One of the first things the early settlers did when they claimed a piece of land was to put up a fence. To make the fence, they'd fell some relatively valueless tree, like a willow, perhaps, and cut it into posts. After driving the posts roughly into the ground with a maul, they'd set the log rails on top of the posts, and there would be a crisp, clean-looking fence for a couple of months at least.
Propagating Willow Trees for Soil Erosion Control
Now if you've ever dealt much with fences, you know that the major problem is usually decay. But if the fence is made of willow posts, there is another very different sort of problem. After a few months the fence posts begin to sprout. Thick, turgid buds appear and spread up and down the posts. The buds burst into leaf, and soon the fence begins to grow — no longer a fence but a living, vigorous row of willow trees.
Many river trees, like willows, cottonwoods, and poplars, have this marvelous, persistent ability to sprout. It's an important part of their survival, I suspect. Many of these trees have long, whiplike or brittle branches that break off in winter and float downstream. The heavier end eventually settles somewhere in the wet mud and sends out roots, and a new tree begins growing.
This remarkable rooting ability, which proved so disconcerting to early fence builders, can be a great boon to us when using trees for soil erosion control. A willow branch pounded into the ground will grow anywhere — yes, anywhere — as long as there is enough year-round moisture. Willows will root in the most barren and unstable of soils, which makes them the most valuable tree I know of for erosion control.
Cottonwoods and poplars can also be rooted if you follow the instructions I'm going to give. But in addition to water they need a richer, "river bottom" type of soil if they are to prosper.
When to plant. The best time to plant willow cuttings is in the fall or very early spring — when we call the tree dormant. Actually, only the leaves are dormant. The roots continue to grow all winter from stored energy, and when the buds burst in the spring, the new leaves will have a healthy system of roots to provide them with moisture and minerals.
There is a way of planting willows when they are in leaf. The danger, of course, is that the leaves will transpire moisture faster than the growing roots can provide it and the tree will dry out. You can prevent this by clipping off all the leaves along the stake except one or two, and by continuing to trim off leaves all summer long. It's a lot of trouble, and it's a bit risky, but if you can plant only during the leafy season, you might give this method a try.
Collecting and preparing willow branches. Follow normal instructions for pruning. Cut weak or crossed branches first, and be sure to cut flush with the trunk . . . don't leave a stub. Any willow will give equally good cuttings, so don't get hung up on species.
After you collect the branches, cut them into convenient lengths for planting. Don't try to chop them up while you're in the middle of a tangle of willows, but drag the branches out to a clear area where you can set up a chopping block and have enough room to work.
The cuttings should be at least 18 inches long and at least a half-inch thick to create new trees for soil erosion control. Anything this size or bigger — even up to 10 or 12 feet long — will grow, but the bigger the cutting, the deeper you will have to plant it, so beware.
One thing that determines the length of the cuttings is the water table. If you're planting on land that is wet year-round, you can use shorter lengths. In our part of California, where it gets dry in the summer, l usually have to cut the stakes five feet long or more so that 1 can pound them deep enough to reach moist soil.
To cut a branch, lay it over a chopping block and use a sharp ax. At the thicker end (the end toward the trunk), make a point. At the narrow end (toward the tip of the branch), make a flat, straight cut.
It is very important to note which is the butt end. If you plant the willow upside down, the sap will flow in the wrong direction and the cutting will die.
Preparing a hole. If the ground is soft and moist, you can just pound the stake into the ground without any preparation.
If the ground is rocky, however, you might strip the bark too badly by pounding, so you must first prepare a hole — much the same idea as drilling a pilot hole for a screw. For smaller stakes, you can pound a digging bar or even a crowbar into the ground, wiggle it around a bit, pull it out, and insert the cutting. For really big cuttings, you may have to start the hole with a shovel or a posthole digger (if you've got one), then use the digging bar after you're a foot or so down.
The ground at the bottom of the hole should be moist, wet, or even flooded. If you are planting in winter or spring, remember that the water table is probably much higher than it will be later in the year, so dig deeper than you think is necessary.
Pounding the cutting in. This step is a mind-boggier. l would definitely recommend it as therapy to those "nature lovers" who tippy-toe across lawns, who cannot bear to see a tree pruned, and who otherwise insist that plants are very fragile, delicate pieces of creation. You take your carefully shaped cutting, insert its pointed end into your carefully made hole, and just pound the hell out of it. A heavy wooden mallet is the best tool. Or have someone hold a piece of wood on the flat head of the stake while you pound away with a sledgehammer. The idea is to knock the stake deeply into the ground without splitting the top too much. Split stakes grow, but they tend to dry fast, rot, or (if they live very long) develop badly.
The cutting should have at least half its length under ground, and even two-thirds or more of its length can be buried. If you don't plant it deep enough, there will be too much leaf and too little root.
Browsing. Cattle are notorious for browsing young willows. They'll desert a pile of hay, a bed of straw, the shade of an oak tree, or a field of alfalfa and come running whenever they see a young willow. If there are cattle present, you'll have to fence off the planting.
Wildlife browsing should not be too severe, unless you happen to have an overabundance of hungry deer at the end of a long, hard winter. If this is the case, you'd be best off planting bigger, taller, thicker cuttings, which are less tasty and which can withstand browsing somewhat better.
Have faith. The first time I planted willows, I felt unutterably depressed. After a full, hard day's work, I stood there with a group of kids looking at what we had done. It was a weird, desolate scene. Everywhere around us we saw dead-looking sticks pounded into the ground. It reminded me of an empty drive-in theater, or a municipal parking lot with hundreds of parking meters all over the place. We were all very tired, cold, and discouraged. The kids kept asking me if I thought these stakes would grow, and I said, "Of course" — but only because that was what I was expected to say.
Later that spring the kids returned to the area to camp. What they saw, as they told me later, was so exciting that they couldn't fall asleep that night. The "parking meters" were covered with thick, juicy buds just beginning to burst into leaf.
Since then I've found willow cutting to be one of the easiest, surest, and most rewarding of all projects.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Malcolm Margolin's book, The Earth Manual: How to Work with Nature to Preserve, Restore, and Enjoy Wild Land Without Taming It (copyright © 1975, 1985 by Malcolm Margolin). The book is available for $8.95 postpaid (California residents add state sales tax) from Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA.