I've been having a love affair with living fences for years. A few Floriade festivals ago in Holland, a magical two story house and long winding tunnel arbour were created from basket woven living willow, taking the idea far beyond that of simple fencing. Somehow a kind of alchemy takes place inside these living structures; walking through them, sitting in them, has an other-worldly feeling. The current fascination with all things medieval from banquets and weddings to mock battles and tournaments, very much including medieval gardens in which I tend to spend a lot of time, has seen a revival in many ancient crafts including the art of making living willow fences. Nowhere are they more widely seen than in France where many authentically recreated or restored medieval gardens have been constructed around ancient monasteries, abbeys, and chateaux. The one pictured on the left is built around a lavender garden at Le Jardin de l'Alchimiste (The Alchemist's Garden), a stunning medieval re-creation at Mas de la Brune in Eygalieres-en-Provence.
These living fences were originally constructed for less than romantic reasons, to exclude wandering livestock (and thieves) from vegetable and herb gardens. But the medieval gardener also created ornamental open woven diamond patterned fences and tunnel arbours for pleasure gardens.
There are various ways of creating living willow fences, so this is the way I make them. Nothing roots more easily than willow cuttings. The white willow Salix alba is the willow of choice for fences. Cuttings of most plants get progressively more difficult to root the greater their length, but not the willow. Provided it is in moist soil, well firmed down and given some support to prevent root rock, even long branches will take quite easily.
Before starting, a trellis in the form of posts with wire strung taut between them needs to be constructed to provide support while the fence becomes established. I like to use three levels of supporting wire, the top one at the final fence level. The more rustic the supporting posts, the better the fence looks. Whatever height fence you choose, you will need to allow extra length for the willow cuttings as the base of each is buried in soil for the first 20 cm of its length and is inserted at a slope of 45 degrees rather than vertically. But no advanced Pythagorean calculations are needed. Just insert the bottom of an experimental length of willow at 45 degrees so that the bottom 20 cm are covered by soil. Mark off where the cutting intersects the top wire of the support fence. Add 7.5 cm (3 inches) to allow for the interweaving of the cuttings and to be on the safe side. Cut the stem at this final length and use it as a template to cut all the willow branches. If you plan to make a few willow fences, it is worth marking a length of wood dowelling to indicate the cutting lengths needed for a 1.0 m, 1.5 m and 1.8 m willow fences. (Don't worry if the cuttings are not of even thickness - it really doesn't matter.) Measure out the length of the fence to ensure you have enough cuttings including one to complete the row. I leave gaps of 20 cm (8 inches) but some use a gap of 25 cm (10 inches). If you would like to have turf grown up to the fence, lay an unobtrusive mowing strip similar to that in the image above.
Begin constructing the fence by rubbing off all the leaf shoots and buds from each cutting leaving two or three intact at the top. Nip out the tip of the cutting. If you have good deep moist soil, the willow cuttings can be inserted directly into the soil. I haven't got the perfect willow soil so I start bundles of willow cuttings in a deep bucket half filled with water and take them out for planting when white roots just begin to emerge. The image above makes it fairly clear I think how to plant the fence. Water the soil thoroughly the day before planting. Start by pushing a row of cuttings in at the chosen interval and at an angle of 45 degrees, making sure they are inserted well into the soil. When the fence is completed in one direction, go back and insert cuttings close to the same positions but angled at 45 degrees in the opposite direction. Weave the cuttings in and out (some stouter pieces may defy being woven but that doesn't matter). Now use soft ties (I've yet to find anything better than strips of old tights) to hold the woven fence against the three support wires, making sure each tip is securely fastened to the top wire.
Spring will get this project off to a quick start in milder climates provided the soil moisture is maintained. In Mediterranean climates, latish winter is ideal. The tops will begin to grow and leaf out if your hedge is successful but check for any side or bottom shoots that you may have missed (there are a few coming from the base in the lower image) and remove them quickly. Check that no ties are biting into the stems. Give the top growth a quick lop over once or twice a year to keep it green and lush. The support wires can always be removed once the fence is well established (usually about three years).
One day I just have to build a willow house. Being short sighted, I will pretend to be Mole as I listen to the wind in the willows.
If you share my love of medieval gardens, you might like to look for my book on medieval gardens and gardeners In A Unicorn's Garden (Murdoch Books) on Amazon in the UK at www.amazon.co.uk or the USA at www.amazon.com or in your favourite bookshop. Please do check my author website blogs and cottage blog by following the links on the home page of
© Judyth McLeod