by: Maggie Stonecash
Up until last year my image of willow consisted of the fairy tale weeping willow tree that sat in front of my neighbor's yard. This all changed when I was home last year for spring break and went on a mother-daughter bonding trip to one of Bonnie Gale's workshops in Norwich, NY. Bonnie Gale and her southern England accent, cowboy boots, and copious use of the phrase "Hot Stuff" would have probably been enough to entertain me for the entire day although once I entered into the complex world of willow, I was fully occupied.
Bonnie Gale started working with willow in the 1980's as her material of choice in the basket making industry. In 1988 Bonnie started the American Willow Growers Network. The aim of the group is to create "a network of people dedicated to the growing and exploration of the great potentials of Salix in an open cooperative manner by the sharing of information, exchanging cuttings and development of the uses of willow". They want to build a body of knowledge on the growing of willows (the adaptation of different species and cultivars to different climates and growing conditions) and to explore the use of willows (basketry, timber production/biomass, windbreaks, soil stabilization/amelioration, and special uses). The network has grown considerably along with the popularity of Bonnie's baskets. Bonnie has since moved into working with living willow and in 2004 did her first living willow structure installation. Her living willow installations have become so popular that she was just featured on the front cover of Home and Garden magazine in the March 2006 issue.
Living willow installations are created outdoors and rooted in the ground to shape different structures that continue to grow and bloom within the seasonal cycles. One of the wonders of willow is that cuttings do NOT need to be rooted prior to planting as it has the unique ability to root itself. Therefore when building a 'fedge' (hedge/fence), or pea cages, hurdles, or trellises the ability to simply push cuttings into the soil and the flexibility of the willow makes installations and various creations possible that are not possible with other living plants. The willow is very versatile and flexible and is not only used as the base structure but for constraints and connectors to weave and bind the structure together as well. It is necessary to have different thicknesses and lengths of willow rods for the different parts of the structure.
My interest in willow has sparked a new initiative to bring the wonders of willow to Dickinson's Open Sky Farm. The student garden has become official members of the American Willow Growers Network and this spring we will be purchasing willow cuttings and experimenting with starting a willow bed in the garden. Our hopes are that our soil and environment will be compatible with the willow and that we will grow healthy strong willow that can be cut in the fall and used for various purposes. It will most likely be used as structural support, roping, and tying materials. The farm is brainstorming on installation ideas and locations within our land that we could put a trellis or fedge. So keep your eye out for new growths this spring in the garden. For more information on willow visit Bonnie Gale's website: