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?