Willows are deciduous trees. There are 350 species worldwide, grown mostly in moist, cool areas in the Northern Hemisphere. The seeds are embedded in white down, floating easily through a wind, resulting in wide dispersal of the trees.
Willows are cross-fertile; many hybrids have been discovered in nature, and through cultivation. They take root very easily; a broken branch lying on the ground, for example, can take root and start a tree.
For best chance of survival, use cuttings taken between November and March, and push the branches into holes in the ground. Success in growing trees from willow cuttings depends on good site preparation, careful planning and a long term plan for weeds.
Preparing a site to plant willows depends very much on the scale of planting being carried out. Whatever the size good weed control in the first 2 or 3 years is very important to enable cuttings to establish effectively. On a large scale planting, the most usual practice is to spray the site in late summer with a broad-spectrum contact herbicide, plough to 12 inches depth and power harrow in the spring.
This provides a good weed free till and aids future weed control measures. On a smaller scale, use either a plastic sheet or a water permeable woven polythene sheet. The cuttings are planted through the sheet, increasing soil temperature in the spring and retaining water during the summer.
The ideal time for planting willows is from mid January to the end of March. Planting in the autumn risks rotting cuttings; later in the spring risks damaged root nodules that will have started to sprout. Stem cuttings supplied will be between 1-1.5m in length.
The cuttings should be planted as soon as possible after receipt; if this is not possible then store them in a refrigerator until the planting can be carried out. The cutting is pushed vertically into the soil to a depth of 12-18 inches. If the soil is such that you must force the cutting in, then make a hole in the soil with a metal rod. You want to avoid damaging the bark of the cutting when planting. Firm up the soil around the cutting.
There are three weed control alternatives for willows: spraying with a foliar acting herbicide, mulching, and hand weeding. This shouldn’t be carried out during the first seasons growth. The most appropriate herbicides are available only to licensed holders and require special equipment to ensure correct dosage.
Hand weeding with hoes and hand hooks has the advantage of targeting undesirable species, though on large plantings can be daunting. Regular and often should be the mantra to those using this method – this saves time in the long run.
Mulching can be done with ground sheets (best done before planting), straw, cardboard or other organic material. Remember that adding too much organic matter may cause more problems later on with nettles etc. that invade the rich soil.