Weaving willow is an ancient art - fragments of wicker have been found in the Somerset wetlands dating back to 3500 BC. And using willow in the garden is not only attractive, but environmentally friendly. (The withies used for garden structures are produced by annual coppicing - a traditional form of agriculture that preserves stable habitats and is highly beneficial to wetland wildlife. The majority of growers do without fertilisers and pesticides, while using traditional willow products doesn’t just help wildlife - it also helps to preserve a rural way of life.)
For a beautiful, rustic, plant support for your garden, start with sturdy supporting poles of willow or hazel, and make sure you get them well sunk into the ground - 25-30cm at least. Tie them together with tarred string. Then, for the pretty bits, use slim single stems, or withies, of willow - these are the most malleable and easy to weave.
You can cut willow wands from hedgerows, once the leaves have dropped, choosing long, straight, unbranched stems of at least pencil thickness. Better still, if there are any living willow structures in the neighbourhood, this is just the time of year to prune off the excess growth.
But if you don’t have a handy source close by, you can always order willow bundles, or even kits for specific purposes, from a specialist supplier. Newly cut willow is easy to work, but dried willow will need to be soaked to make it pliable again - so ask your supplier if they can pre-soak it for you, or your bath-tub might be out of bounds for up to five days!
By treating willow in different ways, willow-weavers have developed a range of contrasting colours: brown (bark left on), black (steamed willow), buff (where the withies are first boiled, then stripped of their bark) or white (where the newly cut withies are stripped, then dried.) But you can also choose different varieties of willow with beautiful, subtle bark colours - red (Salix alba), orange (Salix alba ‘Chermesina’ ) purple (Salix eriocephala) or olive (Salix viminalis). Or snip off a few wands of golden or coral dogwood, and weave them in too.
How to Weave a Hurdle
To make your hurdle, push in the uprights firmly at 10 cm intervals, then weave the horizontals in and out between them. You can either trim off the ends, or bend them round the outside pole and knot them.
There are many traditional styles of weaving. Alys is using a simple open weave, to create a trellis effect, known to basketmakers as ‘fitching’. Or you could try ‘randing’ (weaving with alternating single wands), or ‘slewing’, where a band of thinner strands are woven together, as in traditional fence panels. Or make up your own pattern. The beauty of willow is that it’s as flexible as your imagination.
Once you’ve seen how easy it is to make, you’ll soon get the bug. And there are plenty of courses where you can learn to make ever more professional garden structures.
- Learn how to make chickens, cockerels, hares and deer. Cheshire www.juliettehamiltondesign.co.uk
- Lean how to make hurdles, garden structures or even coffins. Somerset. www.musgrovewillows.co.uk
- Decorative obelisks, pigs, and ducks with TV willow-worker Eddie Glew. Staffordshire. www.blithfieldwillowcrafts.co.uk
- Willow for the garden with designer Angela Morley. Hampshire/Somerset/Dorset www.wildgardens.co.uk
- Twigwams for climbing plants. RHS Harlow Carr.
- Baskets and sculpture from the hedgerow. www.susievaughan.co.uk/
- Tailored courses for gardening groups, WIs etc..www.norahkennedywillowworker.co.uk
For willow bundles, willow kits, tools, books and willow products