Willow cultivation

Willow has a determination to grow not shared by many plants, which could be described as magical. If you push a piece of willow into the ground deep enough, it will grow. (the only exception to this is goat willow) If you leave willows rods on the ground and forget about them for a while they will root along their length. If you plant a cutting or rod, it will grow into a tree that could reach 8 metres or more. Willows will grow almost anywhere, but prefer deep alluvial loams or fertile boulder clays with high pH. They need access to sunlight and will not thrive when overshadowed by trees. They do prefer damp ground but will cope with what you have. They will even dry it out for you. They will clean up polluted ground and are useful, if not necessary, around a tree bog.

planted willow

These willow rods were planted with weed retardant, by Redstone willows.

 To give your willow the best start it is advisable to plant it through some sort of weed retardant. This will allow the willows to make root without competition from other plants. It also keeps the ground slightly warmer and helps to trap moisture under the sheet. This could be silage sheeting, which is cheapest if you have a large area to plant. The disadvantage of this is that it will need removing after a few years in order to allow the leaf fall from the willows to nourish the ground. If you decide to cut your willow to ground after the second year you will need to remove at least a small part of the sheeting from around the willow stool to allow the new growth to come up around the original cutting. Other retardants could be used. The woven weed retardant sold by horticultural merchants would not need removing if you decided to leave your willow growing on stump as the mesh of this will allow the nutrients from the composting leaves to soak into the soil below. Old carpet and other degradable materials would not need removing as they would disintegrate over time.

To fix your membrane to the ground you can use groundcover pegs sold by horticultural suppliers and dig the edges in with a spade or make wire staples to push through the membrane. The wind can lift a loose membrane and cover your cuttings. It is not easy to find them again when the sheet has lifted!
Willows do best when planted in blocks at the required planting distance. Ideally for Basketry willow this would be 20-30cm apart, and for larger Viminalis willows the spacing is 1metre. They are planted close together to encourage upright growth.
If your ground is soft you may be able to push the cuttings straight into the ground through the chosen membrane. With finer willow it is a good idea to use an old screwdriver to make a pilot hole first. Supporting the willow, push into the ground until only about the last 5-6cm is above ground. It is important to make sure the willow cutting is the right way up. The bottom of the cutting should be thicker than the top, but if it is difficult to tell, look at the bud scales. These should be pointing upwards. If you are planting a lot of cuttings it is a good idea to use some sort of a pad in the palm of your hand as after a while this hurts!

The cuttings should be from local willow in order to preserve local hybrids.

growing on

Remember to label your rows / blocks. Another idea is to make a planting plan showing your varieties. Sometimes labels left on site get broken or disappear.

Willow grows quickly and coppiced willow will produce multiple branches, which can be used for weaving.

growing willow

large willow stool

Very large willow

Willow woods often have a scrubby appearance with dense irregular canopies and often only 2 – 8m high. Willow may be dominant, but birch, alder, hawthorn, oak and hazel may also be present. These scrub woodlands provide important cover for birds such as the whitethroat, grasshopper warbler and wren. Willows support a large number of moths and other insects, second only to oak.
As the ground conditions are wet, associated plants will include marsh plants like marsh marigold, angelica, marsh valerian and water mint. As the ground conditions vary, some areas might support brambles, dog rose and nettles. Willows are generally frost hardy.

In the past these areas of wet woodland were managed in the same way as the rest of the wood, with many treated as strips of coppice. Coppicing can be done every year unless the withies need to be longer, in which case they can be left for two or three years. A willow coppiced for several years does not make very deep roots (usually only about 1m deep) whereas a tree will send roots very deep.

There are various methods of coppicing. In some areas the willow is allowed to grow to tree height and coppiced so that grazing animals cannot reach the tender rods. Some prefer to keep animals and willows separate and will cut the willow stool to ground. Others will leave a stump, with the willows growing from the top. This can be useful if you do not want to bend over to harvest your rods!

Diseases and pests
Watermark disease, Erwinia salicis
Rusts: Melampsora spp
Anthracnose caused by Marssonina salicola
Canker and die back caused by  Glomerella miyabeana,
Fusicladium saliciperdum
Cryptodiaporthe salicina

Large puss moth, two poplar longhorn beetles, giant willow aphid.

Comments on this article

Jon 25 September, 2011

What effect will coppicing have on the existing root structure of a willow? Will it stop the root structure from getting bigger (which we are worried out)?


Tracy 26 January, 2012

A reply from Julian, just his personal opinion

Will restricting above ground tree growth help limit root growth? The general answer is 'yes' up to a point - just think of bonsai. However, the degree of crown reduction to achieve some sort of root control may need to be substantial and frequent. Willow, in the example cited, grows astonishingly fast - 3-4 m shoots in one year, and annual of bi-annual cutting of these may be necessary to effect worthwhile root reduction. Because this issue is important near household drains and where houses have foundations on shrinkable clays, regular crown reduction to effect root control may help, but should not be relied upon.

Callum Gourlay 18 June, 2012

Can you remember suppliers of willow (or other) rods for use in creating a coppice area?

joanna gilmour 10 February, 2013

I have a quarter of an allottment plot planted with about 50 willows (used for basketmaking) My situation makes it impossible to carry on. How do I get rid of the willow and return in to allottment use?

Andrew Slingsby 27 February, 2013


I am thinking of making a small area ( 1/4 acre) of woodland to create a nice habitiat and also to supply some firewood in a number of yrs. My plan was to coppice and use the off cuts in my log burner.I live on the south downs and have a chalky soil. The grown is well drained and on a very slight incline. There is a telegraph pole in the middle of the are.

Is this a silly idea? What trees would be best to cultivate in the environment to give rapid growth and a good burning wood?

I would appreciate any wise words, even if they are to tell me I'm an idiot!!

David Jellie 8 March, 2013

Can willow be successfully grown on an area of marshland regularly flooded by seawater

Syd Barwick 28 March, 2013

Is mixed willow and ash coppice suitable for biomass for a small scaleCHP plant? Looking at planting 2ha of coppice for a 10 year rotation, cutting .5acres a year once the stools are mature to power & heat farm buildings and 2 small holiday cottages.

John Palmer 8 June, 2013

I took cuttings in 2003, planted out in 2005, stripped by squirrels in 2009, pollarded in 2011, 2.5 metres high in 2012, 6 metres high in 2013. Will need to pollard again in Oct 2013. What can I do with the masses of offcuts, I have 19 trees? See webpage about these trees (with 20 pictures) by googling eyemead bearmead willows

Vanessa Scott 6 July, 2013

What is the best time of year to coppice a very large willow tree? What would be the consequences of coppicing at other times?

Bill Trewick 27 July, 2013

How much thinning could I do in a day in a 5 year old field area... Looking at a 40percent thinning?

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