Margaux Speirs recommends getting into the spirit of the season by creating your own Christmassy garden decoration
To get us into a festive frame of mind, a friend and I have signed up to make a willow reindeer at the Bristol Adult Education Centre in Stoke Bishop. My reindeer may not look like this one but, having invested a few hours in making it, I shall be very proud to show it off, lit up with fairy lights, on my balcony over Christmas. The class tutor, Sarah Jayne Edwards, takes adult pupils throughout the year on all sorts of willow-making workshops: after the last Natural Christmas Decoration Workshop on 10 December, the next one is on making a life-size urban fox as a piece of garden art. From 2 to 24 December, you can see some of her art on display at the St Nicholas Christmas Market near Corn Street, where she was commissioned to make two giant reindeer, a couple of wolves, some owls and a woven willow tree at the gateway to the enchanted winter garden.
Between January and April she also makes living willow sculptures so, for example, she will lead a team of volunteers to plant a growing play house and tunnel for Lantern Pre-School at Redland Parish halls in February. You can find out more about her workshops and commissions by contacting Sarah on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The willow for her work is sourced from Musgrove Willows, near Bridgwater in Somerset. In the warmer months, you can enjoy a visit to this third-generation family business, walk through the ‘withy beds’, see willow being processed in the sorting and stripping shed, and watch craftsmen at work making baskets, fencing and coffins – their busiest product line.
On their 100-acre farm they grow over 60 willow varieties and the range of colours is astonishing. For the reindeer (or any structure which is to be left outside) you need to buy willow with its bark still on. For it to be flexible enough to weave, it has to be soaked for at least a week – so assuming you are not giving up your bath tub for this long, you will need to buy a willow soaking bag. Between January and April, green willow is available to buy which is sufficiently pliable to use without pre-soaking (and it is this willow which is used for living sculptures as the twigs are so full of latent life, they will grow almost as soon as they meet wet soil).
You could try making a willow sculpture by buying the willow yourself and using internet tutorials. A one-metre reindeer takes about £15 of materials (5 kilos of 5-6ft stems) and will take you about half a day to make. However, I think a group class is both more fun and successful: you and your friends (adults or teenagers) could have a half day or full day class tailored for you by Sarah Edwards or the in-house teachers at Musgrove Willow, so together you could make a whole flock of geese, herd of deer or sty of piglets, while laughing, chatting and learning.
Apart from willows grown for weaving, there are all sorts of that make great garden plants. Stately weeping willow trees (e.g. Salix x sepulcralis var. chrysocoma) can be grown as large ornamental trees in damp gardens (especially water sides). The coloured stems of Salix alba ‘Britzenesis’ (also known as ‘Chermesina’) are invaluable in winter, particularly when pruned heavily every spring, as it is the young stems which are fiery orange. If you have space for two of these, you can alternate annual coppicing so that one bears gorgeous fluffy catkins every spring, while the other puts on its winter fire show.
Coppicing them this way keeps them at about 2 metres, which is manageable in a small garden, whereas left alone, they would reach a height of 25 metres. In a very small garden Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’ is a good choice as it only grows to about 2m tall and wide; a weeping pussy willow, it bears cascades of powder puff catkins with bright yellow anthers in early spring. Salix alba ‘Sericea’ is a small silver-leaved tree which as nature intended, would grow to about 15m, but which can be pruned back to 30cm (1ft) above the ground each spring or alternate spring before coming into leaf – in order to limit its size and encourage it to produce vigorous upright stems with intensely silver leaves. There is even a rockery size willow, Salix lanata, growing to about 1.2m (4ft). This variety has broad, woolly leaves, silver grey and lovely yellow anthered catkins. All willows need fairly damp soil but this dwarf species is more tolerant than others of quite dry soil.
One important thing to note about willows is that the majority are dioecious – that is, they bear male and female flowers on different trees. As the female catkins are less conspicuous, normally grey or green, but the male catkins ripen to showy yellow balls of fluff, you should choose males for your ornamental trees and shrubs. Chew Valley Trees has a good selection of willows and their website is really helpful in describing the growing conditions the trees need to thrive.
Margaux Speirs is a qualified garden designer and runs her business, Margaux Speirs Garden Design, from her home in Bristol. For further information, visit her website, margauxspeirsgardendesign.co.uk, or telephone 07903 779910