Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pruning the Overgrown: Dappled Willow

(Perspective makes it appear as if the dappled willow is half the size of my hobbit home. Not the case, it is a mere five feet by five feet in this picture. In the location in my garden, a more manageable 3 1/2' by 3 1/2' feet is more to my liking.)

I've yet to see a mass planting of dappled willows. I rarely see them in botanical gardens, either. However, for about 2-3 months of each year, visitors to my yard are bowled over upon viewing mine. Even my neighbor, Dr. Darrel Apps (who should know better!), has succumbed to the allure of the dappled willow, planting a rooted cutting of mine in his front yard.

I attempt to keep mine "in check", meaning it seems like I am checking/pruning it all the time.

I'll also be the first to admit that at times I've let my dappled willow get to be too much of a good thing. Like the commercial when the grade-schooler attempts to define less and more, we gardeners tend to always want more. A word of advice, more in the case of the dappled willow rapidly becomes unruly and overgrown.

This constant gardener thing is probably why botanical gardens fail to plant this lovely. It needs a one on one relationship with a pruner.

At this point I would love to have some cohesive pictures of the pruning of a dappled willow. I do not. Photojournalist have not applied to document this aspect of my on-going pruning war. (Come back in late July, maybe I'll take the time to document in pictures then.)

I will admit, like the gardener with the hedgers locked under glass, preferring to hand-prune, I have broken out the hedger. This approach is a bit like using a wrecking ball to kill a housefly, and not recommended. I've used this approach a couple times. The result is much less than satisfactory, with frayed cuts when nice clean ones are preferred. Willows, because of their stringy bark which does endear them to basket makers, and hedgers are not simpaticos.

Once you have established the best size for your willow and regularly cut it to that height, over time it becomes an easier and easier task to see where you need to make your cuts. The new growth will be thin pencil-straight and the hard-pruned areas of your shrub will take on a branching appearance. Often by the time pruning time comes around your willow will put on 10" to 18" of new growth. It is this new growth, after the color changes from the white to pink and into the green of chlorophyll producing foliage, which needs to be removed to keep your willow looking its best. For me, here in central Wisconsin this tends to be in the beginning of July. Additional pruning for size and shape can be done up until about eight weeks before your frost date in fall. You want to allow sufficient time for any new growth to harden off. I have found I prefer a ovid shape (like an egg laying on its side), and given the location of my shrub, this works very well for me. This is not the shape I recommend for the pruning of box or privet (or even dare you prune them, conifers).

Last year this color change for my dappled willow came about eight weeks into one of the hottest, blistering droughts I have ever seen in central Wisconsin. One cool evening, as I was starting my pruning process, I noticed that typically where there are lots of leaves to provide sugars to the roots growing in the branched areas of my shrub, this year there were none. For those of you not aware, willows need/love moisture. There is a reason for the iconic image of the graceful weeping willow draped over the shoreline of a creek or pond. They are wetland lovers. Once established, willows have no problem sourcing their moisture needs as their fibrous roots will travel far and wide to obtain the moisture they need (Do not plant these beauties near septic, or sewer lines!) Even in my well-watered and mulched garden, my willow was having a hard time of it. (I believe due to the heat. Its chlorophyll production was totally being produced by the new growth. Prune this off all at once, I would run the risk of pushing this plant beyond its levels of endurance, even as well-established as mine appeared to be.

I devised a plan to remove the new growth in stages, approximately a 1/8-section of the plant down to the branching area at two-week intervals. This I felt would encourage growth on the inner branching areas of the shrub where the mature branches would produce primarily green foliage.

I took this picture today and it shows this structure more clearly.

(The above picture is from the same perspective as the second picture in this post.)

Only the foliage growth on new wood seems to have the intense coloration for which I grow this shrub. I also increased the watering of this shrub throughout the rest of the summer. For any of you thinking of taking your 8' to 10' willow down to a 3' to 4' more manageable size; this might be a good plan for you as well.

Part of your pruning program should also allow for the entire shrub to be cut to the ground every 3-5 years. Choose a couple of the oldest branches and cut them off at ground level each year.

Snow Report- Comparison

Last year on this day my PJM rhododendron was in full bloom. This year, I can't find it under the snow bank.

However, the 4" deep "lake" that covered my parking space in my yard suddenly disappeared, meaning the ground has finally unfrozen in at least one spot in my yard!

In other on-going snow news, the snow-loading of my yard by a neighbor has me more and more concerned. THIS shoving of his snow away from his garage (and into my spruce) so the melt would not run into his garage was not "okay." (How is it I can spot non-gardeners by observing their other actions?) I can see already there may be damage. Just in case he can not "remember" all his snow pushed up on my trees and shrubs and cannot imagine how all those branches got broken and shrubs scraped off and up-rooted...

...a little chat will be forthcoming once the snow melts. I want to be VERY clear. Not "okay."

POSTSCRIPT: My dappled willow seems to have its own fan club. I wanted to publish some recent pictures of my shrub which is now over ten years and has almost died once after a drought, but is in all its glory at the moment, June, 9, 2016.

Currently about 3' tall by 4' wide


  1. I've always wanted to grow native shrub willows of some kind, they are hosts for lots of different butterflies. As to the neighbor, oof. Good luck with him. He doesn't read your blog, does he?

  2. I am fairly new to Dappled Willow but already I'm in love. I've had my shrub about 2 years and this year I bought a second one - :-)

    I found you when I was looking for a source of information on pruning this beautiful plant. Thank you for this comprehensive information. I'm sure it will be of great value to me.

    I'm in Michigan

  3. I have a dappled that is 8 years old. It is as wide as tall. I'm starting to hate it. It has overtaken my side yard. I can't cut grass without crawling around getting my hair wrecked. It is overwhelming. How much can I cut off?

    1. I wouldn't worry about how much you prune off. Cut it to the size you desire. When it has grown back out 6" cut out 1/3 of the biggest and oldest shoots. Prune it the end of every June and again when it goes dormant.

  4. Thank you for all the details. I noticed this willow on my morning walks with mom and am thoroughly convinced I want one to plant near the fence in the back yard for more privacy. The only question I have is, would it do well near a fir tree? Obviously the fir boughs will block to rain and the soil there is dry for that reason. Another question regarding this location - Do you think pests or disease would be encouraged? We're in NW Oregon and do get plenty of rain and generally mild winters
    Many Thanks in advance

  5. I have not nattacked by any sort of pest. although I believe borers of some sorts are a possibility. I believe an unpruned mature specimen might reach 8' by 8'. They definitely need moisture the first couple years in order to establish themselves. We had a severe drought here a few summers back and a long run of 90 degree days and they took their toll on my shrub. Much of it died that year and I trimmed nearly all of it to the ground. Its shrubby habit saved it as it regrew from the root. This shrub is hardy to possible zone 2. You will have the best color in full sun on new growth.

  6. 13 months later our dappled willows are doing well and in need of trimming. Thanks so much for your encouragement

    1. Glad to hear it! Trim away! They look great!

  7. I'm slightly terrified now because I just put one in for a foundation plant and really hoped I can keep on top of it to stay about 5ft at the most. I guess I'll see! I also have one in back that is huge and not sure how old it is, but has very thick woody stems - like 5 inches in diameter. I'd guess it's 12ft tall. I've tried to prune it and thin out the branches but gotten overwhelmed. I'm now thinking I'll just go out there and get at it and whatever happens, happens. If it dies, I will not be too distraught over it.

    1. You have to trim them about two feet shorter than the height at which you want to maintain them. the one you mention in the back, I would not be afraid of taking it right to 6" from the ground. I took mine to the ground after a drought and it is fine.