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.
Living Caledendron Willow
Living Hybrid Willow (1)
Living Hybrid Willow (2)
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 but 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, producing a wide variety and range that are highly disease resistant.
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 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 regrow 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.
An image of a harvesting in progress
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 to ensure the willow stem colour is brightest, although the 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. However, 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 softer grounds.
When planting your willow always remember to plant the butt end of the rod into the ground and not the tip first. 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 or cardboard or bark chippings.
Living willow is generally used for large outdoor structures such as Domes, Tunnels, Wigwams, Fencing, outdoor furniture or decorative arbours and bowers. The best thing to remember about your living willow project is to have fun, be creative and don’t be afraid to try out new ideas.
Weaving techniques for your Living Willow Sculpture
The Lattice Weave
The Randing Weave
The Pairing Willow Weave
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.
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 other interesting patterns.
The Pairing willow weave is a strong weave using two weavers together, crossing them over each other every time they pass an upright. Pairing is a useful method of holding uprights in positions.
The Three Rod Whale is also a very strong willow weave technique, using three rods each of which passes in front of two uprights and behind one. It is particularly useful for large structures – holding uprights in place at the base.
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 ensure that the butt end is planted in the ground and whilst weaving try to avoid kinking the rods as such 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.
The Three Rod Whale Weave
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.
You can use natural willow ties with our shorter non-living 3ft green willow, which we find better as they are entirely natural and very traditional. We also have Flexi Tie available that is inconspicuous and versatile, Flexi-Tie is a new 'string' that 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 will be 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 when two willow rods are bound firmly together, they will slowly graft or grow together. This creates a very stable structure and eventually the ties can be removed.
When you have finished building and planting your structure, you can sit back and watch it grow. Shoots will sprout, so you need to decide how to deal with them. You can use the new growth to fill gaps by weaving them into your living willow structure; this will allow it to grow wild. However you will need to prune some of the new growth and this is best done in late autumn with a pair of secateurs available on our website. 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.
Wigwams and Domes
Making a wigwam or dome out of willow is quick and easy, which is why many schools enjoy constructing them with their pupils and it’s great for children of all ages. They make great playhouses or dens, and tunnels can also be added at a later date.
Full instructions on how to build your wigwam or dome can be found on the Musgrove Willows website by clicking here: https://www.musgrovewillows.co.uk/willow/living-willow
Willow Fedge or Fencing
Willow fences are easy to construct; they can be built on their own to delineate an area or to screen unsightly views. Alternatively, you can combine them with a tunnel or archway as an entertaining play area. A fence or fedge can also make an effective windbreak, unlike solid fencing which creates turbulence and plant damage on the leeward side these naturally slows the wind down as it passes through.
You can also create windows in your fencing which is a popular choice as you can create peep holes in the school playground or for bird watching. Full instructions on how to build your fedge or fence can be found here by clicking the link below: https://www.musgrovewillows.co.uk/willow/living-willow
A willow tunnel is a great 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 you like.
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. Full instructions on how to build your fedge or fence can be found here by clicking the link: https://www.musgrovewillows.co.uk/willow/living-willow
Arbours and Bowers
An arbour or bower is a pleasant place to sit in summer and have a drink or picnic. They look especially good covered with climbing plants. For added strength you can plant diagonal weavers in the same way you would a tunnel or fedge, and leave the sides open or alternatively weave in additional willow rods for colour variation.
Full instructions on how to build your fedge or fence can be found here by clicking the link below https://www.musgrovewillows.co.uk/willow/living-willow
Living Willow Sculptures
Many fascinating new works are being undertaken to make vast and intricate willow structures. These are largely a revival of interest in willow and the resurgence of gardens and gardening. Before starting your project, I would strongly recommend you to get as much inspiration from local basket makers, Sculptures, books and even come along to one of our courses to learn the techniques. You are only limited by your imagination within the willow industry so work with the seasons and create incredible pieces of art!
For further information or to book a course, please do not hesitate to contact us.