Willow planting and care
Willow is very tolerant of most conditions in the UK and will grow in most soil types and positions. It prefers a site with some sunshine although it will cope with some shade, and will thrive in dry sites once established although moisture is important in early establishment. Willow can be used to help improve poor and polluted soils. Having said all of this, the better and moister the soil is, the better your willow cuttings will grow. Whilst cuttings will grow at any time of year, the rate of success is much highr during the winter months between November and April. Watering should be done if there is a dry summer in the first year.
Preparation prior to planting need not be too major but controlling weeds in the early stages of establishment is very important to allow cuttings to grow without competition for food and water. If planting into grassland, simply use landscape fabric to cover the ground after mowing as short as possible and cuttings can then be planted directly through the membrane. The quality of the membrane will dictate how long it lasts but in any event it should be opaque and water permeable. A good quality membrane will retain water in the soil, suppress weeds and also warm the soil in the spring. We have had great success using squares of old carpet about 75cm square around each cutting.
The ideal time for planting is any time that the willows are dormant. This will vary for each variety but in general the leaves fall after the first frosts and buds will start to move in April, so planting between these times is best. Cuttings would ideally be planted immediately on receipt but if this is not possible they can be stored either in a bucket of water outside or in the fridge. A simple tool (such as an old screwdriver or metal bar) is pushed through the fabric and the cuttings are pushed into the soil leaving about 2" above the surface, cuttings should have ideally minimum of 15cm below the surface. The cuttings should be planted the correct way up with the buds pointing upwards.
Your cuttings will be very fresh when sent and will be fine to be planted any time in the next couple of weeks. Standing the bases of the cuttings in water for 24-48hrs prior to planting is beneficial in any case because it initiates the rooting response in the cutting.
Spacing depends on why you are planting the willow, if a hedge or barrier of some sort, or for harvesting for weaving, they should be planted as close as 30cm apart, possibly in a double row if making a hedge or screen. However if you are letting them grow into trees you may want to plant them 3-6m apart.
This is by far the most important part of growing willows. Landscape fabric is the most effective method of weed control is to plant the cuttings or rods through this as described above. Overall this would be our first choice, even though the initial cost may be higher as it does mean that the plants should get well established with minimal further work. Helping both weed control and keeping moisture in. Hand weeding can work for a small area but tends to prove difficult for any more than a few plants and willows do tend to be very susceptible to chemicals such as glyphosate so this is not recommended.
Again this depends on why you are growing them, but don't be afraid to cut them off at 2" above the ground after the first year - this will make them produce a lot of shoots in the second year and stronger plants will result.
Once the roots are established, these willow varieties will produce shoots about 5-6 feet long in one season. The shoots are slim and flexible and are perfect for weaving and basket work. I cannot stress enough that the most important factor in a strong early establishment is water and weed control in the first couple of years.