check the condition of all ties and replace them as necessary. If any of the original rods die back, simply replace them with fresh rods.
After you’ve finished planting and building your structure, you can sit back and watch it grow. Shoots will soon start to sprout, and you’ll need to decide how to deal with them. New growth can be woven into the structure to fill in any gaps, used to enhance the original design, or allowed to go wild. However, you’ll need to prune some of the new growth, and this is best done in late autumn. Pruning will also help promote new growth lower down the rods. Don’t discard your prunings — use them for new projects.
Have fun. Be creative and try new ideas. Try combining climbing plants with your structures and experimenting with weaving in nonliving materials. Adapt and change your designs, alter them, or even cut them down if you don’t like them. Work with the seasons and nature for the best results.
A Willow By Any Other Name
There are many antiquated names for willow. An Old English name is welig, related to wilige, a wicker basket. The Old Saxon name for willow was wilgia. The Old Irish name is saille.
Willow bark contains salicylic acid, a plant hormone, and indolebutyric acid, a substance that stimulates root development. Follow these simple directions to make your own willow tea to bolster new plantings:
In a bucket, assemble a bundle of willow twigs or branches (each no more than 1/2 inch in diameter and about 6 inches long, with leaves removed).
Pour boiling water over the bundle until covered. Let the mixture steep for at least 24 hours.
Strain the tea and use the liquid to water your plantings.
Jon Warnes has 30 years of experience working with wood and teaching furniture courses in his native England. You can follow his latest projects at Jon Warnes Woodland Workshops. This is an excerpt from Warnes’ project-laden book Living Willow Sculpture.