The Wonders of Willow – Even more willow magic!

We enjoyed a day playing with willow recently in the garden of friends Liz and Rich’s new home. They wanted us to build a play feature from willow for their youngsters Ella and Edward. So we arrived amongst the mess of builders’ vans, wheelbarrows encrusted in concrete, and piles of materials stripped out of the old house which is undergoing renovation.

We used some of the prunings from the pollarded Violet Willow in our garden which I shared in my recent post about my garden journal in February, along with lots of different coloured prunings from our allotment community garden which was also featured in an earlier post concerning the magic of willows. We found a suitable spot in the bottom of the garden partly shaded under mature trees and with a good amount of moisture in the soil under a layer of gravel. We collected our tools together, marked out the shape and loosened the top layer of soil.

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Before we could start placing the willow wands we had to remove the many little seedlings that had found their way into the moist gravel, an ideal seed bed. The first pic below shows just how many we found. They will find a new home at the allotments bartered in exchange for the willow prunings.  There was a good selection with wildlife value including Primroses, Pulmonarias, Arum Lily and seedling Hollies and Cotoneasters. Once clear the willows were put in place but we had to make a hole with an augur to get them in deeply. The shape was soon forming – an igloo of willow.

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We made a low entry tunnel and then moved on to the main body. The area around the cuttings and the ground inside was mulched with bark chip partly to keep the prunings moist to help rapid rooting but also to make a comfortable play surface.

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Five hours later it was finished and we had tidied up. We admired our handywork over a last cup of coffee and slice of Victoria Sponge. We reminded Liz to keep it well watered and took our tools back to the car, which was much more empty on our return journey than on our way  there in the morning.

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As the new house is not ready to move into yet we had to wait to see the children’s reaction until Liz brought them over to see it. When they came it was very well received! Liz said the children were so pleased with it that it made an enjoyable day even more worthwhile. Ella soon realised that it would be a good place for playing hide and seek and Edward took his role as an explorer very seriously. Here’s to loads of fun, smiles and shared times with friends for years to come. And of course it is another fine example of recycling in the garden.

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The Wonder of Willows – part three

So for the third in my posts about the wonder of willows we move to our allotment community garden site, Bowbrook Allotment Community (www.bowbrookallotments.co.uk)

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Here we grow many different varieties of Salix, willows with different habits, leaf shapes and in particular coloured bark. but before I move on to look at these I thought I would reminisce a little and cast my mind back to my childhood where willows played an important role. I lived in the vale of the River Severn in Gloucestershire and here, the lowland nature of the farmland meant that ditches had been dug for centuries around field boundaries to help with drainage.These ditches, and indeed every stream and brook was flanked with willows. These were pollarded and regularly harvested to be used by local craftsmen and women, the basket makers, trug makers and hurdle makers amongst them. But to me as a country lad they meant places to search for wildlife, to hide from the fishes I was angling for and in the case of the old giant hollow trunked willows they were dens to hide in. Below is a picture of a little clump of such pollarded willows in Herefordshire we spoted on our journey back from Croft Castle.

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Most of our allotment willows  grow in our Withy Bed designed to help drain a particularly wet patch of land but mostly to provide vivid colours when they are stripped of their leaves in the autumn and winter months. We also grow them to help drain a wet part of our Winter Garden. The photo below was taken looking through the willows towards the white barked Betulas and the coloured stems of the Cornus (Dogwoods). As well as draining this area so effectively they add so much winter structure and colour of their own to the picture. In the second picture of these same willows you can see they have just been subject to their annual haircut.

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The contorted willow below is one of two being trained up tall to weep over the top of the path behind the Winter Bed to form an archway.

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Each spring as the weather gets a little more conducive to outside work a group of us have our work cut out pruning so many willows, some we coppice and others we pollard at different heights. We have about twenty different cultivars here to enable us to achieve the effects that we are after. It takes a small team of volunteers a day’s work to get the task completed, resulting in some aching backs the following day. The first pair of photos shows a pair of before and after shots of one of our yellow stemmed coppiced willows.

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We set off with a wide range of pruners from small secateurs up to hefty loppers and slowly move from one end of the Withy Bed to the other with a good few tea breaks. We find it helpful to be bendy and wriggly to get in among the willows, bending low to the coppiced stools and reaching high to the tallest pollards and every combination in between.

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The prunings created when we cut them are used around the site to make structures and to create plant supports. But for this year many have been used while developing our new wildlife pond. The photos below show the prunings being kept fresh by being lain into the pond and illustrate the range of colours available to us.

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We have Violet Willow growing in the allotment’s Spring Garden which was a cutting off our tree at home and after four years it is a beautiful specimen which has sparkling silver catkins in Spring.

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Last year we created a Fedge with the prunings to give us a brightly coloured living willow fence. This acts as a useful windbreak and also hides part of the site’s manure/compost compound. In the winter when I took these pics it doesn’t hide much but the diamond shaped trellice effect shows up.

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The final post in this series about willows will show how we have used some prunings from home and from the allotments to create a children’s play feature.

 

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The wildlife pond and hide at BAC – part two

As promised we make a return visit to see the work we have been doing on the development of our pond and hide at our allotment site, Bowbrook Allotment Community. In this part we shall look at our hide, some tree surgery and our new duck tube.

So first let us return to our new hide. If you remember those pictures of us rolling the battered and rather shaky old shed you will be surprised by the photos of it finished. So how about a before and after pair of pics? We made the hide for our allotment youngsters, our Roots and Shoots group, to give them the chance to secretly and quietly watch the life of our pond. With this in mind we set to work on our renovation which took an amazingly large number of volunteer hours.

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Whenever we go by the pond we can’t help but smile at the transformation! As you can see the old hide was firstly repainted outside by my young apprentice Thomas before we handed it over to two volunteer helpers Sean and his Dad Vince. They are great carpenters so brilliant volunteer helpers to have on board. They put fresh felt on the roof and fabricated a strong framework inside the shed. They made a concrete and slab base and placed the newly strengthen shed on a framework of wooden struts.

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Thomas returned to give the shed another coat of wood preserver and I added a sign I created from wooden letters. It began to look the part from the outside but even more so once the two men added a new sheet of perspex to the window and added two hatches for clear viewing on dry days. These can be seen in the photo below.

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Within a few weeks Sean and Vince with extra help from Sean’s children had put up a noticeboard, made a kneeling bench and shelf for leaning on when the children used the hatches and window. The pictures below show first the bench and secondly the view the children get from the hatch.

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This is the view our Roots and Shoots youngsters will get as they open the hide door. You will see that Jude and I have added identification charts for birds and dragonflies and damselflies and a poster displaying the life on and under the surface of a pond. We also made a little bookcase from a vegetable crate and placed in it some wildlife books for youngsters. We also mounted a whiteboard on which we are inviting the children to note their observations. The final touches are a pair of binoculars a notebook for children to jot down their nature notes.

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Last job of course was a celebratory cup of coffee perching on the children’s bench and admiring everyone’s handiwork and great efforts.

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Now let us enjoy a bit of tree surgery carried out so professionally by some more of our volunteers, Pete and Mike. As mentioned in part one we have a few elderly Ash trees around the pond which for safety sake need remedial work. Earlier on we managed to pull down broken branches that had rotted but got tangled in the lower branches as they fell, but this day was a day for the chain saw attachment on our strimmer head to get in the action. One large branch hung right over the pond to the far bank and was slowly splitting so getting lower and lower. The final cut shows the weakness.

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First Mike and Pete looked and stared and studied! They needed a strategy!!

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This strategy involved rope thrown up and over a much higher and stronger upper bough, with which they could keep control of the branch once it was sawn through.

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Attachment attached and they were off!

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The cut bough hanging obediently could then be pulled in and dealt with on dry land. It will soon be seating for the youngsters, edging for borders and parts of insect homes and log piles and brash heaps to help attract ads shelter wildlife. We discovered an awful lot of rot within the bough so it was great relief to see it down. Trouble is there are a few more going the same way.

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Finally we need to look at our duck tube! The photo below shows why we need one! A pair of Mallards patiently waiting!

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Just follow the picture sequence below and watch Mike’s adventure. Before we made the dam and changed the drainage around it to gain depth for wildlfie the pond was rarely more than 6 inches or so deep!

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He is a good chap is Mike! What would we do without him? And below the duck tube in pride of place in the pond in a position where the children can watch activity from their new hide. Brilliant!

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We still have further work on the pond mostly planting but we have a plan for a floating island to give wildlife somewhere to find safety and shade. Pete and Mike have a plan as you might have guessed! But of course that may be the subject of a future post visiting our super wildlife pond! One piece of info I have not mentioned are the dimensions of the area, useful I think to put things in perspective and to emphasise the size of the project. The pool is 22 yards long by 11 yards at its widest point, and the marsh area at the one end is 9 yards by 7 yards at the widest point. Around the pool and marsh between the pond and the fence, the walk around together with the planted areas vary from 3 yards to 5 yards. Quite a size!

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The wildlife pond and hide at BAC – part one

When Bowbrook Allotment Community first opened we had a old farm pond on our boundary fence but it was fenced off and we had no access to it. After a few years though as the site was extended on the pond side it was integrated into our gardens and the town council put a low security fence around it with a lockable gate. We then had to wait for it to be released into our care which finally happened early in the winter of 2014. This is the story of what we have done to it so far and about our plans for its future.

Diggers came in and scooped out all sorts of rubbish thrown into the pond by the farmer over the years, rusted coils of barbed wire, rotting fence posts, old metal fences, branches and boughs of trees. The old puddled clay layer was exposed and smoothed off. The aroma was disgusting! Sadly there was little sign of plant or animal life in the pond. At least all this disturbance didn’t upset the wildlife, the birds soon returned to the trees.

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As a community garden determined to increase the biodiversity in our 6 acres there was no question that it would become a wildlife pond. To begin with we had to recontour the area between the pond itself and the fence to make passage around it easier and safer. It was hard graft and took a lot of volunteer hours to get it done.This will enable us to keep a path mown all the way around the pond for maintenance and enjoyment. But first we must rotavate the pathway to prepare it for grass seed sowing as soon as the weather allows.

You can see from the group of photos below the area we have to work with and the work we have done so far, the lopping of the trees, the path leveling and the preparation of the bog garden. The pond itself is about 20 x 10 metres and the marshy patch about 8 x 7 metres so pretty impressive! And then there is a margin area varying in width between just over a metre to about 4 metres. W have set ourselves a mammoth task! But we have allowed ourselves a year to get it right. So far things are moving along much more quickly than anticipated as opportunities have come our way.

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The next photo shows the bog area at the end of the pond where the drainage pipes from adjacent farm land brought the water into the pond. This was a steep sided marsh area with a tiny stream meadering through it. We have piped the water below the area now and re-contoured the sides to make it safer. This area will be planted with native and other wildlife attracting plants such as King Cup, Liatris, Yellow Flag and Flowering Rush.

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We have recently started the planting and will soon be adding far more. Some we will get as donations from our members and neighbours but others we will get from local nurseries once they have got their stocks out. So far we have planted different sorts of Irises, Water Mint, Water Forget-me-Not, Bog Beans and oxygenators. The first pair of pics shows Jude collecting plants from our pond at home and the second pair shows Sherlie planting some in the new pond.

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Several mature Ash trees surround the pond so some surgery was required to let more light in and help plants grow healthily. The bough below was slowly collapsing right over the water across to the far bank so caused us great concern. We had to cut it before it fell! We need to look after the health and safety of our members. I shall show this work in part two.

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We have put up nest boxes, created a bird feeding station and are creating lots of mini-beast and amphibian habitats. Several are up in the group of Ashes that border one end of the pond.

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We have created extra wildlife habitats and shelters along the perimeter fence creating them from recycled items and natural materials. 2015 03 16_99872015 03 16_9988 2015 03 16_9989          Probably one of the most exciting elements of the whole project has been the creation of a bird hide for the children to use. This began as a battered old shed donated to us by a plot holder and transformed into a rather fine hide complete with a noticeboard for recording,some identification charts and a small library of identification books. Two plotholders, Sean and his dad Vince volunteered to carry out the conversion and soon other family members joined in. The finished hide was way beyond our expectations as they managed to fit a kneeling bench down the one side to enable children to look through the hatches they had constructed. For wet days when the hatches need to stay closed they added a perspex window. All this from my very simple plans and drawings!

Here we are moving the old shed from one side of the site to the other in true Roman style, rolling it along on round stakes. It proved a great adventure as it kept trying to change shape and the door constantly flew open.

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And here is the shed now transformed into a hide, just like the ugly duckling turning into a swan. The rest of the story of how the transformation came about will be in part two.

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Wherever the pathway gets close to the bank we have planted a low boundary hedge from willows harvested on site and have woven whips of different coloured willows from the brightest yellow to the darkest black  through it. Similarly at the outlet end where water drains to prevent flooding, we have a steep area bank which we have given a similar low willow fence and we are slowly planting up the slopes with small ground covering shrubs that also attract bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

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We stored the willow prunings we had after coppicing and pollarding our “Withy Bed”. The photo shows these awaiting action and illustrate just how many colours of willow we have to play with

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A recent job was to make barley straw pouches to drop in the water to help keep down the growth of algae and blanket weed – a good organic solution. Look closely at the picture below to see if you can spot one.

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We know there are some critters who are looking forward to us finishing or at least being somewhere near a livable place for them. the resident group of Weasels, our Mallard families and the site’s frogs. We must pamper to their needs as they entertain us and do much of our pest controlling.

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The bird in the fourth of the above photos though arrived amid mixed feelings from us all. Our Grey Heron is most definitely a handsome bird but he is a threat to our fish. We have a small population of native Rudd in the pond brought in as eggs on the feet of the ducks. Sadly until we get some plant cover for them to seek refuge beneath they will soon be wiped out by the Heron. The photo was taken on a member’s mobile phone through our green fence.

In part two we will look at details of how the hide ended up, some of our tree surgery work and the adventures we had putting in our duck tube.

 

 

 

 

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The Wonder of Willows – part two

For part two in this series about the wonder of willows we start in our own garden at our home “Avocet” in Shropshire. The first photo shows our striking, architectural Salix erythrocadium flexuosa with the orange coloured tips to its thinnest branches. Together with the colour, the amazing curling, spiraling branches impress everyone who sees it.

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Close by our Violet Willow is equally impressive with its almost black stems which develop a white bloom in the winter. In the late winter and into early spring it produces strongly contrasting sparkling white catkins.

As the group of photos below show we have trained this as a pollarded specimen with its branches pruned down to the pollard stumps at about 8 to 9 feet. This is just tall enough to help us appreciate its catkins against the ever changing sky and also to make pruning easy.

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In late February or early March each year we prune it hard to give it its skeletal pollarded shape.

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These two photos show how much material we pruned off it this year and the amazing range of colours.

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Apart from these two specimen willow trees we have this ground hugging Salix variety that barely rises an inch above ground level.

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Afternoon Tea for Two – how English we are!

Afternoon tea is such a quintessentially English thing to do isn’t it? We recently used our voucher for tea for two which was a present from our son Jamie and his wife Sam. We chose a sunny  but chilly day so we took advantage of being indoors enjoying our treat and looking at the bright weather outside.

We drove through the ancient town of Ludlow and a little way into the countryside to find our destination, Fishmore Hall. We knew we were looking for a grand white manor house surrounded by countryside and it was easy to find and it was everything we expected it to be. It certainly lived up to our expectations. Doesn’t that blue sky look great against the white stucco.

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We were shown the way to our table by a window so we had great views out into the garden.

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And we even had an typical English flower on our table, a red rose.

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After a pot of tea and a pot of coffee were delivered to our table, the food began to arrive. A plate of neatly cut sandwiches with a variety of fillings was delivered first closely followed by a cake stand loaded with a rich assortment of little cakes. We had been set a challenge! We had to get through them all but we had the luxury of 2 hours to do so and plenty of tea and coffee.

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Jude was tempted first by a freshly baked scone with home made jam and clotted cream.

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And of course once the aroma escaped from her freshly cut scone I had to follow suit.

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Well after two hours and plenty of tea and coffee we were proud to have risen to the challenge. The plate of little sandwiches was empty and the cake stand similarly empty. Jude’s expressions shows how we felt.

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Many thanks to Jamie and Sam for a great gift. So good in fact that we wondered if we should do this on one afternoon each month. Nice idea!

 

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The Wonder of Willows – part one

We spent a cold February day at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve in Gloucestershire, Slimbridge. Work was going on coppicing and pollarding the many willows around the site. It is so good to see this ancient countryside craft still being practised. Many of the willows here at Slimbridge are ancient but there is plenty of planting of willows going on all the time. When the trees have been cut the wands are used around the site. In other parts of the country the willow prunings are used in cottage industries like basket making and hurdle making. Larger pieces are also used as fuel. Willows are so useful but also very beautiful, the branches of no two ever seem the same ranging from greens and yellows to oranges and reds. One in our garden has even got black branches which develop a white bloom on them in the winter, making it a beautiful addition to our garden.

The photo below shows a grove of willows through an observation hatch in a hide.

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The photo below photo shows a craftsmen head down sharpening his tools and having a break from pollarding these ancient willows. The wands when cut are delivered around the site where they are used to make screens which allow the public to walk around the site without disturbing the wildfowl and waders feeding in the lakes, scrapes and estuarine mud.

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There is evidence of recent coppicing and pollarding at every turn.

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The pair of pictures below show a freshly cut willow and another showing strong regrowth.

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Some of the older willow trees line the main paths and looking close up you can see the gnarled bark. Some are hollowed out so that in extreme case only a tube of trunk remains.

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Enjoy this little gallery of photos of individual trees.

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We came across groves of small willows pollarded at about 4 feet high. When freshly cut they look like a busy crowd of people.

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The bowls of ancient willow after years of being subject to regular pollarding create a perfect moist area for mosses to thrive.

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So there we have it – a brief appreciation of the willows at Slimbridge. They have an important role to play in these wild areas but of course they can also star in our gardens. But, as they say, that is a different story. Soon we will need to pollard and prune the many willows we grow in the community gardens of our allotment site. I shall post a blog celebrating those willows soon.

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So there we leave Slimbridge with its wonderful willows and look forward to my next post about willows, featuring these versatile trees growing in much smaller places.

 

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