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Willow & Poplar propagation from cuttings

Some trees grow easily from cuttings. This is a simple method that works for many willow and poplar cultivars.

A cutting is just a chunk of plant. For poplar and willow this is last year's growth. The ideal branch to work with is about as thick as your finger.

Stick it in damp dirt, and it will grow. Usually.

Cuttings taken in September will succeed about 5-10% of the time. Taken in March or April your success rate zooms to 90-100%


A: I start cutting on Pond Day, usually mid March. Pond Day is the day that our pond fills up, that the culverts that feed the pond are running again. (In 2019 the creek never stopped during the winter. Culverts filled with ice, water ran over the road, and it was a mess. So Pond day was the day the road was under water. I digress) Anyway, cut when it's starting to feel like spring, but snow is still on the ground.

Take stems with smooth bark. Often you can see a ring around the branch, and a change in colour between this year and last year's growth. Last year's growth works, but the success rate isn't as high. More on this later. Cut off and discard the tops at the point they are about the thickness of a pencil.

B: Bundle and wrap the branches in burlap, an old blanket, or chunk of plastic. If plastic, leave the ends open so the branches can breath.

C: Bury in snow on the north side of a shed. You may use your snowblower to make a heap first. Cover the pile of snow with at least a tarp. If you have those insulated tarps used for curing concrete in winter they are ideal. If you have straw intended for garden mulch, lay a tarp, a few inches of straw and another tarp.

D: Wait for spring.

E: If you run out of snow before the ground has thawed, make your cuttings, wrap in several layers of wet newspaper and keep in the fridge.

F: Make your cuttings thus:

F1: Start at the bottom, and cut the end at a 45° angle about a half inch (cm.) below a bud. F2: Cut it square about 7-8" high up about half an inch above a bud. F3: Repeat the above two steps. It won't come out even. Chuck the remains. Key thing is you want three to four buds. (If you are short of wood, you can make them 2 buds long. This lowers your success rate.) The 45 degree angle tells you which end is down, and makes it easier to push into the ground.)

G: Once you are ready to plant, presoak your cuttings in cold water for 2 to 4 days. I rubber band them in wrist thick bundles and stand them in jars or cans of water in the shade. May have to stand a small bag of dirt on top to keep them down. Ideally all but the top bud is under water. Check the cuttings daily. When they are ready you will see little white spots on the bark.

H0: For all of these options plant the cutting at a slant -- about an 11 o'clock to 5 o'clock slant (30°) so that the growth starts off vertical.

H1: Plant where they are going. You've tilled this area, sprayed or tarped it ahead of time to control weeds. Poke the cuttings into the ground until the top bud is about 1" above the ground. If the ground is too solid, use a screwdriver, or electric fence pole, long drill bit -- something as long as the cutting, and a bit thinner to make a pilot hole. If you tarped it, you can just punch a hole in the tarp, an shove the pointed end in. If you can, lay down 2" of wood chips (free from Davey when they are doing powerlines in your area, or at City of Edmonton eco centres.) Wood chips reduce mice taking advantage of the lovely mouse hotels that tarp bridging a hollow make. It also keeps the soil cooler and further reduces water need. If you used construction grade tarp, it will keep it from becoming plastic confetti in a year.

H2: Plant in the garden for a year. Plant about 8" apart. A year from now you want 1 shovel = 1 tree. Do NOT leave them 2 years. They will be hard to dig up. Straw or wood chips will reduce your weeding.

H3: Plant into pots. Fill the pots up to the rim with dirt. Tap pot on firm surface to settle. You can keep them two - three years. Pots should be parked on a tarp to keep roots from escaping and getting into the ground. Pots can be crowded close.

I: Mulch for water retention, weed reduction Put 2" of straw, leaves, or chips once the new growth is 2-3 inches tall. (3-4 weeks) At this point for poplars and tree form willows, reduce the number of stems to a single one. (Willows usually have 2 buds together at the top.) Remove any weeds.

J: Keep damp. If you went with H1, check every week or so. Give each tree 1-2 gallons when the top inch of soil is dry. If you planted them through the tarp, you probably won't need to water. If you didn't tarp them, hoe any weeds.

K: Transplant If you went with H2 or H3 you can transplant in the fall, or wait until spring. Fall generally is better. You have from leaf turn to freezeup. Auger a 1 foot diameter hold about 1 shovel deep (10") Put 2" of water in the bottom of the hole, and add enough dirt to half fill the hole with mud. This should be about the consistency of dry wall mud. Boys from ages 8 to 12 generally will be enthusistic about this job.

Press the tree into the mud until the top of the root ball is about 2" below the surrounding ground. Top up with dirt, and push the dirt into the mud with the D handle of a shovel. (If you have a broken handle you haven't thrown away yet, this is good reason to have kept it. -- sherwood the packrat) You can shape remaining dirt into a retaining ring about 2 feet in diameter.

L: Followup watering. Your trees won't need to be watered after the first summer unless we have drought conditions. But they will grow faster. Water when the top 2 inches of dirt are dry, and give about a gallon per foot of height.

M: Get faster growth Either mow as close as you can to the trees, with the mower on it's lowest scalp-the-pocket-gopher-mounds setting, or use mechanical means, or use chemical means. Note that until the bark is rough it will absorb glyphosate (roundup and friends) If you weed with harrows, take care that you aren't breaking roots. Going over the margins frequently with chains while the weeds are still small (under 2") will disturb the trees the least. But if they get too big, you need to do hand work to catch up. This may require more than once a week treatment.

Fertilize in spring as soon as the snow is gone. About two tablespoons per tree over a 2 foot diameter circle. If you are in pots use a water soluble product like Miracle grow, water normally, then the next day, give each pot 1 liter of fert water mixed to the directions on the label. You can do this every 2-3 weeks until the end of July.

Modifications for commercial production.

A: Rototil your rows 7 feet wide. Make rows 15 feet apart. Best if you run rows north south.

B: lay drip tubing with drippers every 16 or 18 inches down the length of each row. 1/2" drip tube (actually 17 mm) can handle 300-400 feet of 1.5 foot based drippers and still have good uniformity. 3/4" line will double this.

Note: Jan 2021 I'm looking at stocking 1 gph 5 foot space dripline that can be buried when you plant your row. Ball park will cost about a buck a foot. Contact me if interested.

C: Put a hose connector and inline filter on the supply end.

D: If you have a water supply that is greater than 5 gpm at 20-30 psi AT THE WILLOW YARD you can tie multiple lines together.

E: Far end should be bent double, tied, and fastened to a stake in the ground. Ditto near end, but the end you attach the hose to should be supported about 3 feet off the ground. So this end is tied at the right angle fitting at the bottom of the post, and at the top of the post.

G: Get a roll (1500 ft) of 4 foot wide plastic horticultural mulch in the heaviest weight you can. The usual is 2.7 mil. (.0027") If you can get it, use 6 mil. Do NOT use the black construction grade plastic you buy at the DIY stores. This has no UV resistance, and turns into black confetti blowing in the wind inside a year.

H: Borrow a mulch layer from the county.

I: Start at the supply end, place the first few feet by hand, and run to the other end. The layer should bury the edges of the plastic in the tilled earth, leaving it tightly stretched over a mound in the middle.

J: Plant your cuttings, punching them through the plastic. Alternate sides of the dripline every 5-10 trees. For basketry production put about 4 feet apart. For larger rods for furniture plant 8 feet apart.

K: Splurge on a Dosomatic fertiliser injector. Use water soluble fertilizer once a month at bud break until July.

L: Water about 4 hours every 2 to 3 weeks. Water will vary with time of year, how big they are. Watch the leaves. If they start looking limp you are either under or over watering. Put a finger through the plastic to check. Repair with red Tuck Tape. (Any building store)

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