As the winter months beckon, structural plants in the garden come to the fore and stand out from the crowd, providing fantastic colour and texture through the quieter months.
There are many shrubs that provide winter interest, whether it be flowers or coloured stems; but one of the best - and easiest to grow - are the willows. The best varieties for winter stem colour are varieties and cultivars of Salix alba.
To get the best stem colour from them cut hard back in early spring to one or two buds above the previous season's cut. This will trigger the willow to put on lots of strong new growth through the season and it is this young new growth that produces the best colour the following winter.
For the most vibrant colours, willows are best grown in a sunny position where the sun will help ripen the stems. Although willows like the sun, they won’t put on as much new growth if the soil is dry, therefore they are best grown in a moisture-retentive soil. They also benefit from being fed (after they have been pruned) with a fertiliser such as Growmore which will encourage the strong new growth.
There are several different selections of willow but one of the best is Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’ which has rich red stems: and at RHS Garden Hyde Hall you can find this selection near the garden entrance. Other good ones include ‘Britzensis’ which has bright orange and red stems and you can find this around the Upper and Lower Ponds where its stems reflect brilliantly in the water.
Willows also work well in mixed plantings, particularly when they are associated with drifts of grasses such as Miscanthus and Calamagrostis whose foliage provides extra structural interest through the winter months.
At Hyde Hall we use willows in groups on Clover Hill in a naturalistic planting scheme and many of them are weaved into fantastic shapes at this time of year. Using this season’s growth, these amazing shapes will hold their structure through until the spring when we cut them back.
Using living willow in your garden
Find suppliers and cultivation details for different species and varieties of willow