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How to Grow: Willow
Full sun to part shade
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Blooms in spring, but flowers are generally insignificant except for pussy willow buds (catkins)
Mature Height x Spread
Depending on the species can be 4 feet to 100 feet tall.
Willows (Salix) are a diverse group of temperate climate shrubs and trees. Plants range from the dwarf arctic willow shrub that reaches 4 feet tall and wide, to the black willow tree that can stand 100 feet tall. These fast growing plants have similar lance-like leaves and flexible branches. Although the branches will break as the tree ages and during wind storms, the plant is resilient and continues to grow for many years.
Willows are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8. They are favorite trees and shrubs of a variety of insects and birds and are good habitat plants to grow in the landscape. The types of willows range from the shrubby basket, pussy and arctic willows to trees such as the weeping willow, corkscrew willow and black willow.
You’ll often find willows growing well in wet soils. They need constant moisture to grow their best. The roots will seek out moisture in the soil and its recommended to plant willows at least 35 feet away from leach fields and septic systems to avoid the roots from clogging these drainage areas.
When, Where and How to Plant
Plant in a full to part sun location in spring or summer. Select an area with fertile soil, ideally that stays moist in summer. If not, you’ll have to water your willow trees during dry periods the first few years until it gets established.
Plant willows with the ultimate height and shape in mind. Since they grow quickly, willows can often overwhelm a planting spot if not given enough room. Dig a hole three times the diameter of the shrub or tree, remove the plant from the container and wash off the potting soil from the roots. Examine the roots and prune out any circling roots or those going in errant directions. Plant using the native soil unless that soil is very poor. Only then amend with compost. Water well. In windy areas stake the tree the first year to support the flexible trunk. Keep well watered.
Willows root easily. In spring, simply prune off a young branch and stick it in a container filled with moisten potting soil. In a matter of weeks roots will form and you’ll have a new plant.
Once established willows have no need for fertilizer, compost or much care. Prune out errant branches and those that have broken in the wind. Protect young trees from rabbits, deer and animals chewing on the bark with tree guards and fences.
For pussy willow and shrub willows, they will benefit from occasional severe pruning. These plants grow the best buds (catkins), colorful bark and flexible branches on newer growth. Once your shrub becomes overgrown and the branches become brittle, prune it back severely, even close to the ground, and let it resprout with new growth.
Companion Planting and Design
Tree willows look and grow best as specimens near a pond, stream or wet area. Keep the large willows away from the house where branches might fall during a storm.
Smaller shrub and dwarf willows can be planted in a mixed shrub border with other common shrubs such as lilac, weigela, and spirea. If growing your willows for collecting pussy willow buds, contorted branches or basket making, grow these plants in an out of the way location. You’ll be severely pruning these plants occasionally so they won’t always look their best.
Shrub willows also make excellent hedges. They grow fast, are amendable to annual pruning and make a good visual wall.
Pussy willows have attractive buds (catkins) that are grey, black or red depending on the species. There are also contorted willows with crooked branches. The cut branches make good additions to flower arrangements. Basket willows have subtle branches good for crafting. The Nishiki willow is an Asian species with attractive white, pink and green leaves on a shrubby plant. Golden weeping willows have attractive golden colored young stems in spring that match well with their light green spring leaves.