As I write, storm Eunice is raging. The sheep have found the stillest place on the slopes beneath us, but the house is shuddering and I am trying not to look at the garden as it is hurled this way and that. At the hamamelis in its prime and the long-awaited wintersweet, which is flowering well for the first time this year, but with such unfortunate timing.
Though we are just one hillside away from the Bristol Channel and would never say that our conditions are as extreme as coastal exposure, there is more often than not a breeze blowing through the valley that has a taste of the sea in it. The decision not to plant out the views to provide more shelter means that the garden has to flex with the openness and what comes with it and the shrubby willows help with this pliable backbone.
I originally grew the willows as a trial in the very first year we arrived here. They were planted in a row on the front line of a rectangle we had cut from the field in which to garden. They grew fast and provided a buffer and a little shade and, of the ten or so I tested, there were at least half a dozen that felt right here. Right for being easy on our retentive ground, but also for sitting so well in the landscape and not competing with the backdrop of the crack willow (Salix x fragilis) that stands alone in the ditch.
Though I have grown them before, the rusty-red flare of Salix alba ‘Chermesina’ would have been too demanding here in winter when we like to enjoy the pared back tones of the landscape. The willows that worked here have been muted in tone with silvery stems that rise easily from winter grassland or the darkness of moody purples that you have to find or wait for the right winter light to strike them. Salix daphnoides ‘Aglaia’ (main image) with mahogany-red wood and silver catkin and the grey-leaved Salix candida that provides a little lightness on the edge of the wood work both in winter and the summer.
I used three shrubby willows in the garden and stepped them out to draw the garden into landscape. Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ sits close to the house and is perhaps the most ornamental, with laurel-green stems and coal black catkins that just this week have shed their protective sheaths. In a fortnight or so on a bright day you will see they have pushed a flurry of red anthers that are tipped with gold pollen. This is a neat shrub that I am gently tipping into shape rather than stooling as I do some of the others for their stems. It sits in one of the most exposed places here on the edge of the drive where the rubble cannot make living easy. In its shadows I have interplanted lime green Helleborus foetidus and selected primroses where they sometimes seed a pinky-mauve.
Further down the garden, at the threshold to the gate into the field, I have grouped the straight species, Salix gracilistyla, which is as light as its cousin is charcoal. This plant has sage green leaves rather than lime green and grey stems which catkin early in a conspicuous shimmer of silver. The pussies are made better for being backlit by morning light and when the weather warms and the catkins push their pollen, they will be alive with early bees. I cut these willows back as you might a buddleia, to a framework of stems after they have dropped their catkins so that they retain some structure on the edge of the garden. They are underplanted with azure blue pulmonarias for now and pale wood aster for the autumn.
A selected form of our purple osier, Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders’ is the plant that bridges the garden and the wet ditch that runs down to the stream at the bottom. This willow is fine in all its parts with wire thin growth and grey-green leaves that are wider than needles, but not by much. The wind is good in their limbs whenever it blows, they animate how it moves over the course of a day – or in a storm. Late into full catkin in about three week’s time, they produce shoals of tiny grey pussies that throw a ephemeral grey cast over the bushes. I coppice these plants hard on a three-year rotation in the garden, but leave the shrubs standing in the ditch where they form rangy shrubs that start to lean after about six years. They are as happy in the wet soil there as they are on the exposed slopes higher up in the garden.
The first of all to catkin is Salix purpurea ‘Howkii’ which I have planted with S. irrorata on the banks near the Cornus mas. The two are good together, one being as many-limbed and catkinned as the other is sparse, each moving differently one against the other. We are lucky to have the room to stand back and let them do what they are good at here and they are remarkably easy. A rod or wand of growth as long as a walking stick, pushed into the soil in winter will send out roots. For the first year we keep the grass away from them and then they can stand their own with the willowherb and the meadowsweet and a storm or two to keep them company.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 19 February 2022