Growing willow trees is unbelievably easy to do. In fact, these are some of the most low-stress species you’ll ever cultivate. They serve many purposes around the homestead and are as attractive as they are useful.
Are you ready to get started and grow some of your own this year? Then read on!
Benefits of Growing Willow Trees
Not only are Salix species absolutely gorgeous, but they also offer several benefits around the homestead.
One is that since they grow so very quickly—up to 10 feet a year, depending on the species—you’ll have lovely shady spots to enjoy beneath their branches before you can blink.
Secondly, willow is one of the most versatile natural building materials out there. For instance, you can use the whips, or slender branches, for weaving baskets and fish traps. In contrast, harvest the longer, thicker branches for wattle fencing.
Thirdly, their sprawling roots help to combat erosion. If there are areas on your land that are threatened by wind or snow erosion, plant some willows.
Just be careful not to plant them close to your home’s foundation or septic tank. Their roots are known to break through such things in search of water sources.
Finally, there’s willow medicine. In addition to offering a plethora of branches to weave, willow trees have another magnificent use.
They’re an abundant source of natural aspirin. The salicin contained in their bark/cambium is a natural analgesic and anti-inflammatory. As a result, as long as you have willow trees on your property, you’ll have nature’s own painkiller within easy reach.
How to Propagate Willow Trees
These trees do best from cuttings and can be planted either in the spring or the autumn.
Find a willow species that you like, and use clean snips to cut off some young branches. Aim for those that are about as thick as your pinky finger, and have several leaf nodes along their length.
Pop these into a bucket of clean water and allow them to root. This can take a few weeks, so be sure to change the water regularly. Otherwise, it can go stagnant and the roots can die before forming properly.
As soon as those lovely little roots are about an inch long, they’re ready to plant. Be sure to harden them off before you stick them into full sunshine.
Here’s something special about this species: willow trees contain indolebutyric acid (IBA), which is a primary hormone used in commercial rooting formulas. This is why you can use willow-infused water as a rooting medium!
As you can imagine, this makes it incredibly easy to plant new willow cuttings. You don’t need to use honey or any other rooting medium: they come with their own!
Alternatively, if you don’t want to grow your willow trees from cuttings, or if there aren’t any available, there are other options. Look for bare-root trees that are between one and three years old.
Dig holes that are two to three times the size of the root spread, and nestle the roots into them. Fill with a mixture of well-aged compost and topsoil, and pat that down securely. Water in well, and keep moisture levels regular to encourage new root growth.
Bonus! You can use the water that your willow cuttings have soaked in to help root other plants. So don’t throw it out.
Soil and Sun Requirements
Willow is known for its ability to grow in most soil types, provided that it’s fairly moist, but also drains well. We have very clay-rich soil on our land (which isn’t conducive for most tree growth), but it has enough sand content that our willows are thriving.
You’ve probably noticed that willow grows well along riverbanks and lakefronts. This area grants willows two things that they need the most: sunshine, and abundant water.
If you have waterfront property, consider growing willow trees about 10 feet away from the water’s edge. This will allow them enough space to grow, with plenty of access to the nearby water table.
Make sure that you plant it in an area that’s near water, but won’t flood easily. Willow is a riparian (riverbank) species; not one that thrives in swamps.
Don’t have waterfront property? Unless you live in a wet region, you’ll need to provide irrigation. Don’t skimp on this! Willows can send their roots out quite a way to find water and they don’t mind if the water comes from your sewer system.
Since willow needs at least six hours of sunshine a day, plant yours in an open, sunny area. That said, they will tolerate partial shade, especially in hotter locales.
Note that how you plant your cuttings will depend on why you’re growing willow trees. If you’re cultivating them for building or craft materials, then plant the cuttings just a few inches apart. You’ll cut down the young shoots when they’re still quite young, coppicing them for future use.
Similarly, if you’re growing willow for fencing, then plant them about 6″ apart. You’ll be able to weave the young shoots together as they grow to create a living fence.
Finally, if you’re growing these trees for landscaping purposes, then plant young trees (or established cuttings) about 20 feet apart. This will allow them plenty of room to stretch out as they grow.
Watering and Feeding
As mentioned, willow trees are heavy drinkers. As a result, you’ll need to offer them regular deep drinks if you haven’t planted them close to a water source. They don’t like their soil to dry out, so make sure to check it a couple of times a week. If it feels dry up to your second knuckle, give them a solid soak.
They also benefit a great deal from regular feeding. Be sure to work plenty of well-aged compost into the soil before you plant them to offer them the best start possible. Then work in some slow-release fertilizer every spring. Aim for an even 10:10:10 NPK ratio.
If you don’t want to use granular fertilizer, you can also offer them compost tea every week or two. Poke some holes into the soil starting a foot away from the trunk, about 6 inches deep. Then water the area lightly, offer the roots the compost tea soak, and water lightly again. This should disperse the nutrients well throughout the root system.
Potential Pests, Diseases, and Problems
When you’re growing willow trees, you’ll need to protect them from hungry herbivores for the first few years. Deer, rabbits, elk, and other plant-loving species love to gnaw on young willow trees. Collar the trunks or wrap them in burlap to create a protective barrier so they won’t get chewed to pieces.
Keep grass and other weeds from thriving at your willow trees’ bases for the first three to five years. You can do this by either raking them away or putting down a mulch barrier. We just use undyed cardboard for ours, but use whatever method you prefer.
As far as pests go, spongy (formerly gypsy) moths (Lymantria dispar) are the bane of willow trees’ existence. These moths’ larvae wreak havoc on willows by gnawing their way through the leaves. If you see the egg masses, scrape them away and dispose of them.
You should also encourage or purchase beneficial insects, birds, and mice, which eat the moths and larvae. You can also spray with a product that contains Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki.
Webworms and willow leaf beetles also feed on these trees voraciously.
You can deal with the leaf beetles by shaking them off, and/or by spraying your trees with neem and dish soap. Webworms can generally be ignored or you can sweep the webs out of the tree with a broom.
Borers can also damage trees, as they burrow into the branches and trunk. A borer infestation can seriously damage your tree, though it’s unlikely to kill it. You’ll need some heavy-duty pesticides to deal with borers, possibly with the help of an arborist if your tree is over 15 feet tall.
Keep your trees well fertilized and nourished to keep them healthy. This is going to be their best defense against predators and pests.
Harvesting for Use
As mentioned earlier, willow has several different uses and you can harvest it the same way for all of them. You’ll use the same technique whether you’re cutting young branches or whips for basket weaving or medicine.
Use sterilized, sharp garden snips to cut as much as you need, taking care not to cut off more than 30% of the branches. If you take any more than that, you can damage or even kill your trees.
You can harvest young shoots from coppiced trees every spring. Use young, slender branches for baskets, and older, thicker ones for wattle fencing and the like.
Since you’ll only be harvesting the aforementioned 30% of the branches from each coppiced area, you’ll have plenty of first-, second-, and third-year branches to work with every year.
If you’re harvesting willow for medicine, try to collect the twigs and young branches in springtime. These are potent and easy to collect.
That said, if you’re dealing with searing headaches or painful joints in the autumn, you can still get medicine from this plant. Cut off one of the branches and use a potato peeler to peel off the bark. Then use this in a decoction as needed.