View over the willow bed from a drone, showing how it is placed in a bend of the river

From Twigs To Trees: Planting My New Project! (Part 1)

One of the questions I am frequently asked is “Where does your willow come from?” So this is the first in a series of blog posts about how my new (as of Winter 2023) project started and how twigs turned into trees!

1. Creating the willow bed

My willow bed is planted on the edge of a field, surrounded by the river on two sides. It was previously permanent pasture, grazed by our cattle and although it had some grass, there were also lots of docks, nettles and thistles. This, along with the fact that it was an awkward shape, meant it was difficult to mow and it became my willow bed.

It is also North – South facing which means the bed gets a lot of sun. This is good for growing willow because ideally, they need direct sunlight for at least half a day. With this direction in mind, I carefully planned where I would plant each variety so that the smaller ones are near the front and therefore won’t be shaded by the larger varieties.

In order to plant the willow I cleared the area as best I could and covered the ground with a silage wrap. Willow doesn’t like competition, especially when it is newly planted and trying to put down roots. The thick, black plastic blocks the light and the grass and weeds below it die back.

Ordinarily I am against using single use plastic. However after extensive research, I felt it would give my newly planted willows the best chance of establishing themselves. Plus I’d seen from West Wales Willows, when I’d visited on one of their open days, that theirs had lasted 7+ years without deteriorating.

The silage wrap came in 4m x 50m rolls, so I had to unroll it, open it out and cut to size. I used 6″ plastic pegs to hold it in place to help prevent the wind from getting under and lifting the plastic. This worked very well but I also placed some rocks on the plastic to hold it down where the ground was uneven.

The final part of creating my willow bed was installing a fence around the perimeter. I used half round posts and chicken wire to fence it off. We are quite fortunate not to have a large rabbit or deer population here. (I know others have to dig this netting further in to the ground or install a tall deer fence around the perimeter to prevent their willow being grazed.) However I do also have another fence with stock netting and barbed wire separating the willow bed from the field where cattle graze in the summer months.

Alongside buying cuttings from friends that grow willow, I purchased willow cuttings from a number of small suppliers. Warwickshire Willow and Barfad willow were incredibly kind with their knowledge and their cuttings arrived with plant passports.

Eventually I planted 2000 willow cuttings in February 2023. (There is more detail about the planting process in the next blog.) The willows grew spectacularly in their first year with some varieties growing almost to 10 foot high! They are definitely happy growing in our red Herefordshire clay.

Then in February 2024 I created a second willow bed about 30m away from the first. I followed the same process as with the first bed. The silage wrap had worked exceptionally well and only the occasional nettle grew up through the holes I had made to plant the willows in.

In this bed I planted a further 1000 cuttings, all from my own newly harvested willow. I wanted to grow more of the varieties that did well in their first year and that I didn’t have many of, such as Brittany blue, Polish blue and Black French.

Got any questions?  Leave a comment below! If not, you can learn more about the planting process in the next blog post.

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