Propagating Willow Trees for Soil Erosion Control

Learn how easy it is to propagate willow trees for soil erosion control on your homestead property.

| March/April 1986

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.

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