Willow, A New Old Crop
By Marilee Williams
Do you have marginal land that is too wet for conventional crops or pasture? Would you like to raise a perennial crop that requires minimal care and provides an annual harvest? Then maybe basket willows are in your future!
A hardy, adaptable and handsome plant, willow (genus Salix) has many valuable uses. It grows from temperate zones to the arctic and from coastal plains to mountains. Most willows are dwarf shrubs to small trees, though some can grow to a height of 80’.
Cultivation for biomass energy production has put willow in the news recently, but it can be grown for more traditional uses, too. When woven into baskets and furniture, willow is called wickerwork. It can also be formed into trellises and plant supports or woven into fences called wattle. Certain species of willow develop long, pliant shoots in summer which makes them particularly well-suited for weaving. Its quick growth makes willow perfect for erosion control. Annual harvest of each season’s shoots provides useful cuttings while leaving the roots in place to protect and stabilize the soil.
Willow cultivation is simple. Moderately fertile, moist soil in a sunny location will support a willow plantation. By planting a cover crop for a season or two, you can get a jump on weed control. Careful planning of plant spacing to accommodate cultivation equipment or mulching around the plants will also help suppress weeds. As for any crop, prepare the planting site by tilling and applying needed amendments.
Ten- to twelve-inch long cuttings of one- to two-year old willow branches make suitable planting stock. These can be purchased or gathered from the wild. Any willow can be woven but the best varieties have long, flexible shoots with little core, or pith, as these contain the greatest percentage of wood and will make the most durable willow products. You can cut a branch from a willow in the wild to observe its interior and test the flexibility.
When creating your own cuttings, portions of the lower two-thirds of the willow branch should be cut into planting lengths with a very sharp knife. A smooth cut surface with little injury to the bark will ensure the greatest chance of success. To speed identification in the field, cut the top end straight across, with buds pointing up, and with the end to be planted cut at an angle. This angle allows for easier insertion into the prepared ground as well as ensuring that the proper end is planted.
Willow cuttings can be taken any time during the dormant season. After cutting into planting lengths, bundle with the growth direction aligned. Store the cuttings in moist sand or sawdust in a cool spot indoors or outside in the shade of a building, covered with straw. It is essential not to let them dry out.
If gathering your own cuttings isn’t to your liking, a quick search on the Internet will provide the names of nurseries which offer willow for sale. Many of the species they sell are decorative and enhance landscape design with their beautiful and various bark colors. This trait can also add color to the woven products you create with your willow, though the colors are more subdued as the cut willow dries. Some willow growers may provide detailed descriptions of the characteristics of the species they grow, such as average annual length of the rods or whether the rods are thick and sturdy enough for furniture.
As soon as the soil is frost-free in the spring, willow can be planted. The twigs can simply be pushed into the soil if the planting bed is soft and friable. Firmer soil may require a hole to be created first by pounding a metal rod into the ground. With either method, each cutting should be planted deep enough that only one or two buds remain above ground and the soil should be firmed around it to prevent it from drying out.
If rains are sparse, you’ll want to irrigate your newly planted willow plantation. Remove weeds by pulling or cultivating. Mulch, if you can, as this will help retain moisture and keep weeds at bay.
Looking for a willow design class in NYS?
- Bonnie Gale of English Basketry Willows is a professional willow basketmaker
located in Norwich, NY and is offering several classes in 2013.
- Click here to view the schedule and some of her work.
Willow is harvested during the dormant season. This can be any time after the leaves have fallen and before growth starts in the spring – usually November through March. If you can time your harvest to occur during the waning moon, the vitality will be strongest in the root system, which will help ensure future harvests. Cutting the rods when temperatures are above freezing will prevent the wood from splintering and improve the harvester’s mood as well!
Use sharp clippers and cut the rods carefully for the first couple of seasons, to avoid uprooting the young plants. If the first year’s rods are not long enough for the weaving that you plan to do, they can be used for more cuttings to expand your willow plantation. With adequate moisture and weed control though, the second season should provide plenty of very useful lengths of supple weaving rods, anywhere from 4’ to 9’ long. No matter the length, willow intended for weaving must be harvested every year, so the rods remain pliant, with no branching.
The willow rods should be cut as close to the ground as possible, sorted by variety and gathered into bundles of a size that is easy to handle. Tie the bundles in several places to keep the rods straight. Then store them in a dry place, upright, leaned against a wall or lying flat. Placing them in the trusses or rafters of a barn or garage will keep them out of the way but allow good air circulation for even drying.
Creating Your Products
The best part of willow culture comes next: weaving your rods into useful and attractive items. The dried rods should be sorted by length so you have exactly the size you need, ready when you need it. Untie the bundle of dried rods and place them cut end down in a large, deep container, such as a barrel. Pull out the longest rods from the bundle and set them aside. Then pull out the next longest rods and lay them crosswise of the first bunch. Continue in this manner, criss-crossing the bunches, until you have sorted the entire bundle. You can then re-tie each bunch and you’re ready for soaking.
Willow can be woven “green”, directly after it is cut, but as it dries it will shrink and lose nearly half its thickness. Green weaving should be done tightly and beaten well, but it will still shrink and loosen as it dries and the basket or fence you create will be less sturdy. Furniture should never be woven with green willow. The strongest and most durable products are woven from dried willow that is soaked to make it pliable. And if you are putting this much effort into growing, harvesting and weaving, you surely want your basket or chair to last as long as possible!
Several methods are used to prepare willow for weaving. The bark may be stripped off and rods may be split or dyed, but those techniques require more tools and time. The easiest method is to just soak and weave, being sure to soak the larger rods for a longer time and keeping the rods as straight as possible while they are wet. There are many books available on weaving baskets and trellises and building willow furniture. A class with an experienced basket weaver is a great way to learn proper technique and how to use the basket-weaving tools as well as to be inspired by a master, but it is not essential for making beautiful and useful products. Become inspired by a new old crop and let willow fire up your imagination and let loose your creativity!