Willow farmer and artist Howard Peller not only grows 100,000 plants in more than 100 varieties of willow on his 140-acre farm in Roseville, Ohio, but he crafts and builds with the willow as well.
“Farming willow and making baskets and other woven objects exemplifies the way I personally link an agrarian way of life with an artisanal handcraft,” he says. “I use the willow I grow on our farm to make baskets and garden structures that serve as useful and purposeful objects in everyday life.”
At their Muskingum County willow farm, about an hour east of Columbus, Ohio, Peller and his wife, ceramic artist Maddy Fraioli, pursue ceramics and basket weaving in the rich tradition of the Appalachian region. Their farm includes 25 acres of flower and vegetable gardens that are surrounded by willow fencing, beehives, ponds, two studios, barns, and a farmhouse. They call it Living Willow Farm, and it has been registered as a historic site and home for more than 20 years. Theirs is a life that honors the past and is informed by a mission of environmental stewardship.
“Basic metal tools of billhook, knife, shears, and awl allow me to harvest and create wonderfully useful articles for personal living,” Peller adds.
In addition to crafting purposeful objects, Peller also creates living play structures for nature playscapes, arboretums, and children’s gardens throughout the United States. In central Ohio alone, people can enjoy his designs at The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children’s Garden at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus; The Dawes Arboretum in Newark; and the nature playscape at AHA! A Hands-On Adventure, A Children’s Museum in Lancaster. Additionally, Peller provides willow for nature playscape leader Rusty Keeler’s Earthplay online store, and Peller’s willow became part of the woven structure of the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus.
In late winter, Peller cuts his willow near the base using a pruner and old-fashioned tools, such as his favorite billhook. This technique, called “coppicing,” causes the plant to send up new shoots for continual future cuttings. After being dried for two years, the willow bundles are then sent around the world for use in baskets or furniture, or woven by Peller into structures and baskets and sold on his website. Live cuttings are put into cold storage for spring planting; used for living structures designed and installed by Peller; or sold to individuals creating their own willow tunnels and structures.
Peller’s work designing and crafting with willow reflects his extensive travel throughout the world. After training in artisan willow weaving in Germany, he used those skills to inform his work with local weavers in South America, Europe, India, Jamaica, and Haiti. Working side by side, Peller and local artisan-farmers in Jamaica used locally sourced screwpine palm to craft woven handbags. In Guyana, he worked with artisans using traditional weaving and plaiting techniques to turn locally sourced material into kitchen cabinet door panels.
Peller’s prior jobs also influence his vision: vice president of design and product development for Longaberger Basket Company; founder of the Design Center to prototype new concepts promoting the handcraft legacy story; and product designer and model maker for Anchor Hocking, Bath & Body Works, and more.
Peller has also developed a national market for willow itself through his online presence. He sells dry willow rods for basket weaving and sculpture work; larger willow rods for garden structures, wattle borders, and fences; living dormant rods for creating living willow fences and structures; and living dormant starts for starting a patch of willow rods.
A Place for Willow
Interest in building woven wattle fences, living willow fences, and other garden structures, such as trellises and tomato cages, has steadily risen over the years. While willow farming and production on the scale of Peller’s operation takes dedication, passion, and a lifetime of creative experience, small farmsteaders can use willow on a smaller scale.
Farmsteads often have an area that’s too wet for crops or pasture, and willow thrives in that moisture. Once established, it’ll also provide new plants from cuttings to add to your property. If allowed to form flowers, it’s also an early source of pollen for bees and caterpillars. Willow plants offer color and interest to the winter landscape, with shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple, and they provide varieties of color and shapes of leaves for interest in the summer garden.
A small patch of 200 to 500 willow plants can be used to make baskets or willow structures for personal use or small-scale sales to add to a small-farm income stream. Pussy willows can be harvested for farm market sales as well. Willow rods root and multiply quickly, sending up plenty of shoots to help a small farm add more structures and fencing each growing season.
Willow works well as hedges, fences, walls, wind barriers, and erosion prevention. It can also provide fodder for sheep and goats. It makes an efficient windrow to block northern winds, and since deer don’t like willow because of its salicylic acid, it’s also a good fence for your vegetable garden. Additionally, it’ll hold in moisture and keep out the worst of the hot summer sun, creating the perfect microclimate for a vegetable garden. Willow also makes a good chicken run enclosure, shielding chickens from the view of hawks.
Craft with Willow
Creating a living willow fence, also called a “fedge” (a combination of “fence” and “hedge”), is surprisingly easy. Follow these steps to construct a whimsical yet practical structure for your farmstead.
Tools and Materials
- Length of rebar or other similar tool
- Landscape fabric
- Garden twine
- Willow rods
- Elastic bands or other similar material
- Thin tree branches or saplings
- Consider where your fence will go. Choose a planting area that’s away from building foundations and septic drainage fields, since willow roots naturally seek out water. Coppicing and maintaining a fence will keep the roots controlled.
- Plan when you’ll install the fence. Peller recommends keeping the fence at least 6 to 8 feet from garden beds. Willow is best planted from early March to late May, although your climate will determine the ideal time to plant.
- Prepare the chosen location for planting. Remove weeds, and put down a weed-blocking fabric, such as landscape fabric, to help manage future weeds. If your soil is fairly loose, it won’t need further attention, but if the soil is compacted and a length of rebar can’t be easily pounded into the ground to make a planting hole for the rods, loosen the soil and potentially amend it with some compost to make planting possible.
- Mark your fence by placing stakes through the landscape fabric and into the ground and connecting them with twine. (Use a knife to cut holes into your landscape fabric if the material is too thick for the stakes.) Then, decide which design you’ll use for your fedge. You can find a host of tutorial videos online, from basic designs to more elaborate structures. For example, you can follow the angled woven design Peller uses to create his vegetable garden fence, outlined further on.
- Pound holes through the landscape fabric along your fence line with the hammer and rebar, using the right hole spacing for the design you’ve chosen.
- Begin planting and weaving the willow rods into a lattice pattern. You’ll push willow rods 10 to 12 inches into the rebar holes, making sure the buds are pointing up. Firm the soil well around each rod, and give it a good watering. For Peller’s vegetable garden fence design, 2 willow rods are planted in each hole. Plant the first set of rod pairs at a 60-degree angle, spaced at 8-inch intervals all the way down the row. Next, plant the second set of rod pairs centered between the first set of rods and at the opposite 60-degree angle, so they’re crossing the first set. Peller generally recommends 4 living willow rods total per woven foot of fencing.
- Use black elastic bands to gather the rods at each intersection between opposite-running pairs to create the diamond lattice pattern. You could also use cable ties or graft tape to form or arrange the rods, but Peller finds that black elastic bands that stretch and grow with the willow are a better method.
- Continue banding or gathering across the length of your fence until you reach the tops of the rods. Secure some small tree branches with garden twine as vertical anchor rods. Trim the ends and tops of the rods to define the fence line.
- Finally, apply a mulch to hold in crucial moisture for the rooting willow rods. Continue to keep your structure well-watered and trimmed, especially during the first year of growth. (See “Willow Care and Maintenance,” below, for more details.)
Wendy Gregory has spent her career working with children as a culinary and gardening teacher in an arts-based summer camp for at-risk children in Nelsonville, Ohio, and as the director of a children’s museum in Lancaster, Ohio.
Willow Care and Maintenance
Through continued coppicing each year, you can create your own source of willow rods for various projects around your farm, farmstead, or home.
- Keep your installation well-watered for the first year to ensure that roots develop. After installing, give your site a good watering.
- You can use drip irrigation or other methods of watering. During the first year, make sure to keep your structure watered, especially during hot summers and periods with no rain. Don’t use sprinklers, as that won’t give the plants enough water, which will cause them to burn under the sun.
- Don’t prune your installation for the first year. You can tie in new growth as needed. The second year may require some trimming of new shoots and some repositioning, along with tying the rods. Don’t heavily prune the second season. Give the rods time to establish their roots. Once those roots are established, they’ll reward you with years of living structure.
- As needed, continue to trim off shoots, cut the height, and maintain shape across the years. You can also replace rods if they die, or tie in new growth to form the rods.
- Leafage that emerges from the rods is fragile and subject to frost, but the rods will rebound unless they’re severely impacted and dried out.
Cutting willow takes place from December to February on Peller’s Ohio farm, and he sells the willow sticks for planting from March through June nationwide. Customers can determine the number of willow rods they’ll need for their building project by multiplying the total running length of their project by four rods per foot. Those on a budget can reduce to two rods. Visit Living Willow Farm for ordering information and to explore Peller’s extensive project photos and descriptions.
Expand Your Design Techniques
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Collecting Willow Shoots
Get more self-sufficient by collecting willow shoots and turning them into a beautiful, functional basket. Learn how at Handcrafted Forager’s Basket.