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Teaching this week: Rose pruning (as always!) and water management

Friday, 28 February 2014

Salix Caprea Kilmarnock: How Not To!

Under the general heading of "Crimes against Horticulture", this little tree makes me cringe every time I see it:

Why?

Let me count the ways...

It's worth repeating that these are not "natural" trees, but are two types in one. The top part is a strongly weeping Salix Caprea, (Goat Willow, also known as Pussy Willow) grafted onto a straight upright stem of another willow. 

It's a very popular little tree, being in effect a dwarf weeping willow on a short, upright stem.

But they need some very particular maintenance: you have to cut out any growth from below the graft or join, as it will be from the rootstock, ie not weeping at all.

As you can see here, the groundsman has totally failed to nip off new rootstock sprouts as they occurred, and now they are bigger than the original tree.

So that is the first and biggest mistake.

Then there is the terrible "pudding bowl" chop that he's done to the top part. Wrong! Wrong! The effect to aim for is a "light, airy waterfall" of foliage. Chopping off the ends like this ruins the shape of it, it looks ridiculous, and it will take quite some time to get it back in shape, as every cut end will now sprout a handful of new shoots.

I'm not even going to mention the "why bother with it" staking style, nor the tasteful ruff of weeds at the base...

So what should you do?

Firstly, regular vigilance to remove any shoots from low down on the stem. If you see the first sign of a bud, rub it off. If you don't spot it until it's a small shoot, that's ok, just get the secateurs and cut it off, flush with the stem. If they are springing from below the ground, gently scrape away the soil until you see the point where it comes from the stem, and chop it off there. Replace the soil. If you just cut it at above-the-soil level, it will sprout several new stems, hydra-like, and you will have half a dozen instead of one.

Secondly, instead of chopping the top,  thin it out by removing a few selected branches, right back to the centre. This reduces congestion, and retains the shape.

If you have one that is a dense mass, get down on hands and knees and work your way under the umbrella of foliage to the central trunk. Reach upwards, and start by cutting out all the dead stuff you can see - this is a good time to do it, early spring, as the live shoots will be budding, making it easy to spot the dead ones. It's also easy in summer, but with all the leaves on it, it can be a bit harder to see what you are doing. Either way, get out all the dead stuff and see what you are left with. If it still looks dense and top-heavy, go back underneath and take out some of the lowest branches, as close to the main trunk as you can.

Oh, and from the outside, take out any branches that are not weeping - anything flying off in all directions (happy and partying, as it were, rather than weeping) is probably a shoot from the rootstock, and needs to be removed otherwise it will take over from the weeping branches. And considering that you bought it for the weeping branches, this would be a waste!

If some of your remaining branches are just too long, and are reaching the ground, then take hold of one at a time, work your way back up it to a point about a yard above the ground, and find the nearest small twig that is arching upwards and outwards, rather than inwards. Cut the branch just below this twig.

This retains the weeping outline, and reduces the chance of new growth pinging off in the wrong direction.

Having done all this work, sit back and enjoy it, and make a note to repeat the process once every year or so.

As an aside, the tree will never get any "higher" than it is: the height is dictated by the height of the graft. So although the stem will thicken, and the weeping growth will get longer and thicker, the overall tree won't get any higher. Well, not more than a couple of inches higher. This is why they are so popular - they really do stay small, and are ideal for front gardens, or for the smaller garden.

Now, all I need to do is decide whether I should do a Guerilla Gardening raid on this industrial estate, and sort out this poor little thing!

UPDATE: Yes, I did: check out Salix caprea: Guerilla Gardening for the full story!

54 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. We identified our front garden tree as a salix kilmarnock today - having been considering removing it for the last 18 months since moving in we are now going to try pruning it as you suggest and seeing if we can improve it instead :-)

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  2. Hey! That's really good news, thank you for telling me - it's nice to think that your little tree might have a second chance.

    Take photos before, won't you.... and after, then again in summer when it has recovered. It's always useful to have reference photos to remind yourselves of what you did.

    Good luck, at the very least you can be reassured that, if you don't like it once you've finished pruning it, you can still remove it!

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  3. Thanks for info. Yes go and rescue this lovely little tree x

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    1. Also thank you for the info. I've just bought one from a well known discount store - can I grow it in a pot? I have more of a back yard than a garden.

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    2. Yes you certainly can grow it in a pot, Harriet: even though willow is traditionally a vigorous tree, these are the smallest, most dwarfed willows you can get, and they will be perfectly ok in a pot.

      I would say, get the biggest pot that you realistically can: get a glazed pottery one if you can afford it, as they hold water better than unglazed terracotta, they don't heat up as badly as plastic ones do, and they are inherently heavier, so it's less likely to fall over.

      The bigger the pot, the less likely that the plant will die from lack of water: in a pot, you will have to water it, as it won't have access to the water-bank in the soil. For the first year, you will need to water it all year round (probably once a week) and you may need to water it in summer for many years to come. Usually the leaves will tell you if the pot is low in water - they will start to go limp and dull.

      Once you have planted it in the pot, add a top dressing or mulch of some sort to keep the weeds at bay - bark chippings for a natural look, stones or pebbles for a contemporary look - and to preserve moisture.

      One final thing, read up about root pruning/top dressing of plants in pots, and in a couple of years' time, you will need to do both of those. Oh, and the occasional feed of Growmore will keep it healthy.

      Other than that lot, it's a piece of cake! And the benefit of a tree in a pot in a back yard is that you can swivel it round once a month so that it grows nice and straight - and you can heave it from one side of the garden to the other now and again, if you want to change the view!

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  4. Hi Rachel

    It was interesting reading your article.
    I am currently studying an R H S course level two at the moment. One of the questions that keeps coming up is about the Salix caprea, i know it is an dioceous plant, but why cannot it be propagated by seed ?.

    Thankyou

    Steve the gardener

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  5. Hi Steve,

    That's a very interesting question, and the answer is too long for a comment, so I've written a new post just for you;

    http://rachel-the-gardener.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/salix-caprea-kilmarnock-why-cant-it-be.html

    Good luck with the RHS course, do you still have the Red Book to study?

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  6. Hello Rachel,

    I have a Salix Caprea Kilmarnock and about a month ago a did some light pruning, currently it has not started to produce any leaves, is this normal or should I be concerned ?

    Thank you

    Worried Marcus

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  7. Hi Marcus,

    Assuming you are in the UK (*laughs*), it has been a cold, damp winter and a lot of plants are starting late this year, so I wouldn't worry just yet.

    In fact, my own willows (non Kilmarnock) are not putting out leaves yet, and I'm pretty much in the centre of the country, where it is nice and sheltered: so if you were further north, or in the depths of Wales, or on a windy coast, yours may well be still taking their winter rest.

    As a general observation, I would say that it is almost impossible to kill a willow by pruning it, so you can probably relax!

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  8. Thanks for your reply.

    I live in Preston, Lancashire. I can rest easy now.

    Relaxed Marcus

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  9. Hello Rachel, I need advice how prune my willow. I don't know how to upload pictures to show you how it looks. Can you advise? Regards, Paul.

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    1. Paul and I had some correspondence about his willow, and if you want to read about it, here's the link:

      https://rachel-the-gardener.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/dwarf-willow-reversion-part-3.html

      Delete
  10. Hi Rachel,
    We have a weeping willow miniature in our front garden. We don't know what' " breed" it is but definitely a small one. We've been told it will cause chaos with foundations, drainage and such. Is this right? We were told off previous house owner that as a miniature we'd have no problems of this sort! Help!,

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  11. Hi Kell,

    Firstly, the good news: any sort of minature tree will not have the same sort of invasive root system as a normal, full-sized willow.

    Seceondly, the medium/neutral news: it is likely that the "weeping" part is grafted on to a "normal" willow rootstock, which is why people will be telling you that it will cause havoc with drains etc. However, the fact the the top part does not grow very large means that the rootstock does not feel the need to grow as large as it would normally.

    Thirdly, the bad news: not knowing exactly what combination of rootstock and top tree you have, nor how old it is, nor how near to the house, nor where the drains run, nor how solidly-built the house is etc, I can't really reassure you that all will be well: I would suggest that you contact a local tree surgeon and ask them to assess the tree and advise you as to the likely root spread etc. Most tree surgeons are knowledgeable and care for trees deeply: they won't frighten you with a scare-story about drain infiltration and suggest you have it removed just to make themselves money.

    Lastly, unfortunately the opinion of the previous owner is completely irrelevant: a) people will say anything to sell a house and b) you have no comeback against them in any case. Nor against solicitors, conveyancers or surveyors, for that matter, unless you specifically asked one of them to assess the tree (and who does that for a miniature?) and have their assessment in writing.

    So I would say, in order to put your minds at rest, get a tree surgeon to have a look at it and then you will know what you are dealing with. If they advise removal, have it removed. If they say it's ok, then heave a huge sigh of relief and enjoy the tree!

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  12. Hi Rachel, our kilmarnock willow has not budded up at all this year. The trunk looks healthy but the branches are dark red with occasional buds which have not developed. What might have happened? Thanks, Neil

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  13. Hi Neil,

    It would help to know whereabouts in the UK you are (I assume you are in the UK!!) as the local weather can make a huge difference: also is it in a pot, or in the ground? If you email me a couple of photos, that might help.

    If it makes you feel any better, I have several small trees (Acers) in pots in my west-facing back garden, all but one have been in leaf for several weeks but that one, the oldest, biggest and loveliest one, stubbornly refused to break out into leaf. I seriously thought it might be dead. But just this week, hooray! signs of leaves unfurling. And that is a group of trees who all share the same microclimate - sometimes they just take their time.

    Without seeing it, I can only suggest keeping your fingers crossed for a bit longer - it has been a long, cold, miserable, damp winter: none of which would kill a willow, but which might well delay them from starting seasonal growth.

    I'll have my fingers crossed for you as well!

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  14. Hi ! I have been looking at garden centres for weeping willows recently but I am having trouble finding ones that have a nice umbrella type canopy that weep. A lot of the Salix in stock are very slim. Any ideas where to find a good supplier ? I am in preston lancashire. Thanks !!!

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  15. Hi Faz,

    Presumably you don't mean a tortured Kilmarnock, you mean a "normal" Weeping Willow, the sort that become huge graceful trees: and they are surprising difficult to find. Be grateful that you have the internet, and keep googling! Most of the ones available for sale will be quite young (ie small enough to move) so they will look very slim, and they may not have their true weeping appearance yet.

    As a general observation, Willow grow really quickly, so whatever you buy may look like a pencil now, but will, once planted in the ground, become a substantial tree in just a few years.

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  16. Hi how far from the house would you recommend planting a Salic Kilmarnock ?

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    1. Hi Julie,

      That's an impossible question to answer, as it depends on whether it's a true grafted Kilmarnock or not: also, on what your soil is like, are there any underground springs or wells nearby, etc etc.

      However, as a general rule, any tree should not be planted close to a house or building: the usual rule is to work out the eventual spread of the canopy, then plant it no closer than 1.5 times the radius of the eventual canopy. But with a grafted tree, although you will only ever have a tiny canopy, the rootstock might grow as though it were still an original large willow - especially if the top-working fails (and you will know from reading this article just how many of them do so!) and it reverts back into being a "normal" willow.

      So, not a very helpful response, I'm afraid: personally, I certainly wouldn't plant one in a small front garden, ie the sort where there's only enough room for one or two cars on the drive.

      Hope that helps?!

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  17. Hi Rachel - I bought a Salix Kilmarnock at a sale at the weekend, thinking it would grow, by my stream, into a beautiful huge weeping willow. Having read the above, it would appear not!!! It must be a fully grafted version as I can see the "join" at the top of the stem - this appears to have been encased in a wax. I think therefore this one will have to go to my daughter (I live on a farm and have no use for a patio tree!), but can you tell me which "version" I need to buy in order to get the tree I actually want? Many thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Debbie,

      See my reply to Faz, above: it's surprisingly hard to find genuine full-sized weeping willow these days. I guess they are just too big for most gardens.

      Salix babylonica or Salix × sepulcralis are the "proper" names of two weeping willows, and I can only suggest that you use the power of the internet to check them both out, and then to source one.

      If you really can't find one, then locate a nice full sized one, and ask the owner if you can take some cuttings next winter. Willow is really easy to propagate, and it's far more exciting to watch your own cuttings grow than to buy one in.

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  18. Hello Rachel.
    We have owned a Kilmarnock willow for 2 years and it's been growing really well in a large pot in a sunny spot in the garden. In just 3 days, it's gone from beautiful to almost dead and were puzzled to understand why. Every leaf has curled and withered, although they're all still on the tree. Interestingly, there are buds appearing at the leaf stems but some leaves have small orange dots on them. Thinking it was a fungal issue, we've sprayed the tree with a fungicide but there's no sudden improvement.
    Can you suggest why it's failed so dramatically?
    Mike

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  19. Hi Mike,

    I'd really need to see a photo to make a sensible comment - any chance you could email me some? A general shot of the overall tree, plus close-ups of the leaves, the buds, and anything else you think might be useful!

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  20. Morning Rachel, thanks for responding so quickly. I've emailed 5 photos to you. One of them shows a lace-type damage which might be a clue. The speed of decline is alarming although there still appears to be healthy buds at the leaf stem.
    Many thanks for your time.

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  21. I have a potted Kilmarnock willow which seems to be doing pretty well but over the last couple of months I've noticed hard yellow /brown blisters appearing on some of the leaves (about 1cm dia). Not sure if it is some sort of bug larvae or fungus, or just normal for this type of tree. Grateful for Any advice! Thanks (ps. Near Poole, Dorset)

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  22. Mike, David: I've just written a fresh article with more info on Mike's particular tree, but David, it should be of interest to you as well, as it sounds as though your willow might have rust as well.

    Here is the link:

    http://rachel-the-gardener.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/sad-looking-willow-salix-kilmarnock.html

    ..and I hope it helps!

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  23. Thanks Rachel. I've followed your guidance and the tree has responded really well. It was looking so sad that I feared it was dying. New buds are developing and no sign of disease or infestation. Sincere thanks for the great advice.
    Mike

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  24. Hi I have a salix kilmarnock in a pot it has had willows and was really leafy but it's leaves are now all limp but the branches are full of new buds.Am I doing something wrong it is at my caravan so not always there.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Clare,

      Well, it sounds like a simple case of neglect: if it's in a fairly small pot, and you are not there all the time, it is probably just not being watered often enough.

      When any small tree is stressed - and let's face it, not getting any water is enough to stress anything! - it responds by losing leaves. The longer it is without water, the more leaves it loses. This allows it to save what little water it has. When water arrives, new buds will break out into new leaves.

      Eventually the tree will become cross, bored, fed-up and resentful of this treatment, and will die. But until then, irregular watering will result in a cycle of dropping leaves and growing new ones.

      What can you do to help it? Put it into a bigger pot, and water it well every time you go there.

      There's a post coming soon about growing trees in small pots, so keep watching!

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    2. Thank you so much for the really helpful post about how to (and how not to) prune the dwarf Kilmarnock willow. We moved to a new house in November and inherited one of these intriguing trees. It developed lovely catkins in the spring. Now, towards the end of summer it is looking a little sad. I suspect I may need to treat it for rust, but what I really need to know is whether to remove the branches which are sticking up above the preferred umbrella shape. I will email some photos separately. Many thanks
      Carolyn

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    3. Hi Carolyn, I've received the photos and it looks fine: they all tend to look a bit sad at this time of year!

      My best advice regarding the rust, is to pick off affected leaves as you see them, along with all fallen leaves, and make sure to bin or burn them: don't add them to compost heaps. Then in autumn, make sure you rake up every single fallen leaf and, again, bin or burn them: don't try to make leaf mold from them. This is to break the cycle of the rust fungus - or at least to reduce the quantity of it!

      You can help the tree by thinning out the canopy to allow more air flow, and by giving it a general or balanced liquid feed to promote strong growth. All willows need a lot of water, so it can help to give it a bit of extra watering during dry, windy periods such as we have been having recently.

      As for the protruding branches, yes, you can remove them: willows are very amenable to pruning, and your particular one has a very dense canopy, so you can certainly afford to lose a few branches. Cut them off as close to the "main" branch as you can, and use sharp secateurs to get nice clean cuts.

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  25. I have one of these. Only moved in last year and it looks like it's been neglected for years. The centre was all twisted and heavily gnarled. I pruned it quite heavily in spring, taking out all the dead stuff (there was a lot) and anything that was twisted or going in the wrong direction. A gardener had told me to do the top hat thing as in the picture above, with the remaining branches. It did look ridiculous for a few months, but he assured me it would grow back ok. It has certainly grown back, but the leaves are really dried and crispy. It does not look like a healthy tree. I don't really know what to do from here.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jamie, I don't quite understand what you mean by the "top hat thing", any chance you could email me a picture of it?

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  26. Hi Rachel, I just bought a salix caprea plant and on the care instructions says that once the catkins have stopped flowering that the plant needs to be cut to 15 cams if I want another amentaceous season. Surely this sounds a bit drastic and will mean that we won't get any leaves on it to look nice in the garden?? Thanks Mel.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mel, that does sound a bit drastic - 15cms (6")? Is it a dwarf cultivar? Or is it a top-worked standard ("lollipop on a stick")?

      Without seeing it, I would comment that firstly if you don't cut it at all, you WILL get catkins again next year ("amentaceous" means "bearing catkins") as they will appear on the new growth: secondly, if you did cut it drastically as soon as the catkins are over, then yes you would get leaves, as it will throw out a whole lot of new growth in response to being pruned, and this new growth will indeed bear leaves.

      I suspect that the instructions are intended to help you to keep the plant down to the same sort of size that it is now: all Salix (willows) tend to be vigorous growers, and will quickly become too big for many gardens, if left unpruned.

      Hope this helps!

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  27. Hi Rachel, how thirsty are these willows? I understand they really like water. I have a clay soil which makes for a pretty high water table. After heavy, heavy rain during the winter there's standing water of an inch or two for a couple of days. Could I plant this tree slap bang in the middle of the dampest area or would that be too wet in the winter?? Many thanks.

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    1. Ooooo, that's an interesting question.

      Firstly, I should say that you are quite correct, willows like water. This means that a) they can tolerate wet conditions where other plants might rot and fail, but b) often, given a lot of water, they will grow, grow, grow!

      If you have a top-worked Salix 'Kilmarnock' (ie something with a straight trunk up about 5' high then a lot of weeping branches grafted on to it) then it will never grow any higher, no matter how much water it gets: but the rootstock (the trunk), which is basically a normal willow, might get a bit excited if given too much water, and might start throwing out a lot of suckers from ground level, in which case you will have to be vigilant and keep on removing them as soon as they appear.

      So in answer to the question, Yes, you probably can plant one of them slap bang in the boggy bit, and it may well survive.

      However, lateral thinking, if you have an area which is often turned into a bog, would you think about creating a bog garden there, instead? Sometimes you can spend all year fighting the conditions, when it might be better to bow to the inevitable and make a garden that fits the conditions?

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    2. Yes! I have thought about the bog garden route. My first plan was to create an area of wild flowers. Strip the lawn etc sow some wild flowers and throw in some wetland types in the really soggy bit. Not quite water lilies but something that won't mind a bit of swimming now and again. I'm near the Potteries so the whole town sits on clay. There's not point in trying to fight it as you say. Thanks for advice. James.

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  28. Hmm, I was just given this plant as a gift!!! I would never have bought it knowing that I am attempting to grow a bonsai willow!!!! But i still cant an asnwer to the question of growing it near a drain!!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Frankie,

      If you are concerned about planting it near to a drain (I assume the question is twofold ie 1, will it damage the drains and 2, will the presence of water make it grow like mad) then take the other option, and plant it in a pot or tub or trough. Make sure the pot is off the ground, ie up on feet or bricks, and get a biggish pot, so that you don't have to worry about it drying out too quickly in windy/hot weather.

      They're quite lovely in their own way, honest!

      Delete
  29. I have a miniature willow but the weeping branches only grow on one side the few that started to grow on the rest of the plant are dead.
    Any idea why
    Mick

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    Replies
    1. Mick, apologies for the delay in responding: what you describe is quite common, unfortunately. The tree is created by grafting several weeping branches onto one single (non-weeping) trunk, and it can sometimes happen that the graft fails on one or two of the branches. A miniature willow will probably only have three or four branches grafted to it, so if one of those fails, it will leave a big gap.

      There's not a lot you can do about it: I did fix one once, it was 4' high and - as you describe - very much only alive on one side. The Client provided an old wire-frame hemisphere (a broken hanging basket) which I wiggled up aroung the trunk under the canopy of weeping branches. I then gently forced a few of the "live" branches over and round, tying them to the wire frame, such as to fill the gap. It looked hideous for a month, then the leaves grew, and a year later you would never have guessed how poor it used to look. And until autumn, you couldn't see the wire frame, either!

      You could have a go at that - or it might be easier to buy a new tree.

      Hope this helps!

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  30. My Kilmarnock willow is growing to the right side. How do you get the branches to bend over and grow left aswell

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    Replies
    1. See the comment above! It's a similar problem - branches on one side, none on the other, although by the sound of it, yours is responding to external influences: possibly there is prevailing wind which forces it to one side, or maybe it's in a rather shady spot, and is heading towards the light?

      Either way, try the method mentioned above, or just ease a few of the branches to the "other" side, and tie them in place for a couple of months, until they set in that position.

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  31. Hello. We have a salic caprea we think. Please see photo. We have had it three years and it gets covered in leaves but doesn't flower. The first year it had one flower on the top and one on the bottom. This year there was only one squiggly little flower before all the leaves came but we want it to flower properly. We think it is well watered and in the sunshine. No birds sit on it so we don't think the catkins are being eaten. Please help.dont know how to upload photo here!

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    Replies
    1. Hi - you can't add photos to a comment, so please email the photo to me at Rachel@Rachel-the-gardener.co.uk, and I'll take a look at it for you.

      Delete
  32. Hello. I hope you may be able to help. I have a Kilmarnock willow in my garden which accidentally snapped at the weekend....I think it's was being partly supported by a pergola & climber which was removed. It also hasn't been pruned all that well so would seem to be a little top heavy. I will try to upload an image later but it's around 6ft tall with a "pudding bowl" chop (sorry). I have temporarily tied it up and put a strap around the area where it snapped. Any advice would be appreciated.

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    1. I really need to see a photo of it! You can't upload photos here, so please email me at Rachel@Rachel-the-gardener.co.uk
      and I'll see if I can offer any helpful comments.

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    2. Photos received, comments emailed back: in case anyone has a similar problem, if the main stem snaps, then you have probably lost the whole tree, sadly.

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  33. Hi Rachel, my miniature willow has been in situ in my garden for around 15 years so it's well established. However, this year, no signs of any leaves on the existing branches ? There is some new growth at the back , the kind off shoots that grow straight up vertically and I remove every year. I can't quite remember it being so late starting to grow leaves before. Do you think it's ok? I am in the north of England near Manchester. Thanks. Jill. D

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jill,

      Oh dear, if it hasn't shown signs of life by now - late May - then it might be in trouble. Can you email me a couple of photos of it - to Rachel@Rachel-the-gardener.co.uk - and I'll take a look.

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  34. Hi Rachel
    We bought a Salix Kilmarnock about 2 weeks ago and planted it in a pot. However I noticed this morning that there was some sawdust at the base and a tiny hole in the trunk. Obviously something has bored into the trunk and I can't find any information about this. Can you help?

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    Replies
    1. It's probably a Willow borer, a type of insect which, as the name suggests, bores into willows, damaging them en route.

      Take the tree back to wherever you bought it!

      They should immediately give you a refund: don't take a replacement, as all their stock is probably infected.

      Delete

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