Willow leaves

Q: We have some wild land along a creek where there are willows growing. I would like to use some of the willow stems to make baskets. How do I get the willows to grow the long, straight canes I need?

A: You are quite right in thinking that you have to convince the willows to grow the straight and supple stems you want. The technique you need to practice is called coppicing. It has been practiced in many parts of the world for many centuries. In northern Europe, for instance, the base of a coppiced tree, still alive and producing willow stems, was dated to 3800 BC. Coppicing was practiced by several Native American tribes long before Europeans arrived in North America.

To grow stems useful in basket making, you will need to turn your wild willows into a coppiced woodland. To find out whether a particular willow will produce supple stems (usually referred to as "withies"), choose a thin stem without side branches. See whether you can tie an overhand knot in the stem without breaking it. Then single out the willows you want to coppice and cut all the plants to about two inches tall.

The first cutting of withies can be made a year from now. Willows are best cut during the dormant season. If stems are cut while dormant, the bark will stay on the stems. Different kinds of willows produce bark of different colors, a great advantage for artistic baskets. Shoots harvested while the plant is dormant also have a lower water content and will shrink less as they dry.

Stems can be cut until early spring, when the pussy willow buds appear. If cut after bud break, the bark will slip off easily, leaving bare wood instead of colored bark. Once cut, the withies are stored to dry out. When the time comes for basket making, they must be soaked in water to make them flexible again. Incidentally, "withy" is simply the Old English word for willow.

If you want to increase your supply of basket-weaving willow, the plants will be glad to oblige. No plant roots more easily than a willow. Choose an area, perhaps near a stream, where the ground stays moist. Cover the area with some kind of weed barrier. Landscape cloth will need to be removed after a few years to let the natural nutrient cycle re-establish itself; a biodegradable ground cover like cardboard or paper will gradually rot away.

Plant a supply of basket willows in early spring. Cut pieces of willow stem at least the thickness of a pencil and about a foot long. Push them through the weed barrier into the ground, burying at least an inch but not more than half the cutting. Space the willow stems on a grid about two feet apart. As long as the ground stays damp, virtually all the cuttings will sprout.

The willow cuttings may grow a few feet tall in their first year. Cut them to about two inches tall the next winter, and more than one stem should sprout from each base in the following spring. Your new coppice is started. The crop of willows is usually cut on a cycle of two to five years; a three-year cycle is popular, cutting a third of the willows every winter.

Years between harvests depend on the growth rate of the willows. The base of each plant, called the stool, will keep getting bigger as years pass, so that more and more withies are harvested from each stool. The stems of coppiced willows stay young.

There are stools that are hundreds of years old, but even the one willow thath I coppiced is about 20 years old. I grow it, a white willow called "Britzensis," for its red winter color. By now it produces 20 or 30 stems every year. Although I am not a basket maker, I do use the cut stems for various other purposes.

Q: Two years ago I planted some spearmint, which has turned into an invasive monster. Is it possible to grow mint without having it overwhelm all my other flowers?

Q: Where can I find seeds for different kinds of mint? I would like to grow a variety.

A: Mint is notorious for trying to make a solid ground cover, but there are a few techniques for limiting its spread through the neighborhood. Sometimes the easiest way to control mint is by planting it in a pocket between rocks or concrete slabs. Mint plants are too tall to put in a path, but they are attractive all summer long at the edge of a path or on a patio. The leaves also have a delicious fragrance if they are brushed by passing traffic.

Planting mint in the shade is how I control it. Even without sun it is healthy, and it still flowers in late summer. In a shaded area, mint will spread, but not as aggressively. I pull out quantities of new shoots every spring when they first leaf out. Removing three quarters of the plants once a year keeps my various mints under control. Only occasionally do I find stems later in the year and pull them out because they are threatening other perennials.

Never plant mint in a vegetable garden or an annual bed.

Some gardeners choose to control mint plants in containers. If the containers are above ground level, the soil will freeze solid during the winter and the mint will die. If it is possible to store the container over the winter in an unheated building, the mint may live until the next spring. But mint does need a dormant season; it cannot survive as a winter house plant.

A standard way to control mint in the garden is with a bottomless container. A small or shallow pot will trap the running roots only briefly. Use a plastic tub or a five-gallon bucket with the bottom removed. Bury the container in the garden, leaving at least an inch of the rim above ground, and plant the mint in its center. Eventually a few roots may appear several feet away from the parent plant, but problems will be small and occasional.

You will find only peppermint seed for sale, and I do not recommend growing any mint from seed. For culinary use, flavor is all-important, and mint plants of identical species will vary widely in their taste. Peppermints are all the same species, but most other edible mints are spearmints. Orange, chocolate, apple, and pineapple mints are varieties of spearmint. Although there are more than 600 species of mint, many are inedible or do not grow in this climate. Horsemint is an example.

Small mint plants are available in nurseries every spring, and it is worth asking any gardener who grows mint for a piece of their plant. Most will be glad to get rid of the surplus. No matter what your source of a mint plant, brush a leaf gently and then smell your fingers before introducing it into your garden. The range of fragrance is amazing, even among supposedly identical plants.

When planting different varieties of mint, keep them well spaced. They can cross-pollinate, and seedling plants can be quite varied. Try to keep all mints deadheaded so that they do not make seeds.

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