April 21, 2013

What to Do With the Willows

I am all over the place with what I want to do with three shrub willows planted in the side yard. Indecision is driving me nuts.

These are Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki', or dappled willows. They have shrimp-pink and cream-white tinged leaves, and are very eye catching.

The problem for an indecisive gardener is that they can be anything you want them to be -- immense, wild, arching shrubs if left alone, or artistically pruned elegant small trees.

They can be a hedge, a focal point, or an accent. They can grow huge or be kept small. They could probably make coffee and entertain guests.

You can buy them as single stemmed poodled trees that are grafted onto a skinny trunk if you want a cute lollipop effect. I actually like that look, but only for a formal terrace, not for the side of my yard as a hedge.

They can be maintained as low shrubby accents jammed into a mixed border, although I think you have to be at them every week with the pruners to keep them that small.  But I've seen it.

I planted three in a row in 2007 and left them alone.  As young bushes they are stiff and starburst shaped. Later, as they mature, they get 12 feet tall, and arching and droopy. Here they are in 2010, about as tall as me and not yet gracefully arching at all.

So this is nice, right?

But there they sat as three blobs in the grass, hard to mow under and not really forming a hedge. I didn't know what to do with them.

Should I let them go and wait for a real hedge  -- a 12 foot high mass of foliage? Or prune them into more artistic shapes?

My neighbor has one that has been cut back to only a few stems and the shape is lovely, the coloration of the twigs in winter stays red, and the entire plant is a real focal point.

Here is hers in early winter, before the snow. The few trunks are curved and interesting and the whole plant is nice.

Mine look like wild tangles in winter compared to hers.

In 2012 I coppiced them, cutting all three back hard, thinking I could then select a few main trunks to get an elegant shape going, and at the same time encourage the dappled leaf coloration, which is enhanced with rejuvenation pruning.

But then I whiffed, and did not cut out any stems. When the new growth started, I was baffled. I ended up doing nothing as the shrubs quickly regrew. The new growth has the pink coloration, so that was one positive -- keeping the foliage variegated.

This month I came across a simple statement that Margaret Roach had on her blog A Way to Garden. She quoted Michael Dodge of VT Willow Nursery on pruning willows:
“Cut them down to the ground,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Really, really hard—don’t leave a foot of stem, like you often read about, but just an inch. I learned that in England—that you want just three or four stems to replace the one you’ve coppiced, and if you cut too high, it promotes a lot of messy growth.”

You can see I did not do that. I left almost a foot of stem congestion, I did not cut them all the way to the very ground and then select just a few stems. The willows then regrew into green round blobs without any mature grace. Here they are the summer following my attempt at coppicing.

They regrew completely in one season, but still have the immature starburst explosion look about them.

So now I need to decide:

1. do I just leave them alone and plan for a wild willowy hedge all grown together in an arching tangle in a few more years? There's enough room for that, but mowing under them is still a problem. The pretty coloration may be lost as all the stems age.

2. do I take Michael Dodge's advice to heart and cut these down next winter so not even an inch of stem shows? Then ruthlessly cut out most of what regrows so I only have a few graceful stems? Seems like a lot of work and my handsaw is not enough for the job at this point.

And if they are thinned, what should be planted under them? Do I need a mixed border mingling with the arching shapes, or should they just sit out in the grass, three in a line?

What to do?

50 comments:

  1. Me being the lazy gardener would, #1, leave them be. Especially since you have the room. I love the billowing elegant limbs bobbing around in the wind. We do seem to have a lot of wind lately. My neighbor has one that is a tree shape. She loves to prune. It looks lovely in spring too. I get to see it peeking over the privacy fence. A worthy effort there too.

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    1. Lisa, I would love it if they were "billowing and elegant bobbing around in the wind". My fear is, if left alone, they might be messy and unkempt instead. Sigh.

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  2. Decisions, decisions! I like the round shape of them and how the leaves look on the branches. My only drawback would be that it's so hard to mow or weedeat under them.

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    1. Christy, that's actually a major concern, mowing around these big shrubs. If I leave them alone, I do need to control the grass under them better.

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  3. I'd cut them down to the ground TODAY. Don't wait another second-spring growth is pushing out right now. I feel your angst reading here. Life is too short to have plants that are driving you crazy. Chop them and see what happens--or else this summer you'll have the same feelings. Take the chance! :) The new growth is pretty and I don't think you can kill these no matter what you do.
    My neighbor has one of these right by their front sidewalk and it has never been pruned. It is crazy wild and blocks 1/2 the walk. I am tempted to go over there in the middle of the night with my loppers....

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    1. Diane, You're right! I'm not worried about killing them -- my chopping last year didn't set them back at all. But then I really need to do hard selective pruning, and not let them regrow on their own into roundy balls again -- and I'm not sure I'm up for all that right now. But this is the time to do it, and I know it needs to be done before any more leafing out!

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  4. I have exactly the same problem, mine are all willowy and messy. I think I'm going to go with option #2 and try to get some kind of control over this bush!

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    1. Rosemary, timing is the issue now. Yours may still be dormant enough that you can cut them to the ground. I've dithered so long that the season is underway and it's starting to get too late to cut them back so hard. Good luck with yours!

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  5. I'd be tempted to change them into something you don't expect to see from a willow. Look at training 3 to 5 good shoots in a vase shape and develop them into trunks to give you a Crape Myrtle habit. For something a little more exciting, you could try your hand at living willow weaving or tree shaping that an artist in Australia has done at Pooktre.com. It might not go over with the neighbors very well but its fun to think about!

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    1. Rob, I wish I had the artistic confidence to try live willow weaving! Or even getting the hundreds of branches down to just a few very architectural ones as you describe.

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  6. I actually quite like the look of the blobs in summer 2012. Plus you get all that nice variegated foliage. So my vote is, keep doing what you're dong and keep the weedwacker handy.

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    1. Sarah, so far that's been my approach, with the weedwacker doing the work of clearing out under them.

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  7. I actually rather like the natural round shape of them. I'm not sure how important the new pink growth is to you. Since it sounds like you don't really want to invest the time in pruning them, or maybe don't trust your ability to get the effect you're hoping for, here's another option that might solve the mowing problem. Dig out the grass around all of them and make an island bed/border that encompasses all three. Then plant a ground cover (and more lovely perennials) around them.

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    1. Alison, I have thought about creating a bed under these three shrubs, linking them as you suggest, but then worried it would look funny --- a created, maintained bed with wild untamed shrubbery in it. Maybe I'm over thinking and need to just try it!

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  8. Hi Laurrie, if low maintenance is your main goal, I would let them go, with maybe some judicious pruning to keep them a pleasing shape. I would cover the grass under them with paper sacks or cardboard, then put a heavy layer of mulch over that. That way, you don't have to mow. You could try option #2 first, to see if it really is too much work for the benefit you get. If so, you could revert to the first option.

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    1. Deborah, good suggestions -- that's the great thing with these willows: I can try out various pruning, cutting and letting go approaches and they will adapt to all my efforts.

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  9. Laurrie, count me among the scorched-willow advocates. Cut 'em down, cut 'em so low, you scrape the ground. (I wound up doing that with one fairly large one I had, eventually just hacking it to death and not buying any more.)

    Then, play with the best of the returning stems and try to make something of them. Fewer stems give you a chance to get that swaying, waving effect, while tight bushes just look, well, tight.

    Finally, remember how relatively short-lived they are; whatever you do, they won't be problems forever. Meanwhile, good cutting, and good luck.

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    1. Lee, I knew you would weigh in with those arguing for bold pruning! I did not know these willows are short lived. I wonder if it is the usual hard pruning that diminishes their vigor or if they are just naturally prone to petering out after a few years.

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  10. I like them as they are. I would surround them with ground cover, though, so you don't have to mow under the stems.

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    1. Jason, thanks. I like the idea of a simple ground cover, nothing fancy or showy, but something to keep the grass at bay. I'll have to research some possibilities.

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  11. I would go with option #3 - well, this wasn't an option, but I am lazy and would just let them grow. But, because of the mowing issue, I would also plant some different plants along with them, for a mixed hedge. Of course, you could do the mixed hedge *and* cut them down, but it sounds like a lot of extra work!

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    1. HolleyGarden, I gave the mixed hedge a lot of thought early on, and I have seen dappled willows used mixed in tightly with other shrubs in borders. I'll need to think of the design possibilities for that --- it would be creating a whole new garden : )

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  12. I don't know! I'm horribly indecisive too! But what a pretty part of the world you live in!

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    1. Larkspur, thanks! I think it is pretty here too, although early spring is not the best time. Still, I'm a home grown New Englander and always will love it here.

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  13. I had these in my shade garden which kept them smaller but with no grass under them...I think they do need some controlling if they are not in a bed but are in the grass.

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    1. Donna, interesting that shade limits their size somewhat. I do see dappled willows in mixed borders and they seem much tidier, perhaps because of competition and shade.

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  14. Quite a decision on your hands. I think you're being too tough on the full grown hedge. Seems like that's a lot of work and cleanup for a limited return.Simple decision for me.

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    1. Patrick, the default approach -- leaving them alone --- does seem to to be the easiest!

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  15. Hey I think they are great the way they are! I think you could drive yourself nuts with this one!!! I know that you have already been busy training other shrubs such as your blackhaw. I think you should just let these go...I liked the suggestion above about doing some mass plantings around them to help with the mowing. Let us know what you decide!

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    1. Nicole, I'm starting to get a consensus from commenters about putting something below them, whether or not the willows themselves are pruned. Need to start thinking design options and plant choices!

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  16. After seeing some really well grown specimens on garden tours, I planted one with the intent on keeping it small in a mixed border. I ended up shovel pruning it the next year. Too gangly and weedy looking for the space I had. The one willow I do grow, Salix purpurea 'Nana' responds really well to an annual buzz cut even with a foot of congested stems.

    As far as pruning goes, I'm on the hack them back to the ground team but I think they would look better as part of an informal shrub border than as a mono hedge. Since they are probably too big and not worth moving, I would remove all the grass around them, make a new bed and add a variety of shrubs with contrasting foliage and forms :).

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    1. Sue, they are definitely too big to move, and I do kind of want a screening hedge at that open spot in the yard. But I am starting to agree with all the commenters who, like you, recommend putting either mixed shrubs or at least a ground cover under them. Thanks for advising! Now I need to design . . .

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  17. Laurrie, I love your garden, nice free space, air, light!
    I'd chose decision # 2 but I liked your neighbor has cut hers willows.

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    1. Nadezda, thanks! I like the way the neighbor pruned her willow too, and I might just go over there to admire it instead of trying to get the same effect here.

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  18. I love the wild look myself - plus I'm lazy - but I do understand the worry of losing the variegation and the grass thing. Perhaps removing the grass is an option. Kill it in a season with a tarp and then do a groundcover or heavy mulching?

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    1. Marguerite, the consensus seems to be that at a minimum I should mulch under those three willows to make a connected bed, and then add a ground cover. I have to start thinking about what ground covers would be easy care under them.

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  19. I'd pick a few stems that have an interesting shape and let those grow, all limbed up so you have the beautiful foliage but can still mow under them. Personally, I'd rip up the sod under them and design a bed around them so you have a cohesive planting instead of three green balls at the edge of your property. I'd put a foot high or so groundcover under them for flow. I wouldn't chop them to the ground again. You'll just get more of what you already have.

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    1. Tammy, I agree that the way I chopped them back and then let them regrow did not do anything here. You have echoed what others say about doing a ground cover under them and connecting all three -- that's where I think I might be headed. I definitely don't want three green balls edging the yard!

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  20. "I like the round shape of them and how the leaves look on the branches."

    I like it too.

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    1. Daniel, thanks, these really are interesting and pretty willows.

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  21. This is a plant I've wanted for years, but just haven't figured out where to put one. We had one in the MG garden that was pruned to be a tree, but recently had to be taken out--I wish I could remember why. I like the look of the trees, but I also like the wilder, freewheeling look of the shrubs growing naturally. If it were me, I'd probably pick the easiest method:)

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    1. Rose, if you do find a place for a dappled willow, give it space. This wants to be a big shrub!

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  22. "They could probably make coffee and entertain guests."

    :) LOL! I'd like to see that...

    I'm with Casa Mariposa, whatever you decide, I'd advise ripping up the grass and making them part of a bed with groundcovers, perennials, mulch, etc.

    But then I'm typically in favor of less grass! :P

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    1. Aaron, I'm in favor of less grass too. If I do rip up the turf under these willows, I need to figure out what to put under them other than just a strip of mulch. I have my thinking cap on about that. . . .

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  23. Larrie, I say cut them back all the way, too. I also saw that advice from Margaret Roach and decided to do the same to my dappled willow. The funny thing about that plant, is that I find it's more interesting if you can keep it in the 'restrained chaos' mode, so it looks like it's almost bursting at the seams.

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    1. Debbie, "restrained chaos" is a very fine balance! I hope I can achieve that and keep it close to bursting at the seams : )

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  24. I think Michael has some solid advice that I personally would endorse. However, I am not the one that actually would have to do the work. If it would be worth it to you, is the real question.

    If it was me, I would get a cocktail or two and have fun with it. The nice thing about pruning willows is if you screw them up, they will also grow more branches for you to try again!

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    1. Jim, pruning really is something that should be done with a cocktail and some abandon! And you're right, you can't really harm these robust willows.

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  25. Keep in mind that my arms are very tired from weeding, pulling, lopping, and scratching horse withers, but the thought of trying to keep those things reined in with even more pruning makes them even MORE tired.

    I see the destiny of those willows to be wild and free and whatever they want to be, but I'm not the one who has to mow underneath them. Those things must be tough to be able to withstand that much pruning! But of course they are, they're willows.

    I'll be interested in reading what you choose to do with them.

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    1. Sweetbay, i love the fact that these willows have a "destiny" : )

      The pruning would indeed be very tiring -- I could never get through the bigger trunks with my hand saw, and would need some help, or a power tool to get the job done.

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