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Grow your own willow

As soon as I started working with willow over five years ago, I knew I wanted to grow my own willow and this winter, I've finally been able to get started on that dream. I've created a small willow bed in my back garden, as well as working alongside the Severn Gorge Countryside to restore the Ironbridge Community Willow Bed.

Ironbridge Community Willow Bed
Ironbridge Community Willow Bed

In this blog, I'll be sharing my own willow growing journey - the ups and downs, advice and thoughts for those of you who might be interested in growing your own willow on a small scale basis.

Willow varieties

Up until now, I've sourced most of my willow from commercial willow growers in the Somerset Levels. There's a long tradition of willow growing and basketry in the south west, as the willow tends to grow well in the large flat flood-prone fields found there. The commercial willow growers generally grow four or five varieties on a mass scale; however there are over 400 varieties of willow. Whilst I doubt I'll ever be fully self-sufficient in willow simply because of the sheer quantity of it that I get through each year, I hope to be able to grow the more specialist varieties that I can't get from the commercial willow growers in order to not only add extra interest to my art but also to learn about and feel more connected to the material that I spend my days with.

Willow cuttings
Willow cuttings

I sourced my willow from Brigit at Old Hill Willow in Herefordshire, and with her advice and support, I selected a number of different varieties based on their attributes and applicability to my work, as well as ease of growing:

  • Chinese Viminalis

  • Packing Twine

  • Brittany Green

  • Flanders Red

  • Welsh White

  • Petite Grisette

  • Golden

  • Norbury

Willow cuttings are generally available from mid-December to mid-February, and they should be planted in the dormant season - between December and March.

Preparing the willow beds

Willow likes to grow in sunny spots, and ideally in wetter ground as they don't like drying out. Once I selected my sites, I then prepared the ground by removing as many weeds and roots as possible. In the community willow bed, we then laid down sheets of landscape fabric to help with weed control, but in my garden willow bed I've gone without, knowing that I will be able to give it more regular weeding attention and also so that I can try out plastic-free mulch alternatives.

Preparing the willow beds at Ironbridge community willow bed project
Preparing the willow beds

The willow cuttings should be planted densely in order to encourage the plants to grow up and straight rather than out and branchy. For the basketry varieties, I planted mine with 25-30cm spacings, whilst for the stronger living willow varieties, I went for 50cm spacings. The finer slower growing varieties should be planted on the south side of your bed, whilst the stronger ones should go on the north side.

Once I had my measurements sorted out, I then used a metal rod to make the planting holes - an old long screwdriver also does the job well. You want to plant them quite deep as the roots grow along the bark rather than at the base of the plant, so I went for 20cm planting depths.

Planting willow cuttings
Planting willow cuttings

A couple of tips at this stage. First, make sure you plant them the right way up! Generally, willow cutting providers will cut the bottom of the rod at a slant to make it easier to plant. But to double check, make sure the small buds are pointing upwards. Second, give each cutting a wiggle after planting to make sure its grabbed the earth. If it feels loose, try to insert it a little more - a thick glove can help prevent bruises on your palm.

And now we wait

Willow is a remarkably robust plant and can grow well over two metres per year, but we shall see whether they grow happily in my beds. Drought is probably the biggest challenge I'll face whilst the cuttings establish, along with pests and disease. Stay tuned to hear how they get on!

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