You’ll be amazed how simple it is to grow your own living willow structure
Cut a ‘whip’ off a willow tree, shove it in the ground at any angle and it will probably grow. Not only that, it will do so even in the swampiest of environments, reliably shooting up a couple of metres a year.
As a result, it’s possible to make gorgeous and practical living willow structures in your garden. Arches, gazebos, pergolas, dens, play areas and even so-called ‘fedges’ can all be constructed from as little as a willow twig. This is a really cost effective design option if you can’t quite afford a more substantial timber gazebo for your garden.
Here are some ideas and advice on creating your own living willow structures.
Preparations for living willow structures
First of all, given there are more species of willow than you can count, you need to pick one. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) suggest, ‘Salix alba var. vitellina (golden willow), S. daphnoides, S. alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’, S. viminalis and S. purpurea’ as the best living willow varieties to use. More advice about using willow in your garden design can be found on the the RHS website.
Where you plant your willow also requires planning. Ideal growing conditions are moist and in full sunlight. Be aware that their roots spread out rapidly, so pick a spot at least 10m from any buildings or pipes you know of.
In terms of preparing a site for living willow structures, it’s relatively straightforward. All you need to do is mark out your design shape, with string or sand, then install the whips! All of this should ideally be done in winter or early spring, which is when willow whips are normally harvested.
If you’ve already bought willow whips, store the thick ends in water to prevent them from drying out and prune off the end before planting. If you do this don’t allow the water to freeze in winter.
Planting living willow structures
Ideally, the thick end of the whip should be pushed in 20-30cm underground. The drier the ground or longer the rod, the deeper it will need to grow. But given willow’s extraordinary propensity to grow, you may well end up with a flourishing structure however you plant it!
Adding some compost to the soil when planting won’t go amiss. And willow plants actually enrich the surrounding soil themselves, allowing other nearby plants to flourish as long as the roots of the different plants don’t interfere with each other too much. You may also want to put heavy weedsheet around the base of the structure too – this can stop unwanted shoots growing where they aren’t wanted.
Different designs for living willow structures
1. A living willow pergola or arch
Using the longest willow whips you can get a hold of, plant a row on either side of a wooden arch or pergola, spaced 10-15cm apart. Let them grow straight up, tying them together at the top. It’ll look sparse at first, but weaving new shorts through the structure will help it fill out (though don’t point them downwards as they’ll probably die). The end result will be a lovely natural-looking spot to seek shade, read a book in, or whatever other use you find for it.
2. A living willow fedge
A willow fedge is a cross between a hedge and a fence. It can be used as a more organic-looking alternative to a fence – much more interesting than a wall of brown timber. They’re a good way to divide and section off your garden, creating different rooms or zones.
To make one, plant a single row of long willow whips about 25cm apart, each leaning at a 45-degree angle facing alternating directions. This will allow you to weave a lattice-structured fence which can be cut to the desired height. A willow fedge is that simple.
3. A living willow wigwam or dome
Although more complex to erect, these make good kids’ play areas or garden picnic spots – though they’re not guaranteed waterproof. To make a living willow wigwam, plant long sturdy willow whips about 30cm apart in a large circle. Leaning in alternate diagonals, with the strongest whips either side of your doorway.
Then fill in the gaps with smaller willow whips, depending on how thick you want the walls to be. Then weave the ends together at the top to create a beautiful intertwining roof. Or, for an easier project, just bundle them together to make a tepee-style roof.
4. Maintenance and aftercare for living willow structures
Willow, being suited to wet swampy conditions, needs a fair amount of watering, especially immediately after planting. Aim to water living willow structures every day for the first week, switching to every other day the next fortnight after that before easing off slightly (though this does depend on the weather you’re having).
Although willow’s prolific growth rate makes it perfect for a variety of garden structures, the downside is that regular pruning is a necessary evil. This will help your living willow structures fill out and strengthen with regrowth, instead of just growing taller and taller.
That being said, the willow whips that are removed can be used to make more designs, so it’s a fruitful chore. You could also use the whips to make willow baskets or sculptures – there are lots of courses for this nowadays.
Aphids (greenfly) are partial to willow, and in late summer can infest the plant and produce sticky honeydew which wasps are attracted to. Deer and rabbits are also a foe, and they are susceptible to various fungal diseases, so keep an eye out for this.
Sourcing willow whips
Simply cutting stems from any willow tree (preferably from the species listed above, and preferably asking the owner before you do so) lets you create a willow structure free of charge. There are also easy kits available on the Willows Nursery website and MusgroveWillows.co.uk.
Other useful articles about living willow structures and fedges
With these links and advice you should have everything you need to create your very own living willow structures or willow fedge.