We first planted a willow hedge in 2009. Since then we’ve taken cuttings almost every year to plant around the farm. These cuttings are known as ‘rods’. Coppicing the willow makes it sprout multiple stems from the base, meaning that the next year you have a bushier hedge and even more rods to plant. Willow roots very easily thanks to high levels of rooting hormones in the bark. A willow rod stuck in the ground overwinter will soon root and after just a couple of years you’ll be able to harvest rods from it. You can even make your own ‘rooting tea’ using chopped up willow twigs (no leaves or older branches) soaked in water. This tea can be used to stimulate root development in other plants.
Over the last two winters we’ve been planting a willow ‘fedge’. A fedge is a cross between a fence and a hedge – hence the name. There are lots of benefits to creating a living fence, and in this post we’ll explain to how go about planting / constructing one.
We decided to plant a fedge for a number of reasons. We wanted to separate our garden from the access road, but as there was more than 100m to cover, a wooden fence worked out to be rather expensive even if we did the work. The willow fedge cost a total of £40 for weed suppressant, although we did have some other materials lying around (one of the perks of living on a farm!). The fedge should also outlast a fence – as it is living it shouldn’t starting rotting for decades. On top of that, it also has wildlife benefits and looks very attractive!
- Willow rods approximately 6 – 8ft in length (see below for more details)
- A couple of sturdy fence posts and some thinner posts (plus a post rammer or postcrete)
- Fencing wire (as long as your fedge plus a few metres) and fixings (such as U nails)
- Weed Suppressant (or lots of mulch)
- A metal stake and hammer (depending on your soil type)
- Wood chipping / mulch
- Manure or compost (optional)
The first step in creating a willow fedge is to ensure that the site is suitable. Willow roots can be very invasive and you should not plant close to foundations or drains (the roots can be a major problem if they get into your drains). Although willow is often seen in damp areas there are varieties which will grow very well in a wide range of soils. We have a hybrid salix viminalis that grows happily in our soils at the top of the farm, which are thin and brashy with deposits of heavy clay in places. If you buy rods from a supplier then they will help you to select the correct variety. You can harvest them yourself (with necessary permissions), but you should look for shrubby varieties of willow, rather than creating a fence of weeping willows! Rods bought from suppliers will usually be one year old – many are only 12″ long, which is perfect for a hedge but specify that you want to create a fedge. We’ve found that two year old rods tend to grow faster once planted but they are significantly harder to weave. If you collect your own then you’ll need to find willows that have been recently coppiced or pollarded as these will put out large numbers of suitable rods for weaving. Choose the straightest rods as these will be easier to work with. You should plant in the winter – after leaves have dropped and before the plants start budding. Planting should be done when the soil is damp and not frozen. We usually plant in February, but everything seems to be happening early this year! It’s important not to leave rods hanging around before planting. If you can’t plant them immediately then put them in a bucket of water and keep somewhere cool but not freezing. The number of rods you’ll need depends on your spacing. We planted ours at roughly 18 rods per 3m stretch, meaning that there was approximately 30cm between each parallel rod (more on this later). Although this kind of fence is relatively cheap and fairly easy to construct it does take quite a while to build a long stretch, so be prepared to spend a few half days on your fedge.
Start by cutting the grass short and plotting the fedge layout. Sweeping bends are much easier to weave than sharp bends. I put a line of well rotted manure down. This isn’t necessary but does give the willow a helping hand, especially if the soil is poor. On top of the manure I secured weed matting. You can buy this in various widths – I cut a 1m wide roll in half. The weed membrane also isn’t vital, but we’ve found that willow planted with it tends to grow much faster, especially in the first few years, due to the lack of competition. You can use a thick layer of mulch instead, but take care not to pile too thickly around the base of the willow rods as they can rot. If mulching add this after planting the willow or it’ll be much harder to find your planting holes! I secured the membrane with ground pegs on either side.
The next step is to cut a cross into the membrane where the posts will be. You’ll need a sturdy post at either end, and some in the middle of the fedge if it’s a long run. I used a post rammer to knock the posts in, but if you prefer to use postcrete then you’ll need to dig a hole and secure post before laying the weed membrane. Our posts are about 4 1/2ft high from the ground (about 6ft in total). When selecting posts make sure that your willow rod is at least 3ft higher than the fence, so that you have enough to wind in around the top wire once the willow is planted at an angle. Once the end posts are in it’s time to put in the smaller posts in between. The purpose of these is to hold the wire at the right height and to form the curve if your fedge isn’t straight. We cut hazel from the hedgerow (and sharpened one end with an axe) because they were free, but you could use any small stake. Our stakes were placed approximately every three meters. If the curve of your fedge is tighter then you’ll need to use stakes every 2m or perhaps even less. Some people use a small stake between every diagonal rod. This can look nice, but will be more work. I cut a groove in the top of the stakes so that the wire would sit nicely – this groove should run in the direction of the fedge. Secure the wire to one of the end posts by placing it in the groove on the top of the post and nailing it down with a U nail. You should leave enough of a tail on the wire to wrap around the post a few times and then nail it down again. Continue the wire to the next post and nail it into the groove again. This is much easier with two people – you want to wire to be taut, without pulling the smaller post over. Be careful when nailing the wire into the smaller posts as you can easily split them. Continue this process, ensuring each part is taut, all the way to the end post and secure the wire. You should end up with a structure that looks something like this:
The seventh post in this run (about 21 metres) is a larger post, as are the two end posts. The posts and wire won’t be particularly strong yet, but the strength comes from weaving the willow in. To plant the willow rods you’ll need to make a hole in the membrane. I did this with a long ground spike, and hammered this in to about 10″. Our soil is quite brashy and heavy with clay in places so this was necessary to plant the rod, but if you have a light soil then you can probably just push the rod straight in. If you do make a planting hole then ensure that it isn’t much larger than the rod, otherwise water will pool around the willow and cause it to rot. The willow rod, and therefore the planting hole, want to be at an angle in order to weave them. We went for approximately 60°, although it varied a fair bit. Start at one end and push the willow rod at least 6″ into the ground, or as deep as your planting hole. Eight inches or more is preferable and will give the willow a better chance of surviving its first year. Where the willow meets the wire gently bend it around the wire and keep wrapping it around the wire all the way to the tip of the willow. Don’t kink or sharply bend the willow as it might die at the top if you snap the bark. Plant all of the willow rods in one direction (sloping the same way), winding the ends around the wire as you go. The gap between the rods can be any size – we went for about 30cm. The last rods can be wrapped around the end post and back to the wire – depending on the thickness you may need to slowly bend the rod using your thigh in order to wrap it around the end post without snapping it. Once all rods have been planted in one direction it’s time to weave in the rods in the other direction.
The rods need to be woven in so that the structure is rigid. If you look carefully at the picture above you’ll see that the rods cross each other on opposite sides. Starting from the top of the fedge, thread the rod down, ensuring that if it crosses the first rod on the back it crosses the second on the front and third on the back. The number of crossing points will depend on fedge height and planting angle. Once you’ve pushed the base of the rod into the ground you can wind the top around the wire. This is usually in the opposite direction to the last rod that it crossed.
Once you’ve done a few rods you’ll really start to notice the whole structure becoming much firmer. Some people bend the rods all the way over and back to the ground, but these are more likely to fail as the sap doesn’t flow downhill as readily. The photos above and below show a fedge after one year’s growth, before pruning and weaving in.
Once you have woven all the rods in the fedge should be very sturdy. If any of the rods are loose where they wind around the wire then you can use twine or ties to secure them. To finish the fedge we put a layer of wood chippings on the weed membrane. This looks nicer and also helps retain moisture, which is very important in the first year. The fedge should be almost maintenance free in the first year or two. If it’s very dry then you can water – we lost some rods last year due to the dry spring. After the first year we wind in the growth beneath the wire, to thicken the fedge, and leave the growth above the wire. In the second year we usually cut back all of the top growth, including the growth from the previous season, and then continue to do this every year. The willow will grow tall from the wire unless you prune it back, and could become top heavy. The fedge should begin to ‘pressure graft’ where rods cross. You may have seen this in old hedgerows, where two trunks fuse together. This will make the fedge even stronger.
We planted naturalising daffodils and snakeshead fritillaries between the fedge and road, to add some colour and interest before the fedge is in leaf. In the shot below you can see most of the fedge – due to the length we planted this over two years as we didn’t have enough long rods (or time!) to do it one one go. Hopefully it’ll continue to do well over the coming years.
Willow is very flexible and hardy, and you can try all sorts of styles and patterns. You can even incorporate sculptures and arches into the willow fedge. If you have any questions about fedging then leave us a comment or send an email and we’ll try to help. Good luck!