Gardening: Building for year ahead with hazel and willow

Salix viminalis can grow to 3m in one season.
Salix viminalis can grow to 3m in one season.
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Once again the year has rolled around with new life such as snowdrops and Irises already emerging, tantalising our senses and provoking our anticipation for the year to come.

It is still a little early, however, to carry out the majority of garden tasks such as planting and sowing. Something that we do here at Harlow Carr Gardens at this time of year is to prepare for the year ahead and gather material for structure building, in particular, hazel and willow.

Hazel provides the backbone support for the majority of our structures in the Kitchen Garden, especially for our peas, beans and sweet peas. Hazel is used because it is a hard wood and, therefore, strong and long lasting. A single hazel tree that has never been cut can live for roughly 60 years however, if regular harvesting of stems, cut down to ground level is undergone, known as coppicing, a tree can last up to 500 years.

Another material that we simply could not do without is willow. The botanical name for willow is Salix, thought to be of Celtic derivation, ‘Sal’ meaning near and ‘lis’ meaning water. There are many native willow species to Europe some include Salix caprea (Goat willow), Salix cinerea (Grey willow) and Salix viminalis (Osier willow). The latter, Salix viminalis is one of the most common willows used in Britain for screening, windbreaks, and for damp sites. In recent years it has been often used to make living willow structures, a few of which can be found here at Harrow Carr. Willows have the ability to absorb heavy metals and coupled with other attributes, such as being fast growing, and the ability to grow anywhere, it is often planted to clean up contaminated sites.

Here in the Kitchen Garden at Harlow Carr we have our very own willow grove which we coppice right down to the ground every year. The benefit of doing this is that we have a sustainable source of material for path edging which we weave through hazel pegs, and for weaving in and amongst our hazel structures. Coppicing our willow every year also ensures that the plants do not become too big and new stems that grow every year are rich in colour, offering an ornamental winter display. If that’s not enough, willow is one of the easiest plants to grow.

One careful thing to consider if deciding to grow willow is that it is incredibly vigorous. Salix viminalis is particularly vigorous, growing to 3m in one season. Its roots also spread out laterally several metres, so ensure you give your willow some dedicated space. Having said this, as long as your willow plants or structures are cut once a year, then it has been managed.

To propagate willow, cut a willow stem, also known as a whip, into sections 15-30cm (6in-1ft) long, cutting cleanly above a bud at the top with a sloping cut to shed water and as a reminder of which end is the top, and cut straight across at the base below a bud. Insert the cuttings into the ground or sand bed with two-thirds of the cutting below the surface. The roots will form along the stem. A few buds remain above the ground to allow the plant to grow away in spring. Alternatively, if you’re after a living willow structure, then long whips can be planted directly into the ground. Using a heavy metal rod or anything else suitable, drive a hole in the ground about 30cm deep, place your willow whip inside and backfill. It’s as easy as that. Many inventive structures can be made using willow whips. Visit us here at Harlow Carr Gardens for guidance and inspiration, and to see the structure building process from the start.

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