Arboretum News

The Willow Story

If you've marveled at the Arboretum's YouBetcha stick structure designed and built by internationally-acclaimed artist Patrick Dougherty in May of 2019, you might have wondered where the willow branches that make up the structure came from.

Photo by Jason Boudreau-Landis

The Willow Story contributors:
Gary Wyatt, Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension
-Dan Gullickson, Snow Fence Coordinator, Minnesota Department of Transportation
-Diomy Zamora, Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension
-Dean Current, Director, University of Minnesota Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management
-Eric Ogdahl, Great River Greening
-Steven Van Natta, Horticulture Manager, University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

If you’ve marveled at the Arboretum’s YouBetcha stick structure designed and built by internationally-acclaimed artist Patrick Dougherty in May of 2019, you might have wondered where the willow branches that make up the structure came from.

Before they became an artist’s tool, the willows improved winter driving conditions as a part of a research project. The willows were harvested from University of Minnesota research plots near Waseca, and they came from a University of Minnesota Extension research project on living snow fences.

The willows for the research project, which was funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, were planted in 2013 on the Minnesota Department of Transportation right of way bordering the north side of U.S. Hwy. 14 south of Waseca.

Researchers hand planted willows of 5 different willow cultivars. They also planted a shrub variety plot to study the rate of growth between commonly planted shrubs and willows. Willows grew much faster than traditional shrubs. Both studies were successful in documenting growth and snow catch potential as a living snow fence. 

“Before we planted the willows, every time the wind would blow out of the north-northwest our west bound passing lane would fill in with snow. This was due to the way the road lays, and we would always have to come out and patrol this area for hours,” says Bryan Lillie, Minnesota Department of Transportation supervisor of the Waseca area. “Since the very first year, we were amazed [by] the job the willows did. The willows basically stopped the drifting. We have other places on this stretch of road we would like to try some more willow plantings.”

From stick to sculpture, here’s the story (in pictures) of how YouBetcha came to be:

Spring of 2013: Willow sticks ready to be planted (8 to 10 inches).  Yes, there is a right end up: the buds need to point up.  The painted ends mean “this end up.”
Staff from University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center planted the willows by hand. Two and four rows were planted with about 2.5 feet between the rows and two feet within the rows.
Willow sticks are planted with 1-3 buds above the ground.
Willow sticks start growing quickly after they’re planted in early spring.
It is critical to reduce weed competition for water, sun and nutrients
during the first year of growth.
First year’s growth.
Spring 2014: In order to encourage multiple branching or stems, willows are cut back to an inch or two from the ground.
Willows are early spring pollinators.

Living snow fences catch snow before it reaches highways, reducing plowing and salt expense while improving winter driving conditions. 
U.S. Hwy. 14 is on top of the berm to the left.
Willows planted correctly can grow to be excellent living snow fences.
In early April of 2019, the Waseca willows were cut down and transported to the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to make Patrick Dougherty’s art structure. 
Arboretum staff used weed eater tools with brush cutting blades to cut down multiple stemmed willows.
The crew created an efficient system with cutters, haulers and stackers.
Stems were sorted by size and length. Front end loaders were used to gather and load the willow stems on flat bed trailers.
The cutting tools sawed a clean cut. This thinning is called coppicing. 
Regrowth begins almost immediately.
Thousands of stems in piles, ready to be loaded and transported to the Arboretum.
One load of willow branches delivered to the Arboretum.
Piles of willows were placed on Scarecrow Hill where the YouBetcha willow structure began to take shape.
Many willow stems were growing catkins, which produce pollen for insects.
Willow stems ranged in diameter and length. The tallest willows were 15 to 20 feet, from five years of growth after coppicing.
Artist Patrick Dougherty (pictured above) worked with a team of volunteers to create the willow structure in May at the Arboretum. Photo by Jim Douglas.
In just three weeks, volunteers helped Dougherty complete his vision of a whimsical, labyrinthine structure. Photo by Jim Douglas.
Arboretum guests enjoyed watching the sculpture come together. The sculpture was completed and opened to the public on May 24. It’ll stay on display at the Arboretum for the next few years. Photo by Jim Douglas.
Back in Waseca, there is already significant regrowth of the willows that were cut for the YouBetcha willow structure in April. This photo, taken July 11, 2019, is a close up looking down on the cut stem with new multiple stems coming from the stump.
New growth on the cut willows were over 6 feet tall on July 11, 2019. All 5 willow cultivars are showing remarkable regrowth and height, which will catch lots of snow this winter as a living snow fence. The Waseca willows will continue to provide sustainable benefits to the environment, economy and safety to travelers on U.S. Hwy 14.
They’ll also provide a source of whimsy and joy to Arboretum visitors.
Photo by Jason Boudreau-Landis.

4 comments on “The Willow Story

  1. Great story. I am glad to hear about people using innovative methods to solve problems like snow drifting.

  2. Howard M Soost

    Great story but my question is when is the right time to cut and/or harvest the sticks for planting an how long should the stick be? I have tried several times with willow trees but was never successful.

  3. Pingback: 2019 Year in Photos – Nature Notes

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