How to start growing willow for basket making.


A question I get asked a lot is how do I get started growing willow? How much area do I need to plant? What varieties would you recommend?

Let’s dive into all of that here.

But firstly I want to say I do not have all the answers. There are so many variables that need to be taken into account. But I will try my best to at least point you in the right direction and allow you to ask yourself the right questions.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. How many plants do I need?

One plant of willow will throw up rods that are all of different lengths. Depending on what basket you make you will need longer or shorter rods. A willow plant will be in full production after 5 years. After that it will slowly produce less and less. But can still be ‘productive’ for another 20 years or more. One healthy plant, in full production, will have between 10 and 30 rods growing from it on average, depending on variety. One small basket needs around 120 rods. Will 6 plants do? Not all the rods will be of the same length and thickness you would need to make a nice even basket. So not by far.

The usual planting distance is 30 cm /12 inches/ 1ft in between plants in the row, and 60cm /2ft between rows. This would mean you have 5 plants per square meter. And about 10,000 plants per half acre.

Once you start growing willow and making baskets you will find that you never have enough. I think that if you have the space ¼ acre would be a great area to aim for.

  1. Start small.

Not all varieties will grow well for you. Even though they might grow well for others. You will need to trial them. See if you like working with them. And if you do want more, take cuttings from those you like and plant more. For that reason I always give the advise to start small. Try a few varieties first and see how well they do. Then expand over time so that eventually you will have your own willow beds with willow that you know you like and does well for you in your soil, your climate and for the type of work you want them for. Often times new growers end up with varieties that grow too tall for the smaller work they actually want to make.

  1. Varieties.

There are many willow varieties. Not all are suitable for weaving. Start with stock that you know is good for basket making. It does not matter exactly what variety as long as the rods are flexible and thin and do not grow too tall.

In general:

Viminalis varieties grow too tall and have a larger pith, leaving them quite unsuitable for basket making. Great for outdoor structures.

Purpurea varieties are generally smaller and thinner but more susceptible to diseases.

Triandras are all round good rods, reliable but not exciting in colour. They strip more easily so used for that purpose to make into buff and white willow.

Rubra varieties are a cross so generally more disease resistant.

Alba varieties are great for colour but can grow a little tall.

Check out my video on YouTube about my favourite willow varieties here:

  1. Where to plant?

Willow needs full sun and no competition from other tree roots. It is best to give them their own growing area.

To allow the roots to get established there should not be any competition with weeds either in the first two or three years at least. After that their own leaf growth will shade out the worst of them. Weeds can be kept down by planting through a weed suppressing membrane, mulch or work the soil.

Willow is very forgiving about what soil it grows in. It does need full sun, regular rainfall or good moisture retentive soil and soil that is not too rich in nutrients. A rich soil will allow the rods to grow too tall. And once you make baskets you soon find out that those rods are not the ones we want.

Willow is often planted near streams and wet ground. They do like water but contrary to belief will not survive if the roots are underneath the water level for more then a few months at a time. Also consider access, as it is usually during the wettest times of year that willow needs to be harvested.

  1. How to plant?

Willow grows best from cuttings, living willow sticks, pushed into the ground. Push the cutting 20cm/4inches into the ground at least, more if the cuttings are longer, and leave about the same length sticking out at the top. New leaves willow soon appear in spring. Then branches too.

  1. Experiment

I would advise you to experiment, try things out and have fun! There is no one way to grow willow and you will soon find the way that works best for you, your land and available time.

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