Seems like everywhere I look these days I read something about living willow structures. Over the past couple of years I’ve made a few of these structures for myself: a fedge (a living fence), archways and a dome. Before I actually started making these features I did research on the internet on how to do it. But then I started getting information overload so I just went out, cut the willow and started pushing pieces into the ground.
To be completely honest, my garden club friends helped me to create the first structure, which was the fedge. It was the project at one of our winter meetings. But after we got the fence up I took it all down the next day because I wasn’t happy with the angle at which we had stuck in some of the willow. Also, I didn’t feel like the willow had been put in deep enough so I got a kind of augur (it’s actually the axle off some old, abandoned piece of farm equipment, but it’s great for making holes) and made all of the holes deeper. This seemed to work better than just pushing the willow into the ground. By using an augur you can also determine if there is a big stone in the way before planting — always something to consider when dealing with the soil around here.
So here’s the thing with willow. In Ireland it is virtually impossible to kill it. If you leave a piece of it lying around it will probably root on the spot. It will root in a bucket of water. It even roots when put in upside down. I really like the plant, but you do need to take a bit of care with where you place it. Don’t put it too close to any septic systems. The roots seek wet places and can bung up drainage in a septic field. Also, don’t plant too close to beds which you need to dig often. The roots of the willow will go everywhere and they are a bit annoying when you are trying to fork over a nice fluffy raised bed that has been invaded.
One last thing, don’t let the willow get too big for its britches. Keep the plant(s) down to size. Willow grown as a stock plant (meaning one from which you which to continually harvest smallish shoots) should be cut back every year unless you need larger growth for some reason. After three years it starts to reach tree form and becomes a little more difficult to prune because you will need to saw rather than lop. Living structures should be pruned every year. I learned this the hard way after letting my fence go a year without cutting it back. Because of my laziness I wasn’t able to bend some of the shoots very well because they had got too big.
When you first create a structure, you do as much weaving as you can. But you will probably need to do more the following couple of years with new shoots so that you can fill in gaps or go higher up on a dome. The original lengths of the willow will not be long enough to weave all the way up tall structures (you can see this in the photo of the willow dome above). That’s why it is important to get the shoots into place before they pass the bendy stage — once they become fairly woody they will not bend. First year growth usually stays fairly bendy but starts to go woodier as the first birthday of the shoot approaches. So get the new shoots into place as quick as you can. As for the dome, I have taken shoots growing on the original structure and woven them up higher.
I won’t go into too much detail because you can find patterns for fedges, domes, teepees, or arches on willow websites. I’ll just say that I bought some good stock of various willows from a supplier — they came in pieces about 8in long with each piece being about 1/2in in diameter. I pushed the pieces far into the ground with one bud above the ground. I let these plants grow as stock for 3 years and then I started harvesting the willow and using it for projects. It grows fast and well in Ireland. Don’t fuss too much about making mistakes. You’ll just be wasting time like I did at first. If you don’t like the look of the structure after completing it, you can just pull it out and start again. One other tip is don’t be afraid to use twine to tie shoots into place if they are not being cooperative.
Use your imagination a bit and you can create just about anything: chairs, benches, playhouses and all of the things I’ve mentioned above. Just remember, your creation will need an annual haircut when dormant as well as some further weaving as growth happens. I promise to post some photos of the structures in full growth once that happens again. What a great art form; it’s alive and constantly changing! Happy sculpting and weaving.