Playing with the plants provides hours of fun and wonder

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Warm days, retreating snow levels, and returning birds have us all buzzing with excitement. There are crocus blooming in protected areas, and many people say they have tulips up in their beds already. This fever to get going has us raking, cleaning, and trimming up winter damaged branches. I have even seen some ambitious soul rototilling up his snowbanks in an effort to make them go away faster.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

It is still too early for many of the garden tasks, but for taking cuttings and rooting willows for border thickening, bird attracting and erosion preventing work it is just perfect. This is a fun effort that can be shared with kids and will tie into their classroom projects as science fairs and spring study units come along. It is nearly foolproof and can be done on a very modest scale, even a couple of cuttings will inspire the sense of wonder that life triumphant evokes.

Willows, one of the most common shrubby trees in our area, have the ability to grow new roots on almost any part of their bodies. We can cut off a 2-foot long branch, make a hole in the soil half as long as the branch, slip the branch into the hole and compact the soil around the stem, keep it moist, and the branch will grow roots all over the buried portion. Pieces the diameter of a man's thumb work well. They can be from two to three feet long (there is really no limit to the length but these are easiest to work with) and make sure to remember which end is up. They won't work if the wrong end is buried.

This ability to grow new roots is not unique to willows. Many other species will root, but willows are really champions in the rooting world. Three other easy rooters are cottonwoods, elderberries and dogwoods. Many other local plants can be used to fill in around these to make a native planting in disturbed areas. These three, and especially the willows, are at the base of a revegetation, habitat restoration, erosion prevention, and streambank stabilization effort that is gaining momentum worldwide.

Water carries bits of soil off disturbed areas, any excavation, construction, or natural slope failure exposes loose soil, and that soil is quickly carried into streams. It is the absence of vegetation that makes this soil vulnerable, and the quickest way to get the soil knit back together is to combine these quick growing shrubby willows, dogwoods, and cottonwoods with some local grasses and flowering plants.

This time of year is the best for taking willow cuttings; they have the stored energy that will be used to burst into leaf, waiting in a layer under the bark. As they begin to leaf out, the parts that are underground will use that same energy to grow these new roots, and within a couple of months they will be independent small plants, capable of growing on their own.

Look for these willows along the side of the road, in your own back yard, or at the edges of almost any natural area. They will usually be many trunked, smooth barked, smallish trees. The buds for the new leaves are swelling now, and will soon erupt into our favorite spring thing, the pussywillow. These are really the flowers of this ambitious species, and they rapidly transform from fuzzy gray nodes into exuberant yellow puffballs throwing pollen at each other in their rush to make seeds.

The leaves will follow, but for the best rooting we want to get them before they even send out those lovely fuzzy treasures. That means now is the when. We can even cut them and keep them dormant a little longer by burying them in the snow for a couple of weeks while the rest of the world roars along into spring, but placing them as soon as they are cut is the easiest way.

Starting with willows is a sure way to stimulate the desire to root other species, and the millennia-old partnership between we and the plants will take over again.

It won't be long before a small rooting bed of coarse sandy soil will be built, with its annual collections of roses, lilacs, hydrangeas and Gooseberries to join the Willows and Dogwoods.

People cultivated plants by rooting them for thousands of years before they developed the ability to store seeds for a coming season, and the innate characteristics of these easily rooted perennial shrubs and small trees make them ideal practice plants.

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