One of our aims for this site is to grow at least some of our fuel. The land here is fairly bare and windswept – and open to ‘spray drift’ from the big arable fields on two sides of us. So putting in some windbreaks that we can also coppice for fuel seemed like a good idea. We decided to start with ‘biomass’ willow, which is bred to grow very fast, producing poles thick enough to cut for small logs in just a few years. So, last year (2011), we spent my birthday in early April planting 100 little willow ‘setts’, bought from the helpful people at Mammoth Willow. You get a bundle of setts (just sticks, with no roots), through the post. We didn’t have time to plant ours out for a few days after they arrived, so on the advice of Mammoth Willow, we kept them in the fridge til we were ready. We planted two rows, with each sett at about 50cm intervals, planting through black ‘weed control’ sheeting, to keep the competing grasses down. The hardest part was poking the holes for the setts through the plastic and the soil – we tried various metal bars and sticks, in the end settled on using the electric drill, with a large masonry bit attached – which worked (sort of! it did tend to chew up the plastic sheeting).
Willow is amazing stuff – it contains a hormone that acts as a natural ‘rooting powder’, and will easily root just from bare sticks. We planted ours very late in the season (the advice was to plant before the end of March), but that didn’t seem to matter too much. Within a few weeks, our bare sticks had started to sprout tuffty green shoots. Our voracious Suffolk rabbits soon started knawing the leaves and bark, so we had to rabbit fence around the plants – that done, they started to grow…and grow.
One year later, our willow hedge is now 5 to 8 feet tall. (Mammoth Willow sent a mix of species; some seem to grow much faster than others, but having a mix – rather than a monoculture – is apparently a good idea, as it makes the willows less vulnerable to diseases.) The willows are starting to give us a useful windbreak, plus lovely early catkins (great early-season food for bees) – and, we hope, in about 4 years time, we can coppice them to provide lots of kindling and small logs for the woodburner. If we can bear to cut them down, that is.