Propagating Willow Trees for Soil Erosion Control

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/MIKHAIL MARKOVSKIY
The cuttings should be at least 18 inches long and at least a half-inch thick to create new trees for soil erosion control.

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.

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