Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Willows


Imagine a world without plastic bags, where every person could gather materials from the wood lot or garden and weave their own shopping basket. And that same plot of ground would provide a laundry basket, a basket for picking strawberries or apples, and a trug for carrying the potatoes in from the field and storing them for the winter. Each basket as unique and beautiful as the human hands that wove them.
That plot would also provide early fodder for bees -- before the wild flowers came out of dormancy, in Spring. It would offer the materials to build a chair, make a bench or a bed. It would give the materials to build a play ground, a tunnel, a cave, or a chair -- A playground that grew again into a living playground, with leaves and branches.
It would give foliage for feeding rabbits or goats. It would offer medicine for fever, joint pain or headache, a medicine without side effects. And rooting hormone for starting other plants would be gained from soaking its cut twigs. It would give a natural dye for wool or silk in yellow, green and bronze, with its leaves and bark.
That plot of ground would provide a wind break and snow fence in the winter and a buffer zone near creeks or water courses. It would absorb toxins from the air and the soil and purify nearby water ways. Its leaves would take carbon from the air and store it in its roots, while giving off pure oxygen from its leaves, increasing air quality.
It would provide browse for deer, moose, elk and grow right back after grazing. Birds would nest in the older branches. The rythm of the wind in the swaying stalks would be as beautful as a ballet--so beautiful it would inspire stories and works of art.
And over a few years this plot of ground would provide fuel to heat a home, bake bread or heat water and still grow, to be harvested again another year . A willow planting provides all these things over many years. A well maintained plot will last 30 years or more -- and the new growth can be used to begin another plantation.
It all begins by pushing a few sticks in the ground, watering and weeding them until they grow into willow trees -- coppicing them annually or leaving them to grow a few seasons -- and then harvesting them by cutting them off at ground level -- coppicing.

The Joybilee Farm willows will be ready to harvest soon for basket weaving and for garden sculptures. I've wanted to create a living willow bench for our dye garden area. I have the book, Living Willow Sculpture and I've browsed the wonderful UK websites and blogs where people are doing it. Two Springs ago I tried to make a dome but only two of the willow sticks actually lived -- out of 30 -- so I'm a bit wary of trying again. I think the problem was waiting till June before I started making the dome. Many of the rods had already budded. This year I'll try it in April.


The season for willow sculptures here is really short. The snow comes when the willows are still in leaf before they are completely dormant. The snow is gone mid April and the willow is budding by May 1st, so there's a two week window to build the sculpture.


Maybe this Spring there will be time during lambing to be successful.

We grow 20 different willow varieties -- 6 ornamentals that can be used for basketry but are slower growing and very attractive garden plants, plus 14 that are tall, straight, fast growing and perfect for baskets. My favorite wilow for its unusual growth and beauty is... ok I have more than one favorite... Sekka for its faciated stems and snake like twisting, Hakuro-nishiki, a korean willow, for its stunning foliage that looks like pink flowers at the end of newly growing stalks, and Black pussy willow for its stunning catkins in Spring. These all grow very slowly in my zone 3 summers but they are still alive. I've learned not to coppice these the way we do the basket willows. They are just too slow growing to make a full recovery.


This one's Hakuro-nishiki. The pink leaves on the new growth last all summer until the autumn leaves turn colour.



But the basket willows are amazing. Even with our very cold 2008 summer, we still had 8 ft. rods from Salix viminalis (Common Osier). Black Maul was more tame at 5ft rods and the purpureas gave good straight fine rods, too. I love to use them together as their stem colours are lovely in contrast in a basket.

This one is Black Maul (Salix triandra) a very good basket weaving willow for its flexible, fine, straight stems.
S. Viminalis is great for living willow sculptures and grows 7 to 8 feet in my colder summers. The goats and rabbits like it, too. Sometimes the goats open the garden gate and I find this one munched down to goat eye level. Then the stem branches or forks, and I use it for planting new beds. The purpureas are bitter and the goats, and deer leave them alone.




My goal this spring is to spend some time playing with willow rods. I might even make a garden bench.

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