Growing up with a suburban backyard full of large willow trees, I had strong, uncharitable feelings about willows. They were forever dropping limbs and making a mess of the lawn I was charged with maintaining. So it is with a sense of irony that I find myself this week planting willows. But the management goals for a backyard aren’t the same as the goals for a pasture, so my tree prejudices have shifted.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago our work planting Honey Locust trees to complement our pastures. But we’ve been at it with other trees as well. Harry and I have been planting sprouted red oak acorns in pots. And this week we took cuttings of a nice willow tree to propagate and plant near in a low-lying pasture near a stream.
During high school some of our backyard willow trees blew down in storms. One thing that amazed me was that two-foot diameter rounds of tree trunks, if left on the ground, would sometimes grow roots and sprout. Willow’s indomitable eagerness to regrow makes it a great plant for propagation.
Willow cuttings can be rooted in a pot of water. We have a few of them soaking on the kitchen windowsill this week as a learning project. But recently cut willow stakes can also take root directly in the soil, so that is the approach we are using. We drove the propagation stocks into the ground using a fence post driver. Since the ground near the stream is waterlogged, driving them was pretty easy. We just pounded them in until we had two feet of the stake below the surface.
Harry has been increasingly interested in plants, so it was fun to have him along as a companion on this project. He’s been learning to ask the important ecosystem-level questions about how grasses, trees, and animals, both wild and domesticated, can all fit together. Our goals are: increasing the complexity of the farm ecosystem, encouraging more water- and carbon-cycling, creating more variety of areas of sun and shade, and providing more habitat. Willow leaves and branch tips provide high quality forage for cattle, deer, and rabbits.
It is fitting that we planted the trees on Earth Day, but I didn’t realize the coincidence until a day later. Maybe that’s appropriate. Earth Day can be a stunt, or it can be part of a way of life.
We’ll check back on this project later. Willows are fast-growing trees so there’s relatively short-term satisfaction in watching them grow. Unlike our red oak seedlings, in just ten years these little twigs should turn into substantial trees. That is, if we can prevent the cattle from eating them down the first year…
Since I had help from Harry, I’ll quote his favorite author JRR Tolkien in what I suppose could be a benediction on the willow trees, or at least a handy magic spell to use on them in case they decide to turn malicious:
“Old Man Willow… Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water!”