How to Make a Living Willow Arbor | PITH + VIGOR by Rochelle Greayer

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How to Make a Living Willow Arbor


Words and Photography By: ANN AMATO-ZORICH

Guests are usually surprised when I tell them that our willow arbor only cost $35. Back in 2005, I spent $8 plus shipping for four hybrid willows on Ebay and the 10’ x 10’ gazebo style white canopy tent frame was $20 at an end of the summer drug store sale. Of course, this price doesn’t take into account the number of hours I’ve spent training and pruning it—but that’s not the point.

The small concrete stucco house that I call home didn’t have much of a garden when we bought it. There were a few patches of grass, a Rhododendron, some Iris and two mature Douglas fir trees. Almost immediately I started to plant my plant collection, but more than anything I wanted privacy in the back garden. Since my garden is only 30’ x 30’ I knew this would be a difficult task. An old double loop wire fence with Spirea growing through it separated us from the back of a single-story apartment building to the east, and, to the north, a chain link fence divided our yard from the neighbor’s. My mom planted a hedge for the north side, giving this to us as a housewarming present. Our first big project was to remove the patches of lawn.

Willow arbor in the winter - How to grow a willow arbor
Growing a willow arbor with Ann Amato-Zorich

The expenses associated with homeownership were overwhelming in the beginning and I knew that whatever we assembled had to be inexpensive. The idea of sculpting trees first came to me after reading a book I’d found locally on the shelves at the Multnomah County Library. Its title escapes me now—after all, this was over a decade ago—but the book covered the basic principles of arbor sculpture and the work of Axel Erlandson. I made the project happen as quickly as possible because I knew that it needed time and patience. It didn’t take long before the arbor began to fill in because it’s no joke when they say that hybrid willows grow quickly. It took years, however, for it to fully mature.
I often fail to mention that the hollow inexpensive metal frame was rusting and falling apart just as the trees were beginning to take shape. In one spot, part of the frame even disappeared into the trunk of one of the trees. Sometimes, the trees can grow so quickly that even the loop of a hanging baskets can disappear into the rapidly thickening branches.
Hybrid willows aren’t prized trees and are far from popular where I live in the Pacific Northwest. This is a region with many incredible trees and I grew up knowing that these were considered far from desirable. Nonetheless, I love mine and if given the opportunity to do this again I would likely still do it. Their growth rate is perfect for a project like this, but I might also consider Laburnum, Fagus, and native willows as well. There are so many other options for these large structures. I only wish I had more space to experiment.

A living arbor of any kind can become a maintenance issue, but nurturing a living structure in a city where it is closely surrounded by built environments can be a real treat. It has become a center of this home and it has helped me to better appreciate the differences between built, cultivated and natural spaces. For many years I was the first to discount or overlook its importance but recently I’ve come to see it for what it is, and it is much larger than the sum of its parts.

Over time, the arbor has woven itself into my life. Just the thought of not having my coffee beneath it on a sunny summer morning makes me sad and yet I know that like any living creature it won’t be there forever. This vulnerability captivates me too. I care about this living space. Few other plants have been so selfishly enjoyed in my garden. The willows are the heart and soul of my garden and yet I always feel that twinge of shame because each only cost $2.

Living willow arbor maintenance isn’t easy – mostly because it is a constant job. Once the initial shape is created, branches constantly need to be tied to the frame. Over time, the strongest branches and leaders should show their girth and these are kept. Problems will arise if regular pruning isn’t maintained. When I went through a divorce and got distracted, branches grew through the top and threatened the integrity of the structure with their weight. Thankfully, it didn’t go too far and today, the arbor is doing well, but it took more than a year to get it back into shape after the wrong branches had been encouraged to grow.

Hybrid willows are not popular because of their roots and it’s true they can be aggressive. As far as I know, my trees have remained tame and they don’t require a great deal of pampering in my climate. More needy plants live around the arbor all summer so the trees soak up the water lavished on them. Thanks to the rain we receive during the rest of the year, the trees require little extra help. As for wind, the arbor gets blasted all winter but it hasn’t had a problem yet. There were pests one summer but they were never identified and after I treated them, I’ve never had a issue again.
When I first conceived of the arbor I dreamed of dining beneath it. Originally we had a checkerboard pattern of pavers with moss but now the surface beneath and around the trees is gravel so dining is easier with a more even surface. For the past two years I’ve hosted underground dining events beneath the trees and the space has become even more beautiful now that it is shared with others. There is still work to be done—for instance I plan to add an outdoor chandelier next summer, and I may build a new dining table out of salvaged wood—but I suspect that the $35 arbor will continue to be the star of the show.

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  1. That is so much fun! I want one.

  2. my first willow arbor was planted in april 2011 during which i researched willow arbors on the webernets and met you on your blog The existence of your arbor gave me ‘permission’ to proceed with the experiment. I see this article bringing you more willow arbor connected friends. I also spent very little on my willow arbors. i started with a pair of bare root Dragon’s Claw Willows (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’). I took cuttings from them and grew up another pair of these trees which i planted in our new garden in 2013. Your willow arbor is a wonderful part of my horicultural world.

  3. Bridget Wosczyna says:

    Inspiration on a grand scale. I love how you recognize you discounted it because it was “inexpensive.” I tend to do this to myself at time about common plants. Your love and maintenance of the trees is priceless. Truly. I cannot wait to have a meal under your arbor. Next year, hopefully.

  4. Louis says:

    The perfect solution for a gazebo. Maybe in money terms, it is not expensive, but in the equivalent of embedded labor is very much.

  5. Cheryl says:

    What a lovely covering you created for any backyard and for just $35…along with the investment of your time, handwork and care. Beautifully done and created. The photo of summer is so inviting and so is winter with the benches and the light snow covering. Very fun to learn about what I would consider a very unique idea!

  6. Tina Martino says:

    This will be great in my garden ( but I think it will really cost too much labor. Might need my husband’s hands in this 🙂

  7. Jill says:

    Such a beautiful idea.

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