Use willows on your homestead

7 Wonderful Uses for Willows on the Homestead

Willows are a beautiful and versatile tree that serves a broad range of functions for both people and wildlife. Many of us are familiar with willows in their natural environment, but do you know how to use them on your homestead? There are a number of excellent uses for willows, and having a willow patch on your homestead is always a great idea. Keep reading to learn how you can use willows on your homestead.

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One of the first things I did when my wife and I moved to our homestead was to set up some willow patches. My willow patch is still getting established, but I know it will be a great resource for my homestead as they grow.

There are just too many great uses of willows not to get a patch established. This post will introduce you to 7 ways to use willows.

7 Ways to Use Willows on Your Homestead

  • 1
    Rooting Hormone – Willow Water
  • 2
    Habitat for Wildlife
  • 3
    Garden Trellises and Structures
  • 4
    Cleaning Water Runoff
  • 5
    Medicine
  • 6
    Chop-and-Drop Material
  • 7
    Animal Fodder – Tree Hay

So are you ready to learn more about how to use willows on your homestead? Before you scroll down, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet so you can keep this list of uses for willows in your library.

1. Rooting Hormone – Willow Water

One of the main reasons I wanted to have my own willow patch was for making willow water. Willows have high levels of a natural rooting hormone. This makes it easy to get willows established through a process called live staking.

If you take a willow cutting and stick it in the ground in the fall, there’s a good chance it will take root and start growing the following spring.

But it doesn’t just work for willows.

You can make what’s called willow water by essentially making a tea from 1-year-old willow cuttings. This willow water can then be used to soak cuttings from other plants to stimulate them to root.

Using willow water in this way can greatly improve the success of your propagation efforts. Since buying plants can get expensive, being able to propagate your own plants is a great way to establish your homestead without spending a lot of money.

2. Habitat for Wildlife

Wildlife habitat is a great use of willows

These willow flowers are some of the first flowers to open up in the late winter. They might not be very showy but bumblebees and hummingbirds love them! Willows provide great habitat for all sorts of wildlife!

One great use for willows is to provide fantastic habitat for wildlife. In the spring, they are one of the first plants to flower, providing food for bees and even humming birds.

Birds will use willows for shelter and for nesting. Willows are also great for stabilizing streambanks, and they’ll provide shade and cover for fish.

Given how fast willows grow, they can be a great way to quickly create habitat for wildlife.

3. Garden Trellises and Structures

Another great use of willows is to have a never-ending supply of material to make trellises and other garden structures.

Coppicing or pollarding your willows can be a great way to produce a large amount of straight, flexible branches for trellises.

Just don’t stick your new trellises into the ground if the main posts are made from fresh wood. Willows will easily root, and your new trellis might start growing!

The easiest way to avoid this issue is to use dried wood for your support posts and then do the weaving with green, flexible wood.

Otherwise, you can build your trellis so that it doesn’t need to stick into the ground. 

4. Cleaning Water Runoff

Use willows to clean water runoff

Runoff from a shared dirt road is directed into this deep mulch pit. The willows growing around the pit help clean the runoff from the road before it enters the rest of my homestead.

Willows are naturally heavy feeders, making them great for absorbing excess nutrients. This can help clean up water runoff.

If you have areas that collect runoff, say from a road, you can use willows to help absorb and clean the runoff.

Finally, if you use an outdoor composting toilet, you can grow willows around it to help ensure no excess nutrients end up in your water systems.

5. Medicine

Willows can be a useful natural medicine to help alleviate pain and inflammation. Some willows are a natural source of salicin, an anti-inflammatory compound. Combined with flavonoids and polyphenols also found in the willow, the bark can be used as an alternative to aspirin. 

The active material is found in the bark of willows, which can easily be made into a tea.

Though I should note that I have not used willows in this way myself. The video above has some information about how to make a tea from willows for this purpose.

While this may not be an everyday use of willows, it’s nice to know that if the need arises, you can use willows as pain relief.

6. Chop-and-Drop Material

Use willows for chop-and-drop

Willows like this one can put on a ton of growth. Here it is encroaching on a log used for sitting. But I can chop-and-drop the excess growth to help build soil. The whole shrub could be cut down and it would regrow the following spring.

Willows can produce large amounts of new growth each year. This makes a willow patch a great source of chop-and-drop material for your homestead. Chop-and-drop is a quick and easy way to mulch your plants and replenish the soils with nutrients.

Since willows can be coppiced on a regular cycle, (2-3 years), you can set up a rotation so that each year you harvest a large amount of willow biomass to use as mulch around your other plants.

Insert Wild Tip: If you’re using willows to absorb excess nutrients in water runoff, this regular chop-and-drop harvest cycle can be a great way to harvest those excess nutrients to benefit your other plants.

7. Animal Fodder – Tree Hay

If you have animals like cows, sheep, and goats on your homestead, then you can use willows to grow fodder for these animals. This type of fodder was historically called tree hay, and it can be harvested en masse through coppicing and pollarding. 

The tree hay can be harvested and brought to the animals, or the willows can be grown where your animals can reach them directly. Pollarding is a wood harvesting method you can use for the tree hay if you want to keep the new growth up high, where the animals can’t reach.

Tree hay can be a great way to expand the diet of your animals and cut down on your feed costs.

Getting Started with Willows

Start using willows on your homestead

The first winter after moving to our homestead I went out and planted a bunch of willow live stakes. Despite issues with deer there is now a nice willow patch growing in a wet area on my homestead. Using live stakes is a great way to get started with willows!

So are you convinced to grow willows on your homestead? There are a wide number of willows to choose from, and there are likely a number of willows that are native to your area.

A great way to start your own willow patch is to find someone in your area that has willows growing wild on their land. Ask them if you can harvest some sticks or twigs that are at least around an inch or 2 (2.5 – 5 cm) wide. (These are the parts of the tree that are around 2 years old.)  

Because willow takes root so easily, you can literally just stick these in the ground.

Put the bottom end of the stick in the ground, so the buds point up. Make sure at least 2 or 3 buds are above the ground.

I like to harvest willow twigs that are wide enough to be pounded in with a mallet and are 3-4 feet (1 – 1.2 m) long, so I can bury them 1-2 feet (0.3 – 0.6 m) into the ground.

But the main thing is to make sure several buds are below the ground and several buds are above the ground.

This is a fairly simple way to plant a lot of willows. Even if some don’t make it, you’ll still end up with a nice willow patch.

Otherwise you can buy willows. Then, once they get established, you can take cuttings from those willows to expand your patch.

As you have seen, there are many great uses for willows on your homestead. Before you go, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet so you can start using willows on your homestead today.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Jane says:

    “bury them [some sticks or twigs that are at least around an inch or 2 (2.5 – 5 cm) wide. (These are the parts of the tree that are around 2 years old.)] 1-2 feet (0.3 – 0.6 m) into the ground…But the main thing is to make sure several buds are below the ground and several buds are above the ground.”

    Is this method good for other types of bush/tree?

    • Daron says:

      Hello Jane and thanks for your comment! It depends on the bush/tree–some will grow that way but often they need a little help. Creating willow water and soaking the cuttings in that before sticking them in the ground can help. On my own homestead I tend to try it out and see what happens. In the fall I will take cuttings from plants that I’m interesting in and just stick them in the ground. Sometimes this works and I get new plants but sometimes it does not.

      But this method is quick and easy and you can stick a lot of cuttings in the ground so even if only a small percentage survives it can still be a good way to get more plants established.

      Currents seem to do well with this method but I have had no luck with hazelnuts as an example.

      Good luck!

  • phil says:

    Great topic, Daron. Real workhorse tree, the willow. I’ve got a couple of twists on your tips:

    3a) Living structures: I use stout poles planted in the ground instead of treated timber posts. My hops trellis is supported by four trees about 2.5m apart. They get pollarded every winter. Very sturdy, won’t rot, and they stand up to the stiff winds that we get here. I’ve also got a bunch interspersed with my fruit trees in case I ever want to set up a large frame for bird netting.

    6a) Chop-Drop-Char: I coppice most of my willow on a 2-year rotation in order to get bigger poles which are more useful. The ones that don’t become stakes or props in the garden, as well as the ones from last season which have started to bend or break, get tossed into the kontiki or the volcano and turned into biochar. We all know how many cool things you can do with biochar.

    • Daron says:

      Hello Phil and thanks for leaving a comment! Those are great additions to the tips covered in the blog post. I love the idea of living structures–I might have to give that a try on my own homestead! Turning willows into biochar using coppicing is a great option–there are many great ways to use willows! 🙂

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