Sunday, 19 January 2020

Salix caprea - dead or alive?

I had an email from a chap called Eddie yesterday - Hi, Eddie! *waves*.

He has a couple of really sickly-looking miniature weeping willows (the grafted ones) and he's wondering if they'll be  live again, or whether they are dead.

Here's the first photo, and oh dear, it does look a bit sad, doesn't it?

Mind you, almost everything is looking sad, or beyond sad, at the moment, which is not unreasonable considering that we are just about in the middle of winter.

(What do you consider Winter to be? I think Winter is Dec, Jan Feb, spring is then Mar, April, May: summer is June, July and Aug, and autumn is Sept, Oct and Nov. Seems fair to me?)

Here's the other photo, the right-hand tree is also looking very sad.

So, what do I think?

Well, first the good news: there are some small branches there, Eddie, which are pale brown in colour, can you see them? There's one going across in front, in this picture. Those are almost definitely still alive.

More good news: all willows look like this at this time of year. Usually they drop the dead leaves, so they don't look quite so alarming.

So, what would I advise?

Firstly, "wait until spring" - whatever you do, don't be tempted to chop anything off, just because it looks dead. With these little grafted trees, cutting them back ruins their form, and if  you are too heavy-handed, you could lose all the lovely weeping branches altogether. So don't try to "tidy up" the upper part.

But in the meantime, you can make them look better by very gently cupping your hand loosely around each branch, and running it downwards to gently nudge off the dead leaves.

Sweep them all up, get rid of them.

Then look at the surface of the pots - they are both covered with green stuff, and from this distance it looks like mostly Marchantia, or Liverworts. This is really not helping the trees, as they are stealing all the nutrients and a lot of the moisture, and willows need their water!

So, get something like an old pencil and see if you can get rid of them. I'd put the pot up on a bench or table to make it easier to work with, and wear eye protection or just be careful not to get a branch in the eye. Lever our the top layer - you'll probably find that you can peel off whole slabs of Liverwort, which is strangely satisfying.

Get it all off, then very carefully and gently check around the trunk, at ground level, to make sure you got it all. If you leave just one bit, it will regrow. You might need to use a fingernail to very, very gently remove the Liverwort from the base of the trunk. I'm trying not to use the word "scrape", as you really don't want to damage the bark.

Top up the pots, as you will have removed a good inch of the top layer, with some fresh compost, and maybe a layer of mulch on top.

Remove those labels: labels with elastic ties can often strangle a small plant, because the wind makes them twizzle round tighter and tighter, and those plastic tickets will degrade in sunlight, so one day you'll come back to find bits of fractured plastic all over the ground and no sign of the label.

I always suggest that people get themselves a Garden Notebook, in which they can make notes of when they buy plants, stick in the labels and the receipts, print out photos and stick them in, write comments about parts of the garden which are really good one year, or which are not so good, etc. So pop the labels in your Garden Notebook. 

Then replace the pots, having taken the opportunity to sweep away all the debris around and behind where they were standing.

If you can barely lift the pots because they are so heavy, put them up on a couple of bricks to aid drainage. (Or those nice little decorative "feet" for pots.)

If they are so light you nearly drop them in surprise, then after mulching, give them a good watering.

Now wait until spring, and see what happens. Willows are very tough, and will do their best to recover from any amount of damage and/or neglect, so there is every chance that they will produce buds and then leaves, and  be lovely again this year. Be patient!

Oh, and you might like to reconsider where they are standing: to be covered with Liverworts like that suggests that they are somewhere a bit damp, and a bit shady. They might grow better and recover faster, if they get a wee bit more sun?

I hope this helps, Eddie, and do send me pictures in spring!

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