27 Nov 2021

Albert Nolan: Demand for willow rises as focus switches to sustainability

Albert Nolan: Demand for willow rises as focus switches to sustainability

The early morning clouds were threatening but thankfully the weather was holding. Today I was working with a group of adults who have just started a horticultural course. The group has people from all walks of life and is small enough to be safely socially distanced.

Using natural materials in our gardens and communities has become very popular as we all strive to live a more sustainable and balanced life. Their tutor wanted to bring a little bit of height to her class garden. They have decided on creating a willow arch at the entrance to the classroom.

We started off with a brief introduction in the classroom. Firstly the class discussed what tools they needed for cutting of the willow? A good sharp secateurs is essential to give a clean cut. This also prevents an open wound that can allow diseases and fungi into the tree.

Willow is such a versatile material and it is also nice and supple and can easily be encouraged into a wide variety of shapes. Once established it grows very quickly and bounces back even after a hard pruning.

It also makes an excellent frame for other climbing plants to grow up along. I love the idea of planting honeysuckle and allowing it to scramble all over the willow. As you walk by on a July evening you will get the scent of the summer hanging in the air.

This also attracts night flying insects like moths and caddis flies. You can also grow sweet peas and edible beans for a quick and easy healthy snack while working in the garden. When the willow frame becomes stronger you can grow heavier crops like cucumbers and even outdoor tomatoes.

One of the men asked about coppicing as he had heard of this practice in England. This was a very sustainable practice that kept trees, woodlands and wildlife healthy.

The tree was cut down to the stump and next spring multiple shoots started to grow. These could then be harvested and used for a variety of household implements and farm tools. Wooden spoons, broom handles and fences for keeping animals in were all made with functionality and nature in hand.

We went down to examine the willow that is growing just a few hundred meters from the classroom. It is really easy to harvest. With a good pair of sharp secateurs cut of pieces of willow that are around 50cm in length. Make a straight cut at the bottom and a slanting cut just above a bud at the top. This will distinguish the end that goes into the ground and the slope will throw off rain and stop rot.

After I had done a few examples the group got stuck in and with a little encouragement and practice they soon had a good pile of willow cuttings. We left these in a nearby puddle to make sure they stayed nice and healthy.

If by some chance you can’t find a puddle, keep the willow wrapped up and use straight away. Before planting nip off an inch at the bottom. Like our bodies when we have a cut a scab forms to stop the flow of blood and prevent infection. Plants have the same defences and if this is not removed the willow sapling might die because it cannot take up water. Cut flowers in a vase also benefit from a quick nip over a few days and this will keep them fresher.

I have found that the temptation is to cut longer lengths in the belief that it will grow quicker. If they are too long the wind will catch and rock them. This makes a hole around the base allowing water and frost in. Also all of the energy of the plant needs to focused on developing strong roots and once these are established the willow will really take off. If the ground is hard I use a metal bar to make a hole but generally it should slip in with the need for much pressure.

I sometimes sow two close together and this is a failsafe in case instead one of the sapling dies. It is also good practice to sow a spare bed. These are additional lengths that can be slotted in to any gaps. New hedging also benefits from this natural saving bank.

Willow has many other benefits for the natural world. After oak it supports the highest number of species of insects. Older trees can be covered in lichens and mosses. The early spring catkins, yellow with pollen are an early energy boost for bumblebees.

The leaves can be made into a natural rooting hormone. This is best made in the spring when all of the vitality is flowing into the leaves. Bruise and soak in water and also put in some peeled willow bark. Leave for a week stirring occasionally. You can pour around your new cuttings and still will stimulate all important root growth.

I know of a project near me that is investigating willow as biomass for producing low carbon energy. They can be harvested every three years and one hectare of willow produces 13 tonnes of biomass.

There are several species of willow found in Ireland. They readily hybridize making for challenging but interesting identification. Willows grow naturally along river banks, the edges of bogs and wetland

Comments and questions to or 089 4230502. Albert is also available to give walks/talks to schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups.

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