Willows are already well known for supplying timber that makes excellent cricket bats, and as a source of aspirin (along with poplars), but they are also very useful on the land for preventing erosion on hillsides and giving stock shelter and shade. Willow foliage also makes great feed for stock during droughts – and they love to eat it.
Early types planted on New Zealand farms were not the best, and crack willows are now a nuisance along rivers in the South Island, even though they put on a super autumn colour show for tourists. Plant researchers developed improved types from imported trees during the 1960s and 70s and these are sold as 2-3 metres poles and perform well as soil conservation and shelterbelt trees.
Like poplars, willows grow quickly – up to 3 metres a year – and can soon become a menace if left un-managed. However, it is easy to prune 4 to 7-year-old trees by pollarding them at shoulder height with a chainsaw and these will regrow as a bushy, thin-branched form that is easily pruned every year or two using loppers. If you do have to use a forestry ladder to climb into the “nest” of multi-branched regrowth, then be sure to tie it to the tree trunk or cattle will easily knock it over, stranding you up the tree! Managed this way to supply valuable emergency fodder in dry summers, willows will grow for decades.
Willows also add great beauty to the landscape and attract bird life to the property. Plant poles for erosion control at 10-15 metres apart.
Willows, like poplars, make excellent trees to prevent farm effluent from polluting waterways, as they act as pumps and can absorb nitrates and other pollutants from the soil water. Planted in a riparian strip with other trees and shrubs, they will create natural beauty for your land.