Growing, harvesting and using willow
Willows naturally propagate in the wild from very small distributed seeds and from twigs that fall to the ground and take root. However the simplest way to grow willow and the only way to ensure uniformity of type is from hardwood cuttings. A cutting of around 10 inches is taken from a dormant one year rod. Typically in early spring, a cutting is pushed into the ground until only 2 or 3 growing nodes remain visible. The cutting will root all along the "planted" cutting.
If you are growing willow to produce straight un-branched rods, multiple cuttings will be 'planted' generally about 10 to 15 inches apart, in rows, in a square or in rectangle of ground, that is weed free, in a sunny spot and watered adequately. The time of planting depends on your zone, readiness to plant, but generally you can plant when the daffodils are blooming..
Cuttings will put out rods from the nodes left above the ground, and when coppiced annually will reach their maximum production of rods in about four years, and will continue to enthusiastically produce new rods
(when coppiced) for about 30 years.
Coppicing is an ancient technique used to produce a constant sustainable supply of new growth. In late winter or early spring a growing willow rod is cut down virtually to ground level to allow the base or stool to develop and support and send up many new shoots each year.
This technique and an alternate practice of pollarding has been used for centuries to encourage and increase the number of shoots that emerge from the base, or the trunk, and grow up into long un-branched rods.The rods are harvested when dormant, and used for a specific purpose.
The rods can be cut in the this manner every year, or left for one or more years to increase in diameter.
In addition to producing long slender new growth, annual coppicing ( or in some circumstances pollarding) produces the most significant color in new young growth, colors such as egg yolk yellow, vibrant reds and corals, shining black, intense purple, and all manner and shades of green and browns.
You would not coppice a willow if you wanted it to grow into its natural form - which could be anything from a small shrub to a very large tree.
It is usual to cut / coppice willow every year, but some types and some times, rods can be left for 2, 3,or 4 years, to grow for bark harvesting, structures, furniture, or fuel.
Secateurs or a sharp curved knife are used to slice the willow rod cleanly from the base of the plant. In some circumstances willows can be cut a little higher from the ground (not quite pollarded .) In time this practice creates visible low stumps in the field. This is sometimes done for practical purposes.
Cut willow rods are gathered and bundled and brought into a sheltered area to start the drying off process. They are tied in bundles of one variety, and are usually graded at this point
Grading ensures that rods of like diameter and / or length are grouped together- necessary for the basket maker. It can take up to 6 months for the rods to dry, and at that point the bark will look slightly wrinkled, and they will be brittle.
The work of harvesting has its own pleasures. Walking out of a misty, often times muddy field in early spring with a hefty bundle of willows on your shoulder, willows that you have watched grow, and know will grow again, season after season, can be very satisfying.
Harvested willow can be prepared and utilized in a number of ways
Freshly cut rods are called 'green' willow, regardless of their color. Green willow is graded in a traditional manner by pulling out the tallest tips-- one handful at a time. Typically a container sunk in the ground makes this process easier. This is an integral part of the process and willows organized in this way, are visually beautiful and display form and color well.
Green, graded willow, is tied and stored in a dark cool environment for use, as green willow, or left to dry when it is called " brown willow" regardless of color, to be re-hydrated and used for weaving. ( one day per foot - is the very general rule)
Willow that has been re-hydrated-- has been soaked in water, or steamed long enough to soften the outer bark, and soak up enough moisture to make the dried ( brown) willow pliable enough to weave with.
Willow produced on a commercial level is often stripped
( white willow) or boiled ( buff willow) and each type has its appeal and advantage to basket makers.
Home growers can also strip willow and harvest both the bark for weaving or other type of work, and the rod ( as white willow) for weaving.
The bark will slip off the rod like a skin, if sliced vertically along the length of the rod, and pulled carefully at the right time in a season, or removed with the use of a tool for this purpose. Baskets & many other beautiful items can be woven with bark.