Willows add colour to landscape

The scenery of Alberta is at its most colourful in September. Hues of green, yellow, gold and orange, all set off with brilliant blue skies.

The scenery of Alberta is at its most colourful in September. Hues of green, yellow, gold and orange, all set off with brilliant blue skies. Most of us like viewing some colour in our landscape during all seasons. But that is a tough thing to do in this part of Alberta. Winter comes and the colour goes.

Looking out the kitchen window, last year, on one cold January day, at the barren landscape I began to ponder how I might add some vibrant colour.

Spruce and pine add much needed green in the dead of winter, in counterpoint to the drab and dreary gnarly-snarly browns and beiges of the leafless poplar trees which add contrast, but little in the way of warmer colours.

In my travels around the countryside I have noticed that the “golden” variety of willow might offer a quick solution, adding both colour and contrast.

I have seen many farmyard windbreaks planted using this species.

They appeared to be attractive, leafed out early, kept their leaves into November, grew quite tall, and seemed resistant to disease. And once the leaves are gone, their golden orange bark shines warm in the sun to add spice to open spaces.

I have noticed that willows are one of the fastest growing trees and can reach a height of 10 to 15 inches about three years, and appear to grow another three feet every year until they reach a height of 20 to 30 feet. Willows seemed to be the answer. They are colourful, fast growing, and hardy to weather and pests.

Over the years I have noticed that willows propagate themselves along the banks of streams and almost any willow stick in the mud begins to bud and grow once the frost comes out of the ground.

And I had a vague recollection of reading, some long time ago, about two lovers in the 17th century who sent sealed letters to each other. One of the lovers had sent the other a letter sealed with wax and a parcel clasped with a small willow branch.

The recipient kept the willow and in the spring put it in a glass of water, and was amazed that it began to sprout root hairs.

He planted it in reverence to his maiden, and the willow grew into a tall tree. I thought I could do that, with or without a lover. Maybe, I could grow some willow trees without much cost.

I phoned some tree nurseries about availability and price.

I was told that different species would be available in May.

Although prices were reasonable for a ‘bare-root’ seedling, my financial nest had shrunk.

Like many other seniors with safe GIC’s as the main source of investment income, the low interest rates resulted in much fewer disposable dollars. I would have to plant my willows on the cheap. Some of us old codgers out west can do almost anything once we set our minds to it.

So, in February I drove around to a few neighbouring farmers who I knew, and who had willow hedges, shelterbelts or windbreaks. I asked permission to cut some willow branches and was told to ‘have at it’.

In no time at all, I cut about fifty willow branches ranging in length from 3 feet to 6 feet in length and from pencil size in diameter up to thumb size. I took these branches home, cut them all into about 18 inch lengths and stuck them in some 5-gallon pails. I now had more than 100 willow cuttings. I put them in the unheated garage shed and covered them with a tarp to keep any sun off them.

Along about mid April, I brought the pails of willow cuttings out of the shed and let the sun warm them though the warm spring days. I added a few inches of water to the pail, which froze most nights but melted by the afternoon. By early May the willow cuttings were beginning to show some bulges on the bark that looked like swelling buds. And by mid May some green buds and leaves were beginning to unfurl. Getting this far with little effort was easy.

The hard part was soon to come. And being a lazy gardener, I wanted to take some of the drudgery out of planting over a hundred willows. How to prepare the places for planting without a lot of shovel work? Using my front end loader I skimmed off several inches of grass and left a shallow wallow hole in the ground. I was thinking that this method would take-out the competition of grass and weeds as well as provide a larger drainage basin to catch and retain any natural moisture from the spring rains. These shallow holes soon became rain softened.

Being a mechanical man, I then welded a one-inch crowbar onto the front-end-loader and drove around punching holes in these areas to a depth of about 2 feet. The only thing remaining to do was walk around with my willow cuttings and shove them into the holes with only a few inches showing above ground. I then watered them in to get sediment packed around the buried cuttings.

In a few weeks most of them (75 per cent) had formed leaves and new branches and began growing quickly to reach the sun.

It is now mid September and most of the cuttings are about two to three feet in height.

I suppose the real test for success will be to see how they overwinter, and how many of them commence to grow another few feet next summer. With a bit of luck I am thinking that even if half of the willow cuttings survive, I will have added colour to my landscape in only a few years, at minimal cost, and minimal effort.

I also walked along the creek bank where the mud is soft, and simply pushed some willow cuttings a foot or more into the mud. Many of these also leafed out, and a willow-lined stream may be in my future.

Paul Hemingson is a freelance writer who lives near Spruce View. His column appears every other week in LIFE.

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