Living Willow Arch:
Peter Wood archly weaves his willowy way through another satisfying technique.
If you get bitten by the willow bending bug you could create a willow tunnel like this one!
In this article I will be describing one way of creating a living willow arch. You could potentially plant or create your arch at any time of year, but it is always best to plant during the winter when the sap is down, when there are no leaves on the willow and the willow is dormant. This gives the willow a chance to send out some roots over winter, ready for spring.
Things you will need
• Cable ties
Willow (Salix spp.) for weaving the arch – I’ve used Hybrid 2
1. For this job I ordered some Hybrid 2 willow from the West Country where it is grown on the Somerset Levels. It’s a fast growing variety, giving long rods with no side shoots and forms curves reasonably well. There are plenty of other varieties on offer and usually they can be ordered in different lengths. It was delivered to the door in a state ready for planting
2. If you buy willow, unwrap it straight away after delivery and if you’re not ready to plant then stand the willow upright in water just 50–100mm deep. Here you can see the roots have started forming while waiting to be used
3. You need just a few tools to create your arch; I use loppers, secateurs, a spike, sledgehammer and some cable ties
4. I’ve chosen to plant my arch to frame in this area here, the ground is clear so there is little competition from surrounding weeds. You can plant through weed suppressing membrane if you want to, but with my project there are gardeners looking after the plot so it’s not needed
5. The willow needs to be planted in a hole ideally 300mm or more deep. With some loose soils you can just push the willow into the ground, but it’s more common to make holes using a spike. Being careful of your back, knock the spike into the ground where you want to plant. The hole needs to be at an angle of approximately 45° which helps in the creation of the arch shape
6.The hole needs to be close to the diameter of the willow. I was lucky enough to pick up a pair of Land Rover winching spikes. They are the right diameter and the hole at the top allows you to thread the second spike through, allowing you to grip and pull out the spike. Again be careful of your back!
7. The willow will curve more easily at the thinner tip end and stay straighter at the butt end where it’s thicker. To create an even curve you can ‘train’ the rod by standing on the butt end to ‘pre-curve’ it. Do this evenly along the thicker parts of the rod until you achieve an even curvature. Grip the willow close to the base and push the willow rod into the hole with the concave bend facing inwards to the centre of the intended arch form. This will give ample depth for the roots to develop and some essential support when bending the willow into shape
8. Repeat this process on the opposite side of the intended arch. You’ll now have two willow rods that can be bent over and wrapped around each other. You can adjust for height and push the curve of the willow until it is even in shape
9. At this point secure the ends of the willow with a couple of cable ties. This will stop the willow untying and whipping up, which could potentially be dangerous
10. Once you’re happy with the shape start building up the arch from each side. This increases the bulk of the arch and the additional willow rods you add will reduce the ‘wobble’ of the arch and increase its strength. Again use the spike to form a hole at an angle to one side of the first rod
11. Push the second rod into the ground and wrap it around the main rod. You should aim for some symmetry so it needs two rods on either side of the main arch
12. This type of base increases the stability of the arch in one plane, now you can add two rods to the side of the arch which will further increase stability
13. With all the rods I weave or wrap them around the main stem in pairs. One is woven clockwise and the other anti-clockwise
14. This weave will give a strong base and fairly rigid arch
15. As you weave the arch tuck each rod into the main weave, sometimes you’ll have to lift a previous rod to get room. It wants to be as tight as possible with plenty of tension between rods
16. The willow has a natural curve, with practice you’ll feel when you can bend the willow more or when you’re bending it too severely. Use your other hand to support the bending willow as you weave it
17. If you try to bend too hard you’ll kink the willow, as you can see in the picture. If you have plenty of willow just pull up the rod and replace it. Just leaving it in place will change the curves of your arch and the willow will die above the kink
18. Finally, trim up the protruding tips to create some clean lines
19. The willow should start to sprout from most of the buds
20. Here I continued the weave along the path to create some different heights and a tunnel effect
21. You can make variations of this if you choose to and even create a tunnel effect along a path
Before you plant any willow make sure to check what is under the ground. The roots of willow can be quite invasive and will invade any pipework.