I have a soft spot for willows—as a kid I just loved finding pussy willows in spring. Those soft little willow flowers were and are just amazing to me. But beyond just enjoying them, willows have a number of practical uses on the homestead.
If you follow my posts on a weekly basis you may have noticed this one was late. Between vacation over the 4th of July and my birthday on the 8th I just ran out of time to get this up sooner. Now back to the topic at hand!
The 7 uses of willows that the blog post covers are:
1. Rooting Hormone – Willow Water 2. Habitat for Wildlife
3. Garden Trellises and Structures
4. Cleaning Water Runoff 5. Medicine
6. Chop-and-Drop Material
7. Animal Fodder – Tree Hay
Each section provides an overview of the specific use for willows plus a video and/or links for more information.
Willows are easy to propagate because even a twig can root but there are certain practices to have more success.
Live staking can be done by taking cuttings from 1-year old branches or from older thicker branches/trunks. Given that willows also coppice you could cut a willow down in the fall and then use all the material for live staking which would quickly expand your willow population.
The younger 1-year old branches are often referred to as willow whips. These branches tend to be fairly narrow (pencil width) but can be decently long. You can cut these into multiple sections of about 2 to 3 feet in length as long as each section has at least 4 (6 is better) buds.
You will want to have at least 2 of the buds in the ground and 2 of the buds above the ground. The more buds you have the more chances there are for the willow to root. Though willows may root from where you cut it.
I like to get my willow live stakes down into the ground at least 2 feet and ideally 3 or even 4 feet. This is tricky with willow whips since they are so skinny. But with larger branches if you make an angled cut on the bottom of the branch and a flat cut on the top you can then use a rubber or wood mallet to pound the branch into the ground.
As far as timing goes—I like to get my willow live stakes in the ground in the fall. Winter can work to if the ground is not frozen solid. It takes time for live stakes to root and get established so unless you are planting them in an area that never dries out you will want to give the willows time to send out their roots before summer.
Willows of course love wet areas but there are also a number of varieties that do fine with droughts. These upland willows can be a great option for areas that are wet in the winter but dry out in the summer.
Even though willows love to resprout you likely won’t get 100% survival from your live stakes. But live stakes are a quick and easy way to grow lots of willows.
One final thing to note is that willows grown from live stakes tend to be a bit slow during their first year especially if the ground dries out during the summer. But as long as they survive their first summer they tend to take off during following years.
How do You Use Willows?
There are many more ways to use willows than the 7 covered in this week’s blog post—how do you use willows on your homestead? Please leave a comment and help expand this list with your uses for willows.
I don't use willows on my desert homestead. They are not a desert adapted genera, and therefore are not suitable for my climate. I smiled at the thought of driving a stake 4 feet into the ground. In many places on my homestead, bedrock lies exposed on the surface. Where bedrock is deeper, the ground is filled with cobbles and gravel.
My grandfather used to take me with him to a riparian area to collect willows to use as bean poles.
I love willows. When we lived in Maryland, I had several of them drying up wet areas in our not well drained clay laden yard. They are pretty, but they are also a bit of a messy and tree. Still though their benefits outweigh the negatives by a good bit.
Here in northwest Arkansas living in rock haven there is NO, I mean NO standing water unless you count the 28,000 acre lake that we overlook a portion of. Unfortunately the willows can't get their roots down 200 feet to the water. So no willows here in this largely oak and pine forest that we share with the animals, read competition for the garden produce.
Yes I got a chuckle out if the driving a stake in the ground. Here in Rockansas, I mean Arkansas, your stake better be 1" or more rebar with a sharp point, and I would usually drill the first 3' with an impact drill. With a predrilled hole I might even be able to drive a 1/2" rebar 4' in the ground. At least our rock is brittle and fractures easily.
The other day I picked up a stake to use as a temporary fencing around the tomatoes. I tried to stick the sharp 1/4" steel point in the ground. It may have gone in oh 1/4" before encountering one of our ubiquitous rocks. I.had to try about 10 tp 15 diffent locations within a 3 or 4 " radius before I was finally able to penetrate the nearly impervious "soil" say 2" or so. Then after stepping on the tab I was able to coax it most of the 6" of its length. Funny when you look at the surface, it looks deceptively like soil. It drains like crazy. The water disappears nearly instantly. It grows reasonably well, except for root vegetables, totally out of the question. Of course my garden soil doesn't have the same percentage of rocks of all sizes, and much of it is now pretty rich loam, albeit it still some how continues to grow rocks from below albeit at a somewhat slower pace.
Huxley – You’re welcome! I have not heard about using them for toothbrushes. I’m curious now… time to google!
Joseph – Yeah, not exactly a desert plant. Most of my soil not soft enough to get a stick 4 feet down but for my restoration work the crews I hire will often use rebar or other material to make a hole first and then put the willow stick in that. Sometimes we use 6 to 8 foot long live stakes and we try to get those at least halfway down. Generally, that is when we know the summer water table drops that far below the surface.
Ralph – Good to hear from you! Yeah, I kinda like their messiness—makes good habitat for wildlife but not as good near the house. This year my large willow patch is finally filled in enough that the birds are loving it. There have been flocks hanging out in them now for a while. Been fun to see!
There are some upland willows but given your landscape I doubt they would do well. One species native here is almost never found in actual wetlands with standing water. I’m growing it along a fence to create a privacy screen between my property and a road. The willows should also help clean the water coming off the busy road.
Cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife - Growing with Nature
Great topic, Daron. Real workhorse tree, the willow. I've got a couple of twists on your tips:
3a) Living structures: I use stout poles planted in the ground instead of treated timber posts. My hops trellis is supported by four trees about 2.5m apart. They get pollarded every winter. Very sturdy, won't rot, and they stand up to the stiff winds that we get here. I've also got a bunch interspersed with my fruit trees in case I ever want to set up a large frame for bird netting.
6a) Chop-Drop-Char: I coppice most of my willow on a 2-year rotation in order to get bigger poles which are more useful. The ones that don't become stakes or props in the garden, as well as the ones from last season which have started to bend or break, get tossed into the kontiki or the volcano and turned into biochar. We all know how many cool things you can do with biochar.
I've been cultivating willow shoots for willow water, stakes, fodder, trees, etc.
I have them planted in my laundry to landscape filter and I want to include them in the sump of my multi barrel hydroponic hardwood cloner.
In the filter, they occupy three stacked milk crates.
The top two crates have had their bottoms cut out.
The crates are filled with sand, chicken bedding and potting soil.
I'm hoping the willow stakes fill the crates with roots and shoots.
I plan to try willow on a living shed roof in a grid pattern, tied at the junctions with wire,zip ties or twine.
The grid would go over a plastic sheet ,and be secured only at the edges.
Alfalfa seed and compost would be heaped onto the roof and into the holes in the grid.
I imagine a messy, fuzzy, heavily rooted thatch will develop.
Maybe I can connect a ground planted willow stake or two to the roof top willow grid, thus giving the spliced together willow structure access to ground water.
I already have planted a willow stake directly in a pvc pipe and it is thriving.
I've got some newly planted willows from last Fall that I'm going to use for some willow water in a few air layers I'm about to do. Hopefully it'll help speed up root formation!
I'm also interested in trying using some willow branches mixed in a leaf mulch and branches from other trees. This podast- Willow mulch for fruit trees was really interesting talking about the different types of mulches from different types of trees and how they each can help the fruit tree in different ways!
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Sadly I don't have the water to support good willow growth at this time.
I would love to have some growing down in the valley though for wattle fences and building sides as well as making willow tea for rooting other trees and shrubs.