With over 100 species of woody ornamentals grown commercially, how does a new grower choose the best ones? The first step is to do a quick screen to make sure the plant you want to grow will do well in your “microclimate” of soil type, plant hardiness zone and sun exposure.
To use a popular example, let’s take a look at willow. The Salix species has been around far longer than humans, and has adapted to grow in a wide range of conditions from arctic to tropical. Humans have long used willow shoots to make baskets, furniture, fencing, floral arrangements and fuel.
Today, willow is still a popular material for all those uses, which is why it can be such a profitable plant. Growers are selling dormant willow stems to florists for arrangements, as live cuttings for plantings, and as value-added products such as furniture and crafts. Willow stems are sold directly to crafters, at farmer’s markets, to retail and wholesale florists, even on the internet.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture recently prepared a report about growing willow for profit in their state, and found a few surprises. One grower they interviewed mentioned the demand for willow stems was so high they were unable to keep up with it. The researchers found that an acre of well-managed willow could produce 4-5 tons of salable willow stems. With retail prices for basketry stems at $7.50 per pound, an acre could produce a gross income of $60,000 to $75,000.
Here are a few pointers for prospective willow growers to consider:
- Willows prefer a deep, rich soil with adequate water. A drip irrigation system can boost production at drier sites.
- Willow plants are started from dormant 12 inch cuttings taken from 1 year old willow shoots.
- Cuttings are planted in the dormant season – November to March – by simply sticking them in the ground with 9 inches of the stem buried. A metal planting rod is used to make sure the bark is not damaged.
- Basketry willows can be planted as densely as 10-12 inches apart, with just a 3 foot spacing between rows.
- New plants are cut back to the ground at the end of the first season to ensure multiple stem growth the next year.
- Willow plants have a 20 year lifespan before replacement is necessary.
- Deer are the biggest pest problem, but can be controlled effectively with an electric fence. Visit gallagherusa.com to learn how to keep these critters out without spending a fortune.
- Harvested willow stems, also called rods, are sold by the pound and sorted by length and variety.
Although willow can be a very profitable cash crop for growers, don’t overlook the dozens of other valuable woodies that are available. Planting a diverse mix of species is a sensible form of insurance for most growers. To learn more about growing woody ornamental, read Growing Woody Ornamentals For Profit.