Living willow information

6 September 2021

There are several hundred species of the willow family (genus Salix). Stem colours vary from bright yellow to deep purple and are most apparent on fresh, one-year growth.

Caledendron living willow
Caledendron willow

The colour of the willow will fade with age. However, heavy pruning will promote new growth and colour. The tone tends to be brightest on willow that is grown in direct sunlight. This can vary depending on soil type and weather conditions. The easiest way to obtain willow rods is through specialist growers. Musgrove Willows has been growing willow for almost a hundred years on the Somerset Levels. Many of the varieties grown here are highly disease resistant.

Hybrid living willow
Hybrid living willow

Living willow – Harvesting & storing

Willow is usually cut after leaf fall in late autumn when most energy is stored in the stem for new growth. Cutting can then continue through to early spring, but is best done while the plant is still dormant and before buds start to form. Traditionally rods are cut right back to the base of the stool which then re-grows the following spring. This style of harvesting is known as coppicing and has been used for centuries.

After cutting, it is critical to prevent the rods from drying out so they must be stored with their butt ends (thick ends) in water. Early autumn is a good time to start planning your living willow project. Willow rods can be planted from late autumn through to early spring. However, it is best to plant them as soon as possible, so that roots can form before the rods start sending out shoots.

Flanders Red living willow
Flanders Red living willow in one of our ‘pits’

Choosing the right site

There are two important factors to bear in mind when choosing a site for your structure. Willow roots will naturally tend to seek out any source of water, so they must be planted well away from drainage systems. Make sure your chosen site gets lots of sunlight. Although willow can tolerate some shade it will not grow well in deep shade and will eventually die back.

Willow is very adaptable to different soil types. Most varieties prefer moist conditions. It is important to remember that willow will not tolerate permanently waterlogged or too dry conditions. Planting your willow is also much easier in soft ground.

Planting willow cuttings
Planting willow cuttings on our farm

Always remember to plant the butt end of the rod into the ground!. Short cuttings should be planted at least 20cm deep, leaving several buds above ground level for new growth. Longer rods should be planted 30-45cm deep depending on thickness. Generally, the drier the ground the deeper the rod should be planted.

It is important to stop all grass and weed growth around your newly planted structure. Garden matting is ideal for this purpose. Cardboard or bark chippings also work well.

Living willow is generally used for large outdoor structures such as domes, tunnels, wigwams, fencing or decorative arbours and bowers. Remember to have fun with your living willow project. Be creative and don’t be afraid to try out new ideas!

Weaving techniques for a living willow sculpture

The Lattice weave is the best regular weave for living structures. If the butt ends of the rod are planted at an angle, growth is more likely along the full length of the rod (upright stems tend to sprout from the top). The open nature of this weave leaves space for new growth to be woven in. For extra strength, the crossover points can be tied together.

Lattice weave
Lattice weave

The Randing willow weave technique is simple for filling in large areas quickly. Thinner rods are woven in and out of closely spaced uprights, alternating the direction of weave with each successive rod. Firm down the rods regularly to create a close weave. Add new pieces butt to butt or tip to tip. Different varieties can be woven in to give bands of colour or alternatively you can weave bundles of willow rods together to create interesting patterns.

randing weave
Randing weave

The Pairing willow weave is a strong weave which uses two weavers together. These cross over each other every time they pass an upright. Pairing is a useful method of holding uprights in positions.

A pairing weave

The Three Rod Wale is also a very strong willow weaving technique. With this weave 3 rods pass in front of two uprights and behind one. It is particularly useful for large structures as it holds uprights in place at the base.

3 rod wale weave
3 rod wale

Weaving can be used to strengthen a structure and to fill in open parts of it for decoration or shelter.

If you want your willow weaving rods to grow you must avoid kinking the rods. This kind of damage will cause a rod to die back. There are no hard and fast rules about weaving techniques; the most simple method is the free weave where the rods are woven in where ever they best fit.


You can rely on the tension in your weave to keep the shape of your structure, but more often than not you will be tying the rods together where they cross each other. This will provide more strength to the willow structure.

Natural willow ties make a great choice. Alternatively, flexi tie stretches as the plant grows. Solid and non-slip, it holds a knot well and is ideal for plants. You need to wrap the join several times and tie with a reef knot. It’s easier if you cut lots of short lengths before you start work!

As the willow grows and thickens, the ties will tend to cut into the willow stem, so keep an eye on them and re-tie if necessary. Sometimes, two willow rods bound firmly together can graft or grow together. This helps to create a very stable structure and eventually the ties can be removed.


Pruning living willow
Pruning is easier when the leaves have dropped

Once your living willow structure is finished – sit back and watch it grow. As shoots sprout, this new growth can be woven into the structure to fill gaps. Some of the new growth will need to be pruned. This is best done in late autumn with a pair of secateurs. Regular pruning will help to promote new growth lower down the rods. You can use your discarded growth for new projects in the future, so make sure you keep them.

Living willow wigwams & domes

Making a wigwam or dome out of willow is quick and easy, which is why many schools enjoy constructing them with their pupils. It’s a great activity for children of all ages. They make great playhouses or dens and tunnels can also be added at a later date.

Living willow dome
Living willow dome with doorway

Willow fedge / fencing

Willow fences are easy to construct and can also be used to screen unsightly areas. A fence or fedge (a cross between a fence and a hedge) also makes for an effective windbreak. Unlike solid fencing which creates turbulence and plant damage on the leeward side a woven fence naturally slows the wind down as it passes through. ‘Windows’ can be created in the fencing. These are great for bird watching.

Living willow tunnels

A willow tunnel is another good project for a school playground or if you have sufficient space to enclose a footpath. They are very easy to construct and can be made as high or long as required. When the growth starts to sprout tunnels are cool areas in which to shelter from the sun and can be excellent places for children to play and hide.

Living willow tunnel

Arbours & bowers

An arbour or bower provides a pleasant place to sit in summer. They can look especially striking when covered with climbing plants. For added strength plant diagonal weavers in the same way you would in a tunnel or fedge. Leave the sides open or alternatively weave in additional willow rods for colour variation.

Living willow arbour
Living willow arbour

Living willow sculptures

Many incredibly talented weavers use our willow to create amazing living willow sculptures. The size and scale varies enormously.

Before starting your project, look at works for inspiration. Work with the seasons to create your own piece of art. Good luck!

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