Inspiration and Ideas for Living Willow Structures in Your Garden

Willows are fast-growing and trainable, making them perfect for adding useful and whimsical features to a garden.

willow structure

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There are so many possible ideas when it comes to building and growing in our gardens. With living structures of willow trees (or other plants), we can do both—combine building and growing to create beautiful additions to our gardens that blend naturally into the space.

Living willow structures are features we can create in our gardens that are both natural and human-made at the same time—a true synthesis and cooperation between nature and us.

What Is a Living Willow Structure?

A living willow structure involves taking young willow saplings and planting their roots in the ground, then training and pruning the above-ground portions to create a certain structure. The properties of the wood mean that you can make it into a range of interesting and useful shapes and structures for artistic and/or practical use in your garden.

Types of Living Willow Structures

Some of the many different ideas that allow you to use living willow trees to create useful and attractive structures of your garden include:

  • Willow "fedges": A fedge is a composite word combining fence and hedge. This is a structure that looks more like a fence, but, like a hedge, is made up of living plants that continue to grow over time.
  • Arches: These can be standalone arches with a small number of willows trained into an arch shape or created to pass through a willow fedge.
  • Tunnels: These involve two rows of willow that are planted on either side of a pathway and trained to grow over the top.
  • Arbors: Willows can be woven up and over the top of a tranquil bench seat to provide a leafy space to sit and read or relax.
  • Dens, wigwams, or gazebo-type structures: Covered areas of dappled shade can be created by making a space below willows woven together at the top.

Some gardeners have even taken advantage of the properties of willow in order to create living structures such as chairs or sofas for their gardens. Others have woven willow into some amazing artwork forms.

By training and shaping willow, we can meet a range of our needs and wishes in a garden. We can often increase privacy far more quickly than by growing a typical hedge. We can separate garden rooms or create wonderful places for outdoors recreation—places for adults to relax and for children to play.

Remember, willow can be very useful to have around. The pruned material from your willow structure can be used for basketry and a range of other crafts. And willow can also provide us with other yields, such as bark to use medicinally for pain relief, or to make a solution that will allow cuttings and other plants to root more successfully.

living willow fence

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Where Can You Put a Living Willow Structure?

Living willow structures typically work best in full sun, though some willow varieties can also work well in partial or light shade. A site with a moisture-retentive soil is best, though willows can grow in a range of soil types.

The key is to choose a species and variety suited to your goals. There are many different Salix species that work well for projects of this kind. Salix alba var. vitellina (golden willow), S. daphnoides (daphne willow), S. alba var. vitellina 'Britzensis' (scarlet willow), S. Purpurea (purple willow), and S. Viminalis (basket or osier willow) are some varieties recommended for living willow projects.

Choose a location in your garden that is not too close to drains or buildings (note that willow roots can seek out water and be invasive). Keeping such structures at least 33 feet (10 meters) from drainage systems or the foundations of buildings is best.

How to Create a Living Willow Structure

car port made of willows

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First, design your structure and work out how many willows you will need. 

Ideally, purchase two-year-old willow whips for upright stems of the structure, and one-year-old willows for the stems to be woven between them. 

Choose stems of the right length for the structure you wish to create, remembering, of course, that the stems will continue to grow over time.

Prune off the lowest four inches (10 centimeters) of each stem before planting. 

Make holes in a prepared area in the garden, and push the willow stems 12 inches (30 centimeters) or more into the ground, at the angles required by the structure you wish to create.

Mulch well around the base of the structure with organic matter such as wood chips to keep soil moist, add fertility, and suppress weeds.

Weave the willows between one another to create the design you are going for. Stems can naturally graft where they cross. You can encourage this by tying them together at these points.

In winter, when the shoots are pliable, you can weave in the new growth to strengthen your structure. But make sure shoots do not face directly downward or they will die.

Willow can grow up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) each year. So you may need to give the structure a prune several times over the summer to keep it in shape. Simple maintenance pruning, however, is best undertaken through the winter months.

Of course, this is a somewhat higher maintenance garden feature than simply growing willow trees suited to where you live. But it can provide you with truly stunning and very useful features for your garden.