‘IT’S ENDLESS,” plantsman Michael Dodge (former owner of Vermont Willow Nursery) was saying over the phone a few years back. He was alluding to the possibilities of the genus Salix—the willows to which he has been devoting the recent chapter of his impressive horticultural career. We narrowed it down to some best-of willow selections from about 200 in his collection—best willows for outsmarting deer; winter interest; abundant flowers and even best for making honey if you’re a beekeeper—and I also got a brutal tutorial on willow pruning (also known as coppicing) to share with you.
best of the salix: michael dodge’s picks
- Best cut flowers: Pink ‘Mt. Aso’ has “such a dense stem of flowers,” says Michael—some have 30 catkins along a space of 2 feet of stem. (I love the crazy-looking male flowers in the photo up top, not just the pink stage.) ‘Mt. Aso’ is a selection of the Asian species Salix chaenolmeloides, the giant pussy willow (photo just above), “which itself is just unbelieveable,” he adds, “and also has a lot of flowers–plus this species did well despite our dry year last year.” These start blooming in February, even in the nursery’s northern Vermont location.
- Best for winter interest: For offseason color, you can’t beat the red of ‘Britzensis,’ he recommends (the twigs are even red in summer, photo below). Unfortunately, it’s mixed up in the nursery trade with the warm gold-stemmed variety ‘Chermesina’—another beauty, but not fiery red.
- Best deer-resistant willows, for fencing and hedging (a.k.a. fedges) or otherwise: “This is important to tell gardeners about,” says Michael. “The purpurea willows are deer-resistant. So for a fedge or fence it’s really great–and even gracilis or nana makes a dense bush, 4 by 4 feet, that they won’t jump over.”
- Great foliage (and gold fall color): “Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’ is just so handsome,” says Michael about a variety that’s too often overlooked. “It flowers quite freely, and has long, droopy foliage an inch wide, and 6 inches long that turns yellow in fall.” (Note from Margaret: I love the long, narrow, silvery-blue foliage of the rosemary willow, Salix elaeagnos, which also goes gold in fall.)
- Best for bees to make honey from: Vermont Willow Nursery, now under new ownership) has a whole list of the willows best-suited to the task.
how to prune willows
I WAS SOUNDING too tentative about the rejuvenation pruning—called coppicing—that I was about to do, and Michael Dodge could hear it in my voice. “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.” So what do you think, gardeners? Are we feeling brave?
ordering and planting willows
VERMONT WILLOW NURSERY sells cuttings of willows from a preposterous number of varieties. The hardest part with this ultra-easy plants: figuring out which one to buy. (Hopefully Michael’s recommendations above are a help.)
The nursery sells 8-10 inch dormant, unrooted cuttings in bundles of five; you simply insert most of the twig when it arrives in the ground (like all but the top couple of inches).
They also sell long rods (again, unrooted cuttings) for making living fences, domes and tunnels in either 7- or 9-foot lengths (depending whether you’ll be shipping Fedex or UPS, respectively). Those get inserted a foot into the ground upon arrival, spaced a couple of feet apart.
One year I ordered two bundles of shorter cuttings, stuck them in a corner of one raised bed in my vegetable garden, and had 10 rooted young shrubs ready to transplant into their permanent positions. Easy! (Cuttings and ‘Britzensis’ willow photos courtesy of Vermont Willow.)