Planting and growing your own living willow structure is very simple and rewarding. It’s a great group activity and can accommodate lots of different skills, from designing the structure, to counting out and spacing the willow rods, to planting and caring for the living willow.
You'll end up with a garden feature that is full of interest, supports wildlife and encourages people to engage with nature. Since the willow grows so fast (it can grow up to 2m a year) you don’t have to wait long to see the results!
What to plant
Willow structures can be made from any kind of freshly cut willow. Confusingly, fresh cut willow is known as “green willow”, irrespective of its colour, whereas willow that has been cut and dried is always known as “brown willow” even if it is green or red in colour.
You can buy green willow from specialised willow growers or it may be available from local conservation groups. Common varieties for living willow structures include Salix alba var. vitellina, Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea.
Ideally you want long straight rods with no branching. Rods should be about 2m long for the main uprights (roughly 2 years old) and 1- 1.5m long for the weavers (roughly 1 year old). Commercially, willow is grown closely spaced together to encourage rods to grow tall and straight.
When to plant
Living willow is best planted in late winter to early spring when the plant is dormant (before the new leaves start to grow). This is when most energy is stored ready for new growth and will give the plant the best start once it starts to grow in the spring.
Like any cutting, it is best to plant the willow as soon as possible after it is cut. If that is not possible, place the butt end (thick end) of the rod in water to prevent it drying out. Fortunately, willow is pretty tolerant, so if you are getting willow delivered, put it into water once it arrives. Before planting, cut off the bottom 10cm of the rod to remove any willow that has dried out.
Where to plant
Ideally plant your willow in a sunny but moist part of the garden, 10m or more away from buildings. Although willow will tolerate most conditions, it will grow best in moisture-retentive soil. It doesn’t want to dry out but doesn’t want to be too wet. It will tolerate some shade but willow planted in bright sunshine will have the best colour and too much shade may cause it to die back. The willow’s roots will seek out sources of water – so don’t plant it too close to pipes or drainage systems!
Step 1 - Prepare the ground
Mark out the shape that you are planning to make on the ground. Clear away grass and weeds from the planting area and peg down the weed suppressant matting if you are using it, If you’re not, then place a thick mulch around the base of the structure once you have finished planting. The willow will have a better chance of establishing well if it doesn’t have to compete with other plants.
Step 2 - Plant the uprights and weavers
Use your spike to make a planting hole, cut the base of the willow rod on a slant and push about 30cm of the rod into the ground.
If you are making a dome or tunnel, you will need to plant your long rods (your uprights) so they point straight up. The spacing will depend on the length of your rods and the size of the structure you are making but about 25-30cm apart is usually a good distance. (Too far apart and the structure will be gappy, too close together and the plants will compete with each other as they grow). Your uprights need to be able to fold over and cross with the uprights on the opposite side.
On one side of the upright, make another hole and insert one of your weaving rods at an angle of about 45 degrees. Do the same on the other side of the upright, but this time slope the rod in the other direction.
Step 3 - Shape the dome
Bend the long uprights over to make the top of the tunnel or dome. Ideally, they should twist around another upright from the other side. The length of your uprights will determine the height of your structure (unless you are patient and wait for your rods to grow the following year before making your roof!). You can loosely tie the willow together with string to hold the structure together.
Step 4 - Weave in the weavers
Now weave in the angled weavers, keeping them slanted and weaving under, over, under, over, etc. Again, it may help to tie the willow where it crosses, particularly when you start the weaving. As more bits get woven in, it should start to hold its structure. Over time the willow may graft together where it crosses.
Step 5 – Let it grow!
Put down a thick layer of bark chippings or other mulch around the base of the willow structure to keep in moisture and keep the weeds down. You will need to keep it well watered during its first year while its roots establish. If any of the rods do not take, you can remove them and replace them with new rods the following year.
Rabbits and deer enjoy eating young willow, so you may need to project your structure until it is established. Aphids also enjoy willow which can lead to the willow dripping sticky honeydew, produced by the aphids, which can also attract wasps. Keeping your willow weaving open, with spaces will help air flow and also let the predatory insects like ladybirds in to control the aphids.
Your willow will grow fast! So you will either need to trim it several times during the year to keep it looking smart or let it grow and give it a good hair cut in the winter (and use the willow rods that you cut off for other weaving projects). Rods growing on the sides of the structure can be woven in to thicken the sides and top. These can be woven in a random patterns into the existing weaving.