Gardening: Willow plays a huge part in the RHS garden

The Harey Bikers living sculpture in celebration of Le Grand Depart.
The Harey Bikers living sculpture in celebration of Le Grand Depart.
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Salix is the Latin name for willow, a plant which is often confused with bamboo. I can understand why as its growth habit and leaf texture is very similar.

Willow is a very versatile plant and has many uses from plant supports, sculptures, living screens or hedge, or even just a bit of fun; whether it is living or not the choice is yours!

Willow can be sculptured and shaped as it very flexible adding to its versatility. If you have not visited RHS Garden Harlow Carr before you will be impressed to see our wide range of uses for willow across the whole garden. It brought a smile to my face when I saw the hares on bicycles or the ‘Harey Bikers’ which have been happily and appropriately named! They have been made for the Tour de France Event in aid of Turning Yorkshire Yellow and are sited below the Alpine House.

Depending on your desired theme or design, generally non-living sculptures will last between three to five years. However don’t be alarmed if shoots start appearing as this is the reserves in the stems of willow shooting, just nip them off. It does however become brittle after a period of time when exposed to the extreme elements. To help preserve non-living willow it is best to apply linseed oil as a protective barrier.

Living willow is however very tactile at this time of year, as it puts on fresh young juvenile growth which shimmers in the sunlight and sways gently in the breeze, giving a real sense of movement to the garden.

At Harlow Carr we have a living willow screen that provides an attractive alternative to a fence or a hedge. Living willow is best constructed in the late winter, following the same principles as you would with hard wood cuttings to ensure successful rooting. Harvest long lengths of willow and push the rods well into the soil and firm them well to avoid any air pockets. This is important to enable the rods to root.

Place about two to three rods per hole, ideally staggering them to create a screen/alternative fence. Use a post driver or metal pole to form the planting holes. Then weave the rods criss-crossing as this will give strength and stability. Make sure all the stems are weaved in an upwards direction to encourage the sap to rise and buds to burst, failure to do so will result in the rods struggling to root and break leaf.

You may need to place a few stakes in if it is a long length to give stability till the roots are firmly developed and anchored. Once rooted, depending on how vigorous the growth is, it will need trimming in early and late summer to keep it in check. This is also a good time to weave in any pieces of willow if you have any gaps or rods which have failed to root before you give it its first haircut!

Willow is attractive in the winter; both living and non living give you lovely natural outlines and shapes.

However do be aware that willow is a very vigorous shrub/tree and the roots will search for water, so do not plant near your house, drains or foundations to any buildings.

We have a range of willow courses at the garden, from willow sculptures to basket making.

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