HOW TO: Maintaining Living Willow Structures

We have lots of different living willow structures around The Garden of Re-Imagination from fedges (fence hedges!) to an onion shaped arbour & harlequin willow trees! My favourite thing about them is that they don’t rot in our damp climate! Unlike other cut timber features, living willow structures actually get stronger over time as they grow & develop. So whether one of your lockdown gardening projects was to make a willow tunnel or you’ve been given the job of looking after an archway or arbour in a community garden or school grounds; this blog post will give you all the basics on how to maintain living willow structures, keeping them healthy & thriving for years to come!

An Onion shaped Arbour made from living willow. Currently half an onion until the willow grows tall enough to be woven together at the top!


  • Sharp secateurs & loppers
  • Hand fork
  • Trugg
  • Garden compost or wood chip to mulch

What to do:

Step 1:- Trim out the 3 D’s

  1. Choose a sunny, dry day for this job. In damp, wet conditions, fungal diseases & infections are more likely to affect freshly cut stems.
  2. Working your way along the structure, remove any dead, dying or diseased material as well as any new stems, cutting right back to the original main stems. Most of our structures follow a lattice pattern with the stems crisscrossing. The aim is to prune back to the original crisscross shape. This focuses the energy of each plant into the main stems, rather than a tangle of lots of little ones.
  3. TOP TIP: Whenever you’re pruning make sure you angle your cuts away from the main stem. Also only prune back to the collar of side shoots – see photos below of what not to do! Again this is to help prevent disease & rot.
  4. Pile up the healthy prunings behind you. I tend to divide prunings into separate piles as I go. Smaller new stems for chopping up to make a plant feed or weaving & the bigger new stems for replanting & repairing the main structure. The really tiny twiggy stems are dropped at the base of the structure to rot down & help feed next years growth.

Step 2:- Replant

  1. There will always be some of the main stems of your structure that don’t make it, worry not! The bigger new stems removed in step 1 will be used to replace any main stems which have died off.
  2. Take a thick pruned stem, cut the end at a sharp angle to make it easier to push into the ground. Follow the dead stem down from the top to the bottom, using it as a guide, weaving back & forth through the structure until you reach the soil. Then push the pointed end right into the earth, aiming to sink it down about about 1ft deep to ensure it will root successfully.
  3. Sometimes a main stem will die back partially with a flurry of new stems growing below. In this case, prune all the smaller stems off, leaving just the biggest strongest stem. Weave this upwards alongside the dead stem until they’re sitting alongside each other.
  4. TOP TIP: Use some of the tiny twiggy prunings you removed in step 1 to tie any replacement stems into the main structure to keep the overall shape you’re aiming for, in our case a crisscross lattice effect. See photo below.
Use any small willow prunings like twine to tie main stems in place.

Step 3:- How tall!?

  1. Now that you’ve done the sides, turn your attention to the tops. If you’re working with on an arbour, a tunnel or archway – anything that has a rounded top, weave any new growth in following the curve until you get to the top of the structure & then tie in & trim off any excess.
  2. If you’re working on a fedge, decide how tall you want it to be & then cut a length of timber to that height. Use this as a height gauge as you work your way along the fedge, holding it up against the fedge & then pruning the stems to height using a pair of loppers. This is much easier done with two people, one holding the height gauge & the other pruning. I’d recommend keeping your fedge within arms reach in height to avoid all the palava with ladders! Remember your fedge will re-grow in the Summer so you will quickly regain another 2-3ft.

Step 4:- Weed & Mulch

  1. First have a quick tidy. Gather up all the useable leftover stems & bundle together. Again I usually make a bundle of smaller stems for weaving with which are stored somewhere cool until I need them. The larger stems I bundle & stand in a trug of water for re-using to make new living structures around the garden or give to others to make one of their own! Prunings from the tops of structures are usually multi-stemmed so not so good for weaving into stuff or new living structures. Instead, we add this material to the tops of our dead hedges around the garden.
  2. Now that most of last years new growth has been trimmed away, it’s time to weed & mulch along the base. Remove any perennial weeds just along the bottom of the stems with a hand fork. These can be rotted down in a trug of water to make a great plant food. Then finish with a 3 inch layer of mulch – either garden compost or wood chip. This will feed your structure & help retain moisture through the Summer months.

Maintaining Harlequin Willow Trees

Maintaining harlequin willow trees is a little different with most of the work being done in the Summer rather than the Winter. To remind yourself of what to do when – think Summer = Side shoots & Winter = Weave.

Harlequin willow trees around the Botanical Bell Tent.

Summer = Side shoots

To maintain the bare stems of a harlequin willow tree you need to knock off any developing buds & side shoots on the main stems as they emerge from Spring through to Autumn. It’s a pretty quick job but one you need to do regularly. If the buds grow into small new stems, grab a pair of secateurs & snip them off.

Winter = Weave

  1. Weave in replacement stems just like in step 2 above.
  2. Make your harlequin willow tree taller by weaving new growth at the top, following the same pattern & process you used to make it to begin with. Just make sure to prune off the side shoots of the main stems before you start weaving so you have clean bare stems to work with.
  3. Once you’re happy with the height of your tree, tie the woven ends in their groups. If maintaining the height as is, refresh the ties & then prune back to about an inch or two above.
  4. Next years fountain of regrowth will come from this section of stem above the ties.
  5. Finally if your harlequin willow tree is potted, double check if it needs re-potting. If the roots have filled the existing pot & are coming out of the bottom, get a larger pot & replant with fresh compost.

Harlequin Willow Trees in barrel planters at the entrance to The Garden of Re-Imagination.

Maintaining living willow structures, giving them their annual hair-cut & tidy is really meditative work. You’ll find you get into a lovely rhythm & the hours just fly by. Do tag us in any photos on Facebook or Instagram – we’d love to see & hear how you get on!

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