Keys to the Willow Tree: Cultivation, Uses & Varieties

Updated November 8, 2021
weeping will tree in park in autumn Germany

The long, sweeping branches of weeping willows add a sense of serenity and beauty and movement to a garden that few other trees can. However, you need to be sure that your garden is the right spot for these majestic, sometimes troublesome, trees.

Growing Willow Trees in Your Garden

Willow trees tend to be large, heavily shading anything growing beneath them. They also develop very deep, strong root systems, which are wonderful for protecting against soil erosion, but not so great if they damage plumbing or septic systems. It's important to place this graceful tree in the right spot in your garden so you can enjoy it for years to come.

Where to Plant Willow: Light and Soil Requirements

Willow trees need full sun to partial shade (at least four hours of full sun per day) and moist, rich, well-draining soil. They're hardy in Zones 4 through 10 and adapt pretty well to most conditions, except for very dry soils; they need moisture to thrive.

Be sure to give the willow lots of room - they shouldn't be planted any closer than 50 feet away from your home or other outdoor structures, and should be kept far away from underground utilities and concrete as well, which the roots can easily damage over time.

Watering and Fertilizing

Willow trees need plenty of water. The soil should be moist and well-drained, and this is even more important when you first plant the tree and it's getting established in its new location. The tree will need at least an inch of water per week, which means you should plan on watering weekly (unless it has rained) for at least the first year after planting.

Weeping willow trees don't need fertilizer to grow well. However, if the leaves start looking pale and yellowing, it would be a good idea to apply a balanced fertilizer in spring.

Pruning Willow Trees

Willow trees don't really need much in the way of pruning. You may want to prune lower branches so that the tree is easy to walk beneath.

Other than that, the only pruning they'll need is regular removal of dead branches or any branches that rub against each other, which can lead to rot or pest damage.

Willow Pests and Diseases

young deer fawn eating from a willow tree

There are a few diseases and pests that can affect willow trees, though they're generally fairly sturdy trees.

  • Disease and fungal issues include powdery mildew and willow blight.
  • Common willow tree pests are gypsy moths and aphids.
  • Deer are also fans of willow trees, and will often nibble on the tender tips of any branches within reach.

The best way to reduce any fungal or disease issues is to be sure the tree is getting adequate water. It's also a good idea to rake up any leaf debris in fall, just to be sure that any fungal issues won't continue to plague the tree the following season.

Propagating Willows

Weeping willow trees can be easily propagated via stem cuttings. It's so easy, in fact, that if the branches are touching the ground, they'll often root on their own, making new trees.

  1. To propagate from cuttings, remove 2-foot-long cuttings from the tree when it's dormant.
  2. Push the cuttings into the ground before the soil freezes.
  3. Keep the cuttings watered until the ground freezes.
  4. Check the cutting the following spring to see if it has buds, and continue to water to help the new tree develop strong roots.

Growing Willow Trees: Common Questions

There are a few common questions gardeners have about weeping willow trees. Here are some at-a-glance answers to these frequently asked questions.

How Fast Do Willow Trees Grow?

It varies depending on the type of weeping willow, but many willow trees grow about six to 10 feet per year.

Where Should You Not Plant Willow Trees?

You should not plant willow trees closer than 50 feet away from homes or other structures, or near underground utilities, wells, or septic fields.

Is It Hard to Grow a Willow Tree?

Willow trees are very easy to grow as long as they have fertile, moist soil, and adequate water. They don't require much maintenance and have very few pest or disease problems.

Beautiful Willows to Grow in Your Garden

While weeping willows all tend to have that same long, graceful, weeping form, there are variations in foliage color and size, so you can find a willow tree that works perfectly in your landscape.

Golden Weeping Willow

Salix alba 'Tristis,' better known as Golden weeping willow, has medium green leaves that turn a bright, golden yellow in fall for gorgeous fall color. It grows to around 80 feet tall and has a very wide canopy. The new growth and stems are also yellow, eventually turning to the more standard gray-brown color of the older bark as it matures. It's hardy in Zones 4 through 8.

Wisconsin Weeping Willow

Wisconsin weeping willow (Salix babylonica x Salix pentandra) grows to around 30 to 40 feet tall and equally as wide and is a very fast grower. It's hardy in Zones 3 through 9.

White Willow

White willow (Salix Alba) grows to about 75 feet tall and has green and white, slightly fuzzy leaves. This is a fairly low-maintenance variety, rarely needing pruning or much in the way of pest or disease management. This is the variety of willow tree that modern aspirin was derived from, and its bark is still often used as a natural pain-killer. White willow is hardy in Zones 3 through 8. It's worth mentioning that this tree doesn't "weep" as much as the others in this list, but still has a pretty, graceful form that might work well in your garden.

Kilmarnock Willow (AKA Dwarf Weeping Willow)

Salix caprea Kilmarnock willow tree

The Kilmarnock willow is smaller than most other willow trees and is therefore better suited to smaller gardens. It only grows to five or six feet tall, and it has a coarser leaf appearance than most willow trees. Unlike standard weeping willows, Kilmarnock produces the fuzzy catkins that other Salix family members (specifically pussy willows) produce. Because it's such a small tree, dwarf weeping willows also do well in containers.

Kilmarnock willow is hardy in Zones 4 through 8. These (and other varieties of weeping willows that are labeled as dwarf varieties, for the most part) are grafted willow trees. You'll want to make sure that you remove any suckers that grow up from the soil, since these will be offshoots of whatever the rootstock is and won't look at all like the Kilmarnock.

Babylon Weeping Willow

Babylon weeping willows have very long, feathery branches. The tree reaches up to 40 feet tall and wide. The leaves of Babylon willow are green on top and silvery on the bottom, and turn a yellowish-green color in fall.

This is definitely not a tree for small yards; it has weak wood, which means branches break and fall, and it also has an extensive root system, bad for pipes, underground utilities, and foundations. If you have a large property with moist, rich soil, this might be a good variety for your garden. Babylon willow is hardy in Zones 4 through 9.

Good Companions for Willow Trees

Willows are somewhat difficult to plant around because their canopies tend to be fairly dense and the branches often hang down to the ground, making it a little more cumbersome to work under them.

The best option for planting under a weeping willow is to plant perennial groundcovers such as vinca or ajuga. Hostas and astilbes can also be a good option, especially around the outer canopy of the tree.

Sometimes, the best option is to just let lawn grasses be the ground cover, and this is a good option for planting under weeping willows. The grass won't grow very quickly under a willow tree, so you won't have to worry about mowing often. Plus, as an added bonus, if you have lawn beneath the tree, it makes it easy to make it into a nice little picnic or reading area, out of the sun.

Weeping Willow: Gorgeous Trees for the Right Sites

Willow trees can be considered pest trees if they're not planted in the right place. They need plenty of room and to be in a spot where they won't damage structures or utilities. But, if you have the room for one, weeping willows can look absolutely magical in the landscape.

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Keys to the Willow Tree: Cultivation, Uses & Varieties