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WEAVING THE WILLOW

(published in the January 1999 issue of The English Garden magazine)

On a sparkling day late last winter, as an excuse to escape the stuffy studio, I suggested an office outing. "We could visit the Somerset Levels to learn more about this ubiquitous woven willow." I had seen all the covetable bowers, plant supports and arches displayed at Chelsea and Hampton Court and my garden design clients often ask about them. But driving along the flat Somerset lanes bounded by eerily gnarled and coppiced willow stumps I began to understand that the appeal of this most basic and ancient material lay in more than its most recent incarnation as bijou knick-knacks for the garden.

Near Taunton, at the Willows and Wetlands Centre run by the Coate family, willow growers and merchants for many generations, we enjoyed our glimpse into the history of man's use of willow. From the domestic and agricultural artefacts to the seat from one of the earliest fighter aircraft, woven wood was an integral part of everybody's lives. Although it has now been usurped by modern materials, in the garden we can still appreciate its special properties of practicality and decorativeness.

We came away from our visit clutching a pair of woven obelisks, wads of green willow withies and bundles of sticks. We used them to weave into 10" high mini-hurdles which did splendid service throughout the summer supporting plants and persuading marauding pets to "keep off". This was the start of my interest in the use of woven wood and it has inspired me to include it in my designs.

The classic use is as hurdles for screening. Where a garden abutts the countryside then there is no better boundary material - any other fencing jars. Hurdles give instant privacy, and a hedge planted next to them will benefit from the shelter until, after a few years, just as the hurdles gracefully disintegrate, it is ready to take over. In Wiltshire, where I live, hazel is the indigenous hurdle material, however, willow is more malleable. English Hurdle in Somerset have a range of screens which show off their craftsmen's weaving skills and which are exported all over the world.

Some of these panels such as their "East Lambrook" hurdle create airy divisions within the garden giving glimpses of what lies beyond. Delicate climbers such as Clematis flammula or annual sweet peas look charming frothing over the edges - it is never a good idea to plant heavy climbers as the weight will hasten the demise of the hurdle. It is recommended that they are treated regularly with the traditional mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine which again limits your choice of plants. But, this, to my mind, is no hardship as I vastly prefer the bold textural look of the woven withies to a shapeless overgrown mass.

Other striking structures are the conical plant supports. Ours have been paired with wood-fired pots set either side of railway sleeper steps down into our woodland. They say "here is an entrance - but not too grand a one". I am growing up them that stunning amethyst-berried climber Billardiera longiflora.

Such is the adaptability of woven wood that, although in my country garden it blends into the landscape, it can metamorphose into the star turn. When combined with metal to form an arch, the ripples of the withies and the smoothness of the metal set up a tension of their own. Imagine this as part of a bold design incorporating flat cubes of clipped box and strongly coloured walls on which, like pieces of art, are hung unadorned panels of Vertical Plant Climbers.

The perfect place, of course, of which to dream of this modern courtyard would be lazing in a bower seat. These woven covered seats are immensely covetable, though you must protect your investment with the linseed oil medicament. You can even make one yourself.(*3)

An exciting development is the use of living wood. Julie Toll's Evening Standard Chelsea garden (since re-built at Wisley) features a living willow trellis. Now (January/February) is the perfect time to push red and bronze hued rods diagonally into a well-prepared trench of moist loamy soil and then tie them together in a diamond pattern. Watered and mulched, the rods will take root and spring into leaf. The fronds can be laced through the structure or trimmed off for a crisper outline. You can even buy the rods already tied together in a hedging roll for erecting/planting into position.

This could just hide the compost heap but I was inspired to use it more imaginatively. I had been asked by a client to design an area which would give secrecy and mystery for her children. I wanted to reproduce the experience of discovering that overgrown path at the back of Victorian shrubberies. But in a bare open site, and quickly...? By taking stepping stones off one corner of the stone terrace through a gravel garden and out across the lawn I indicated an entrance into a "Living Willow Secret Curl" where the 5' high walls of willow enclose a narrow path leading to a small central "room".

This technique is easy enough for us all to master, though skilled willow sculptors such as Clare Wilks can create vastly more intricate structures such as tunnels and tree houses, and Serena de la Hey's flowing willow sculptures challenge the onlooker.

All these lovely decorative uses of willow certainly enhance our enjoyment of our gardens which in turn give us precious and essential breathing space in our modern world. I must say, though, that on a recent journey I was delighted to see this ancient material being used in a very practical down-to-earth way - special woven panels were being anchored down flat onto the sides of motorways stabilising the soil and so enabling ground cover to establish. And, of course, if this technique is used on river embankments then the willow itself will root. Both of which are, come to think of it, ideas which could be used in those difficult areas of our gardens, proving that willow still has an essential workman-like role.

Copyright Christina Oates

I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS ARTICLE INTERESTING AND HELPFUL BUT, AS USUAL, PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED AND NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE REPRODUCED, STORED IN A RETRIEVAL SYSTEM, OR TRANSMITTED, IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS, ELECTRONIC, MECHANICAL, PHOTOCOPYING, RECORDING OR OTHERWISE WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.

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