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Willows Add Bee-Friendly Structure to Your Landscape

WETHERSFIELD, Conn. - There's more to the world of willows than what you might think.

Weeping willow. Pussy willow. That's it, right?

Michael Dodge, founder of Vermont Willow Nursery, gave the Connecticut Hardy Plant Society insight into the various varieties he cultivates on his 50 acres of land in Fairfield, Vt.

Michael Dodge spoke to the Connecticut Hardy
Plant Society during the group's April meeting.
He and his wife, Sonia, moved to Vermont in 2005 with retirement in mind. A trip in 2006 to the Montreal Botanic Garden changed his retirement plans when he viewed the living willow structures. Dodge realized his wet, loamy soil was perfect for growing willows.

"Most people think of willows, they think of weeping willows," he said during the group's April meeting. "I'm up to 250 different types of willows. I became an addict."

Now the nursery, in its third year, sells and ships its willow cuttings that range in size from 10 inches to 92 inches. "I ship 92 inch rods by FedEX ground - that's the maximum I can ship," he said. Searching through Dodge's website is a treat for the eyes. There are endless beautiful photos that make picking just one or two for the garden very difficult.

"Willows hybridize very easily. They are very promiscuous," said Dodge. "It's tough to be around them," he said with a smile.

His highlighted varieties:
  • Sageleaf willow, a Vermont native, makes a great ornamental shrub. "It is such a well-behaved willow. Everyone should grown them in their garden," Dodge said. "When I say use it in your garden, use it in your garden."
  • Japanese pink pussy willow which starts out pinkish-red and turns to gray, back to pink and then yellow in the spring.
  • Rubykins is another species that is native to Korea. "I cut mine back very hard every year," he said. It can reach 12 feet tall.
  • Snake curly willow is the "most jade-colored plant I know," he said.
  • Black pussy willow is unique because there are not many true black flowers in the plant world. It is recommended as a cut flower in late winter. 
  • Rosemary willow "is just gorgeous." (Enough said.)
A slide from Dodge's presentation shows a living willow
structure on his property in Vermont.
Willows like sun, not shade. For planting, you just stick rods in the ground - at least a foot. "Willows are remarkably tolerant of conditions," he said. "[Many] willows will grow in standing water." However, because willow roots actively search out water, do not plant them near a septic system or a foundation.

Willows are bee-friendly, because they flower earlier than other plants and provide nectar and pollen. Several varieties are deer-proof and even make great living fences (called fedges - half fence, half hedge).

"Willows are very versatile," he said.

* Before I found out Michael Dodge was visiting Connecticut to give a lecture, I had actually purchased willow cuttings online a week prior. My choices? Winter green, cordata, Continental Purple and Rouge Ardennais. Of course, I chose mine because I plan to take cuttings and feed them to my house rabbits, who devour dried willow leaves when given the chance. 

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