Growing a Living Willow Fence

Growing a Living Willow Fence

Part of Ep. 1402 Secret Gardens & Living Fences

Lee Zieke Lee of Willow Glen Nursery in Iowa specializes in growing willow for baskets, trellises and living fences. Lee provides tips on starting a living fence in the Midwest from these character-rich trees.

Premiere date: Jun 28, 2006

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
This is a living willow fence.  It's a wonderful structure for any garden.  But it can be a challenge to get started in the Midwest.  I'm here looking for answers.  We're at Willowglen Nursery in Iowa.  I'm with one of the owners, Lee Zieke.  Lee, I met you at the Woodlanders gathering in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where we played with willow all weekend.  I know you've got all the answers! 

Lisa:
Well, I've been playing a lot. 

Shelley:
We're going to play today.  The first thing I noticed in trying to learn how to make a living willow fence is that most of the resources come from England. 

Lisa:
The few resources, it's true.  Europe has a much longer tradition with willow.  So, a lot of the books are great for inspiration, but the "how-to" to make it happen in Iowa and Wisconsin, takes a little practical experience. 

Shelley:
So, you've learned some special steps to make it be successful here in the U.S. 

Lisa:
And to work in our growing season. 

Shelley:
Okay, what do we do? 

Lisa:
Well, first, the kind of willow that I use for the fences is not the wild field willow.  Because, that willow actually sends out root suckers.  So, if we were using that willow, we'd plant the fence and weave it.  But then, in a number of years you would have willow everywhere. 

Shelley:
Over there, under the driveway... 

Lisa:
So, we're taking one-year stems and we're harvesting when they're dormant, in the winter. 

Shelley:
What kind do you recommend?  The varieties that I grow, one is German Basket Willow and one is Salix Americana.  So, varieties of willows think of like a big pussy willow shrub.  Things that stay put pretty much as they grow. 

Shelley:
We can always search for these specific varieties.  You said that you're taking one-year cuttings. 

Lisa:
Yes, and we're going to be planting them in late spring say, end of May.  But we need to store them so they won't leaf out before we want them to. 

Shelley:
So, we're cutting them dormant, late winter, early spring. 

Lisa:
Correct, and maybe ten days before we plant we'll put them in a bucket of water, just the ends, we're not soaking the whole thing.  Correct, it's not like making baskets.  This is still fairly green wood.  We're just kind of coaxing them into pushing their buds to swell. 

Shelley:
We're kind of jump starting them. 

Lisa:
The reason for that is that if we just planted them in the ground, some springs are dryer and hotter than others.  And so, we're trying to induce all the right conditions so that they'll want to leaf out. 

Shelley:
You said we wait for the buds to start.  These aren't actually swollen yet. 

Lisa:
They would be more than this. 

Shelley:
That's when we plant them.  Then, late May, tomato season, we're putting this in.  Here, you've got it started.  Let's start with the end. 

Lisa:
First of all, till the ground so it's worked up, maybe make a little trench with a spade or something. 

Shelley:
Get rid of the weeds. 

Lisa:
And for the ends of the fence, we use this metal rod.  It offers a little stability and support but also gives you something to wrap these ends around to give it a more finished look. 

Shelley:
You've not only wrapped it around the end here so it's coming like this but then it's actually being woven right back into the fence. 

Lisa:
Correct, and it's a pretty simple weave.  It's easy to understand, as you look at it. 

Shelley:
It's kind of like a living basket.  I can see how flimsy it is.  If I were to make a long fence, I might have a metal pole periodically to keep it from flopping over.  It looks like we poke them right in the ground. 

Lisa:
Right, and if you were just going to grow a willow from a cutting, like a shrub you would take this same dormant stem and cut it into a shorter stick.  And this would be, technically, a hardwood cutting.  You'd push that into the ground where pretty much almost everything is covered. 

Shelley:
And that's it?  Then, what would happen is it will start to leaf out and start to make roots inside. 

Shelley:
So, that's why we're soaking it because we're doing such huge cuttings. 

Lisa:
In essence, we're planting giant cuttings.  And because we have all this potential all these points that could dry out...  We don't want it to.  Exactly.  So, by kind of encouraging it with this extra moisture to start to grow, the chances are better. 

Shelley:
So, if I get frustrated, I'll just come back and stick all those little short things in the ground. 

Lisa:
Or, if it doesn't grow at all you can cut everything off and have a nice row of willows. 

Shelley:
That's true! 

Lisa:
Because it would probably grow that way.  So, there's a little more risk involved when you're starting with these giant cuttings. 

Shelley:
Show me how you're doing this. 

Lisa:
As you can see, the rods go two different directions. 

Shelley:
Do you plant one direction first? 

Lisa:
I find it easier to do that.  So, I have kind of rigged up a simple template.  I'm putting each rod in two hands apart.  They're at an angle.  So, just to kind of keep me in some kind of an order, I use that template. 

Shelley:
Especially for a beginner, that would really be helpful. 

Lisa:
So, I'll just march my way down.  Then, I take... 

Shelley:
This would be after we've done a whole row going one direction. 

Lisa:
It's easiest that way.  You could do it this way.  There aren't a lot of rules.  Once you're heading the second direction is when you're actually doing the weaving.  So, look at the last one.  It basically is a very simple over-under-over. 

Shelley:
So, it really is kind of like weaving a living basket. 

Lisa:
Right, and you're weaving it before it leafs out.  So, you're not letting it grow and then weaving it.  You're actually doing it now because it's easier to manipulate without leaves. 

Shelley:
You can do a little finessing to make it. 

Lisa:
Maybe you'd want them very irregular. 

Shelley:
The sky's the limit. 

Lisa:
But if you want a kind of general, same-size diamonds you would do that. 

Shelley:
The fun part is, this is what it looks like at the beginning you've got one behind us that's six years old.  I love it! 

Lisa:
This is the first one that we planted.  So, six years later, it has an even more rustic look to it.  You can see that the rods have gotten very much bigger.  Here's one of those original support bars that we probably could pull out at this point, because it's not really that essential.  When I planted this one all those years ago instead of one rod going each direction I put three in. 

Shelley:
I see it's a little thicker. 

Lisa:
Some of them are runners, but not all of them grew.  I had a lot of material to work with and I was excited. 

Shelley:
So, why not play?  It looks like you've got choices here.  You can let it grow kind of wild and bushy.  Here, you've trimmed off the suckers so we can really see the pattern. 

Lisa:
There is no one way to take care of a willow fence.  You can plant it and never touch it again.  Otherwise, if you want to see the lattice or pattern it is good to trim it, at least maybe once a year.  Sometimes, if you wanted you could trim it any time of the year.  If it's too thick, cut it. 

Shelley:
Same thing with the top, too, you can let it grow or you can trim it and make it look a little more normal--  or more refined--  Depending upon your point of view!  I really like it.  I can't wait to try this at home, thank you. 

Lisa:
Well, good. 

Shelley:
The wonderful thing about growing willow is that you can grow willow in your backyard for your own projects. 

Shelley:
I can't wait to try a living willow fence in my own backyard.  If you'd like to learn more about anything you've seen today check out our Web site.  I'm Shelley Ryan.  Thanks for watching the Wisconsin Gardener.  

EPISODE SEGMENTS+
EPISODE RESOURCES+

Funding for The Wisconsin Gardener is provided, in part, by The Wisconsin Master Gardener Association.