Western Isles Gardening
Western Isles gardening in December is winter gardening, we have had frosts and snow. With the coming of the frosts the last few leaves have dropped from the trees. This usually means the sap has gone down to the roots and it is time to harvest the willow. Unless the gales have torn the leaves from the trees that is. To be on the safe side wait until we have has a good winter cold snap before starting the harvesting, you will have until late February or early March when the sap starts to rise to complete the task.
Willow can be used green for basket making, living willow structures, and hurdles, but if there is sap left in the withies they break instead of bend when we work them. There was a bit of concern about the willow harvest for a while this year, autumn was so mild here in the Western Isles, that there were new buds already, so the sap was still in the stems.
In the Western Isles It has been generally not a good year for Willow growth, just as any other plants in the garden have good years and less abundant ones, so it is with the trees.
The Western Isles council have started looking into biomass production of willow, whilst other parts of Britain and the rest of the world are losing their willows to the droughts of global warming the Western Isles is forecasted to get wetter!
Willows do thrive on plenty of water, but most grow best on moist soil that does drain, so if you put a few cuttings in, try not to put them in the really boggy areas! (Commercial willow growers prepare the soil for willow growing to the same tilth that most gardeners give their vegetable plots!)
January's Western Isles garden page will be dedicated to planting willows for basket making and garden structures, but you can make the most of whatever willow resources you can find around you. Harvesting willow is as much about maintenance of the willow stools (coppiced willow stumps) for the best possible next years' crop as it is about the bunch of withies you go away with on cutting day.
Tools for harvesting are an old large sheet to easily bundle the willow in, a pair of sharp seceteurs and a pair of loppers.
As you cut the willow, you are pruning the tree to get the straightest and tallest growth for next year, a friend tried to cut down his full grown willow trees to ground level with a chainsaw to get rid of them, the result was a wonderful mass of new tall withies the next summer.
Willows planted as cuttings are ideally left to establish good strong roots for two years before they are first cut back. Then they are cut back to just above the first shoot showing above the ground, a horizontal cut is fine, but make it a clean cut. If your cuttings are mulched (plastic is the easiest) then whilst the willow bed is in the first few years of cutting, clear the leaves and other debris from the plastic as you trim or coppice each stool, to stop grasses and other weeds from becoming established. When the trees mature you will be able to remove the plastic and the leaf mulch will suppress the weed growth.
The next time you come to coppice this stool there will be several withies radiating from it, cut off each one as closely as you possibly can to the stool. This will make future harvesting easier, and the withies will grow with less branching than if you leave a small stump of each one. Repeat this process in the future years of harvesting the willow.
Perhaps your friend has offered you the willow from trimming back her 15 foot tall hedge to just 8 feet tall. (Thank you Maud!) In this instance you can still leave the hedge at 8 feet tall, in a way so that the new growth will be fast and straight. Cut each main branch as if it is a first cut willow stool. In later years cut them as coppiced willow stools.
Some varieties of willow are better than others for basket making, and some also grow better than others in our climate, but as the people living here in the past found, most can be used in some way, willow is said to have 1001 uses!
Willow is one of the first plants identified as planted by people in the Western Isles when they began to settle. Many of the old walled croft gardens have willows remaining amongst the ruins.
Here in the Western Isles one of our willow varieties is recorded as the smallest tree in the world!
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