March 8, 2012

What Have I Done?

Three dappled willows (Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki') make up an informal hedge that defines one corner of my yard. 

They are big rangy shrubs, but oddly graceful as they arch and wave about in the wind.

Their real appeal, though, is the coloration in the foliage.  

The leaves on the youngest branches are tinged with pink, salmon and mottled green and white.  It's a beautiful effect.

Despite being big tangled multi-stem shrubs, these willows look soft and frothy with their pastel tinted leaves.  Dappled willows are often limbed up into single stemmed standards, which are very common and quite formal and pretty, but I like them wild and natural.

They have been completely easy to grow.  I planted them, and they grew massive in a season, five feet wide and six feet tall.  While willows are water lovers, these big plants are sited on a southeast facing slope and do fine with no particular care.



The  dense crossing branches even look good in winter.  Really, not much is required to keep this beautiful loose hedge.

With one hitch.  The striking foliage variation occurs on new branches.  In order to maximize the dappling, these willows should have the older limbs pruned out in winter to let the new branches develop.

One alternative is to simply coppice the whole shrub, by cutting it completely down.  It will regrow within one season, and the new growth will have the lovely variegation.  

So that's what I did this week, and my twiggy dense hedge went from this ---

 --- to this.  What have I done?  Now that I look at the stubs I think I pruned them down too far.

All my research said this was ok to do, and advised the gardener to simply get the loppers out and make an easy job of snipping the multiple branches off.  It was not at all easy.

The older branches were thick as small tree trunks and the loppers were useless.  My only other tool is a small Japanese pruning saw, and it was hardly up for the challenge.  


At first I thought I would save the willow branches for projects or flexible stakes around the garden.  Maybe even weave a fence or build small trellises.

But the job quickly overwhelmed me, the work was hard by hand, the branches were big and awkward, and I ended up just carting them off behind the compost pile to make a big wildlife-friendly brush pile.  A very big pile.

Did I chop too much?  Should I have left a couple feet more of branches above this level?  Aaack.

This was not an easy task, despite the gardening advice books that made it seem so, and I don't think I am up for doing this every year or so.  I may just let the willow do what it wants, and leave it unpruned in the future.  I will eventually lose all the variegation, but the billowing shrubs will still look great, screening the corner and dancing about in the breeze.

But . . . . can I really forgo the pretty leaf colors?  Would you be able to?


Like many tasks in the garden, it was perfectly awful to do but not so bad when it was done, and I do love the look of these pink and green and white willows.

Please, please tell me, all you arborists and gardeners out there --- what have I done?  Did I prune too far down?  Did I kill them?  Can you actually kill a willow?

 

33 comments:

  1. I wish I could answer your question, Laurrie, and make you feel better, but I really don't know. I do know, though, that we did the same thing to a purple smoke tree last year in the nursing home garden where I volunteer. Well, actually I just watched...I was aghast at first, but the tree came back over the summer and looked lovely, although without the wispy blooms of spring. So, if the experts say willows can take severe pruning, I think you're okay.

    I've always loved these little willows and wanted to plant one in my own garden; we do have one in our MG test garden. But I didn't realize only the new branches have the variegated colors. That's the whole reason I want one of these!

    I hope you'll keep us updated later in the season on how they turn out.

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    1. Rose, that's good to know about the smoke tree. I do hope these willows come back in full force after this lopping job. I will post an update in summer, hopefully showing them just as lovely as before!

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  2. Nah, you can't prune willows to death. I'll bet they'll be up and running any week now. Beautiful leaf color(s), for sure. Unlike you, I put my lone dappled willow in a crowded spot, where it quickly wanted to be the only plant. Too big to move, it had to go. Death by hacking.

    If I had it to do over, I'd plant in an open space, as you've done, and let the willows grow crazy, not pruning hard but pruning down just enough to get new colorful growth.

    Looking forward to what you do.

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    1. Lee, I have seen this dappled willow tucked into dense plantings as a small young shrub, and wondered how it fared when it got so big and crazy. Your experience must be typical. I hope you plant another, out toward the bamboo stand where it can spread and form a billowy counterpoint to the upright bamboos, kind of Oriental looking and kind of wild : )

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    2. Nice idea, Laurrie. I've certainly got room for it out there. No pruning necessary. Cheers.

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  3. I love that wild look. My Dappled Willow is planted in the wrong place. Little sun and moisture is not constant. I do cut it back occaionally. Never to the point you have. If it gets unruly I will know I can do so. I don't think you can kill them. I have a friend that has a couple in pots on her patio. She does this to them and they aren't even in the ground. They come back just fine.

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    1. Lisa, thanks for the encouragement about cutting them back so hard, even the ones in pots. Your dappled willow is probably too big to move, but if you could get it out into the sunshine, it would be a happy plant!

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  4. I've never grown willow shrub so I have no advice, except I give my deutzia almost the same treatment every spring after they bloom to guarantee flowers the next year. Last year my husband came out in the backyard and asked me why I was killing my bushes. They grew back and should be loaded with blossoms this spring. I'd give each shrub a huge heaping pile of compost, though. They have a big job ahead of them and will need the extra boost.

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    1. Tammy, It does look like I completely killed these beautiful shrubs. But I am getting responses from most commenters that they will grow back, like your deutzia does!

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  5. I coppice some of mine right to the ground every year and they're probably 12 or 14 feet tall by the end of the summer. Others, I cut less frequently, but if they get too big, they're hard to prune, as you well know. Once you've cut all those branches, you can make lots of new willows by just sticking them in the ground. Pencil-thick branches are best.

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    1. James, I am relieved to know you've done the same and they grow back just fine. I did know they will root easily, like forsythia, by just sticking twigs in the ground. I'm not sure where I'd put any more of these very large shrubs, though!

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    2. One year, my brush pile became a new forsythia bush! You gotta watch what you do with that stuff!

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    3. Mom on the Verge, Willows are just as rootable (is that a word?) as forsythias, so I may well see some brush pile bushes!

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  6. I love those shrubs, those variegated leaves make the bushes look their covered in tiny little flowers. I haven't grown that willow but my experience with the wild ones on the farm is that when there's nothing left but cockroaches there will be willows also.

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    1. Sweetbay, what an apocalyptic thought ... cockroaches scurrying under the willows when we are all gone! I kind of like it : )

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  7. I had no idea you would lose the variegation on these if you didn't prune. Good to know as I had thought of purchasing one of these for a particular wet spot. As for the pruning I think you did just fine despite how worrisome they might look. I took a class some eons ago where willow pruning was discussed and they advised just as you did. Cut them right down to the ground, particularly ones that have nice colour on their stems as the colour only appears on new wood.

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    1. Marguerite, Experienced gardeners are telling me what your class was taught --- that willows can be cut back just as I did, and will come back. phew.

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  8. Though I love the look of these variegated willows I do not have them in my care. Deer love willows and my yard ... this combination means I would have to fence the willow and I already have plenty of plants that need deer-proofing. I will have to get my variegated willow fix in other gardens and look forward to seeing the regrowth of yours.

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    1. Joene, in my yard the deer have never touched these and they are planted directly in their habitual path from the pond below to the woods a couple houses over. Deer are so inconsistent!

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  9. We call that "stooling" a shrub. (Doesn't "coppice" sound better?) You're fine. I just did that to the firebush in my Florida back yard. Sad looking, but necessary. Sometimes it helps to watch Rush Limbaugh (or Keith Olberman) first and then go have at the shrubs! ;)

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    1. Mom on the Verge, I am going to go learn the precise definitions of "stooling" / "coppicing" / "pollarding" / "cutting back" / and "shearing", just so I can be sure.

      In the end I think hacking big shrubs to the ground is not such a precise activity, and your firebush and my willows will be ok!

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  10. Laurrie, I've done that to my dappled willow and it really does come back. It's a bit scary the first time you do it but once you realize that they will grow back, it's pretty empowering to know how easily you can control the size of those shrubs. I can't wait to see photos of how they look in a few monts.

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    1. Debbie, it really is scary the first time! But you and others are giving me lots of reassurance. I hope to post pictures of the frothy tinted foliage again this summer.

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  11. I think that it is quite impossible to kill any of the Salix species. I have actually seen Willow logs at my wood lot, that have been completely severed from their stump and with no limbs to speak of actually root into the ground and sprout. If a disconnected log from an old tree can regrow into the earth, I think your plants will be fine. You may be surprised how much they actually grow this year.
    Keep us posted!

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    1. Forest Keeper, I am now feeling ok about the job I did on these willows, since so many have let me know they'll survive just fine. Now I am hoping I actually get the same coloration this season, and the same lovely arching shape. Thanks for the reassurance!

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  12. I recently did the same thing to an Abelia 'confetti' that had lost its variegation. I am waiting for new growth to start. As others have assured you, I think your beautiful willows will be fine!

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    1. Deborah, I have an abelia 'Edward Goucher' that dies back to the ground each year, then regrows beautifully, so I guess that's the same as chopping it back by hand. It grows back each season, so I am sure now that the willows will too.

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  13. Have you ever grown the dwarf shrub cutleaf stephandra? I think I'm going to add it to my front porch containers since I'm tired of sticking flowers in them. I saw a picture of it and thought it would work well with your garden. :o)

    http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/gardens-gardening/your-garden/plant-finder/plant-details/kc/x350/stephanandra-incisa-crispa.aspx

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    1. Tammy, this stephanandra is exactly the kind of low woody groundcover I love. With pretty flowers too! I need to think where I might use it, I am sure I could find a patch of ground needing coverage.

      I'll want to see how you grow them in your front containers.

      Thanks for the suggestion -- it really is the type of plant I like in my garden!

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  14. So glad you posted this...I'm thinking about trimming mine next year as well...and wondered just how far to cut it back!

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    1. Scott, Everyone says you can hack these down the way I did, so go for it next year.

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  15. Laurrie, I do this to mine every year so don't worry, and they are certainly that short. They might not grow quite as tall as they were, but the new growth is just soooo lovely.

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    1. Deborah, good to know! I have hopes these will come back beautifully with dappled leaves.

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