Planting willow cuttings

6 October 2021

We know a thing or two about planting willow cuttings. The Musgrove family has been growing high quality willow on the Somerset Levels since the 1920s.

Planting willow cuttings

Somerset willow growers
3 generations of the Musgrove family

Whether you are looking to plant willow cuttings on a small or large scale, (we grow over 60 varieties on nearly 200 acres) there are a few simple rules worth following.

How to cut willow for planting

If you are planting on a small scale, it is worth cutting your willow in winter. 12 inch strips are ideal as at least 6 inches will need to be planted in the soil. Keep the willow in water and it should start to root. Interestingly, we have found that damaged or scarred willow will root from its ‘cut’. It just goes to show how easy it is to propagate willow.

We always take our cuttings from the best quality stock. Simply preparing the cuttings takes us a few days, but then we do need around 18,000 cuttings per acre!  

willow cuttings

Up until fairly recently, all our willow was planted by hand. Thankfully, this back-breaking job has largely been eliminated. A specialist piece of machinery (which we have further adapted) has enabled us to automate much of the planting process. Some of our willow is still planted by hand (a hard wearing glove with a tough piece of leather on the palm is a must!).

Planting willow cuttings
Planting willow cuttings

Willow cuttings should always be tightly packed into the ground. You don’t want the cuttings to move about in the soil as this can damage the rootlets or rub off the skin.

Planting willow as a biomass fuel

Willow is a fantastic, ‘woody’ biomass crop. When planting willow for biomass the cuttings need to be spaced further apart. (An established commercial crop will end up at around 15,000 per hectare.) The extra distance allows the willow to be left for longer before harvesting.

Once established, a willow coppice planted as a biomass crop could be harvested 6 to 8 times on a 3 year cycle for up to 25 years. In its first year the willow could grow as much as 13 feet. Over the years, the trunk will thicken and an acre of land could well produce 10 tonnes of green wood. Again, harvesting willow as a biomass fuel differs to the way in which we harvest our willow for weaving.

Growing willow on the Somerset Levels

Here on the Somerset Levels, the soil and climatic conditions are ideal for growing high quality willow. The willow genus is Salix, a word that derives from the Celtic sallis. Sal meant ‘Near’ and Lis ‘Water’. From that description it’s easy to understand why willow needs water.

It is vital that the ground you are planting in holds moisture, so clay based soil is good. The water table on the Somerset Levels is high and many of the ditches that surround our farmland are filled with water. This means that we very rarely have to manually irrigate a field.

Tmings and weeding

We have usually finished planting out all our willow by the end of the first week of April. By this time both the weather and the soil should be warming up. (We don’t want our willow rods to just sit in the ground.)

How to grow willow
Willow starting to grow on our farm

Don’t worry about disease in the first year. Your main adversaries will be weeds and wildlife. It is vital that weeds and grass are not allowed to strangle the willow. (On our farm we have invested in more specialist machinery to help with the task of weeding. This was another back breaking job which was historically all done by hand.) Weeds will compete for light, water and nutrients.

On the wildlife front, watch out for hares, rabbits and deer. They will try to eat willow cuttings almost immediately. More mature plants can still be targeted by deer. Here, adult deer enjoy bringing their young in to feed in our fields. Once nibbled, the willow will not grow how we want it to. Our aim of producing long, straight rods is dashed.

How fast does willow grow?

If the weather is kind, you can almost watch your willow grow! Once a willow is established (we can usually start harvesting after 3 years) you can expect feet of growth throughout the summer. We grow varieties here which can grow 8 feet in just a couple of months.

Willow bundles for sale

If all that sounds like too much hard work, then you can buy different varieties and lengths of willow from our online shop. If you fancy making something out of willow you could cut another corner by ordering one of our DIY kits.

Living willow kits

Our living willow is kept alive in water troughs. Once sold, it is wrapped and sent out in 24 hours. If you buy living willow do try and plant it as soon as possible. If you aren’t able to plant it straight away, simply put it in a bucket of water.

Black Maul willow
Black Maul living willow in one of our ‘pits’

Prior to planting, make a fresh cut in the willow, (much like you would with a bunch of flowers or a ‘real’ Christmas tree) trim off a couple of inches and plant immediately.

Happy willowing!

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