Slimmer than a hedge and just as easy to create, willow screens are ideal for partitioning small gardens or as boundaries in rural settings where you want a barrier that mirrors the natural landscape beyond. Once established, they also make good windbreaks for a vegetable plot or flower garden.
When to plant: Winter, when willow is dormant.
At their best: All year round.
Time to complete: 4–5 hours over a few months.
You will need: Willow setts, well-rotted organic matter – such as manure, spade, garden tarred twine, rubber plant ties.
Grow or buy willow
The most common willow for weaving is Salix alba, which has colorful stems in winter. Buy your cuttings or “setts” in winter and plant as soon as possible. Do not plant near buildings or drainage pipes, because the roots are invasive.
Dig plenty of organic matter into the soil and remove weeds. Push a spade into the soil 8 in (20 cm) deep, insert a willow sett into the slit and firm in. Space setts 8 in (20 cm) apart. Water well. Wait until new growth appears before weaving.
Weave the willow
Crisscross the stems over and under one another to form a rigid diamond-shaped structure. Tie stems where they cross with twine, and use rubber plant ties to secure the top of the screen. This allows some movement and prevents stems from snapping in the wind.
Tips: Buying and caring for willow
The easiest way to buy willow cuttings is from a specialist willow nursery—most now have online and mail-order shops. The cuttings are harvested when dormant in winter, and will only be available at this time. They are normally 10–12 in (20–30 cm) long and take a season to grow to a suitable length for weaving. Rods for tunnels are longer. Keep the growing area free of weeds and water the cuttings well after planting, and until they are fully established.
Make a tunnel
Natural and inexpensive, making an willow tunnel takes no longer to make than a screen, and can be used for children’s play areas or in a cottage or informal design. To create a living tunnel, buy longer “rods” instead of setts or cuttings.
Mark out the site
Prepare the site and soil as for screens. Measure the length of the tunnel and calculate the number of rods you will need: they are planted in pairs 12 in (30 cm) apart, or closer if you want a dense effect. You will also need a few spares. When the rods arrive, plant as for setts, but in slits that are 12 in (30 cm) deep.
Form the arch
Plant rods in matching pairs on either side of your marked-out tunnel. Bend each pair over to form an arch and twist them together. Secure with rubber plant ties. Plant some rods between the other stems and weave them across the structure to help strengthen it. Tie these rods on either side of the arch stems, as shown above.
Water well and apply a mulch each spring. Keep the arch well-watered for the first year and weed regularly.
Tips: Pruning and aftercare
To top up moisture levels, consider installing a leaky hose beside the arch, which can be attached to an automatic timer. Remove any dead plants as you see them and replant with fresh ones. Do not trim your hedge or arch until the end of the first year when the leaves have dropped. Once well established, willow structures will produce long shoots, which you can cut back and chip for use as a mulch or as fuel for a wood burner. Alternatively, you can plant these “cuttings” to make more willow structures.