Coles County Yard and Garden

Coles County Yard and Garden

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Pruning Pussy Willows to Keep as Shrubs

by Kathy Hummel, Coles County Master Gardener

Pussy willows bring back fond childhood memories: Our back yard had a huge bush and in the very early spring, Mom would cut bunches and bring them into the house. We loved the silky catkins and Mom arranged stalks into striking arrangements. I'm sure the bush was never intentionally pruned, for it reached nearly to the 2nd story windows.

The key to success in growing pussy willows as compact bushes for your landscaping lies in how you prune them:

•Pruning pussy willows controls their size -- an important consideration in itself, since bushes with branches 20' high will be difficult to harvest for their pussy willows in late winter.

•Pruning promotes vigorous new branches on the bushes which will produce larger catkins. New shoots will be encouraged to emerge from the roots as "suckers."

•Pruning bushes also helps prevent disease, fungus and insect problems.

Winter is an excellent time in which to prune many plants, taking advantage of their dormancy. However, in the case of plants that bloom on shoots produced during the previous growing season, winter pruning robs you of this spring's blooms. Fortunately, this is not a problem with pussy willows. For although the catkins do appear on last season's shoots, they arrive in late winter. Simply harvest the pussy willows, then complete your pruning of the bushes.

Steps for pruning Pussy Willows properly:

1. Harvest the tops of branches bearing catkins.

2. Remove any dead branches.

3. Then cut one-third of the oldest branches back to the ground. The oldest

branches are the gray-colored ones.

4. Next determine where the newest (brown-colored) branches are -- the

vigorous new growth coming from lower on the main stems. The tops of

these branches will serve as gauge for your remaining cuts.

5. The remaining cuts will be made on the branches - the tops of which you

just harvested for their catkins. Make your cuts back to level determined

in step #4.

6. Repeat this process for three years in a row. At this point all of the oldest

growth of the pussy willow shrubs will have been removed -- you have

"new" shrubs.

Of course, you will also be pruning with an eye to shaping the pussy willow shrubs to suit your tastes. Use sharp pruners and make your cuts above nodes (leaf buds). Cutting above nodes that grow along the outside (i.e., furthest from the center of the shrubs) of branches is most effective. An offshoot from the outer part of a branch will grow outward and is less likely to cross over other branches. Branches of pussy willows that are already crossing should be removed. They shade each other, reducing the number of catkins.

The idea behind pruning pussy willows is to promote new growth. You want to increase the size of the shrubs laterally, while restricting their upward growth. To the eye of most people, a rounded shape is preferable for pussy willow shrubs.

Pussy willows are fine fodder for wild animals. The leaves are rich in Vitamin C and zinc. Pussy willows are an important nesting site for American goldfinch, while other songbirds use them to a lesser degree. The cover and protection thickets of willow provide are probably of equal importance to wildlife as its food value. Deer also like to eat the branches of pussy willows (What DON'T they like?!).

All this attention from wildlife has its good side, of course, especially for bird watching. But the downside is that, if you don't want your pussy willows damaged, you'll have to protect them -- perhaps with chicken wire or some other fencing.

If you don't have a pussy willow bush, they are very easy to start if you can find someone who has a bush. Beg a few branches about 18 inches long, strip the leaves from the bottom six inches and keep them in a container of water. Change the water every week or so.

Soon roots will sprout. When the roots are about an inch long, pot the sprouts in a container in light potting soil and keep it in a sunny place. Pussy willows like lots of water. In the fall, plant it in a sunny, moist place. BUT make sure to plant it far away from your septic system.

Our adored childhood bush had to be "put to sleep" because its roots insinuated their way into our septic system. But not before Mom cut some shoots and re-planted them in a far away place, so the catkins lived on.

NOW is a good time to re-seed those bare spots in your lawn.

Need a program for your organization? Call the Extension office at 345-7034 at least a month in advance to request a Master Gardener speaker. Choose from a wide range of topics. There is no charge for the speaker's bureau.

Don't miss the Historical Society's 23rd Annual Garden Ramble on Saturday & Sunday, May 28th & 29th at Wesley Whiteside's Five Acre Garden. The gardens will be open from Noon to 5pm both days. There is a $6.00 donation per person required and children under 12 are free. The gardens are located on Route 16, two miles east of Charleston. There will be vendors, speakers and refreshments.

If you have any horticulture questions, call the U of I Extension office 345-7034. This column is based on information and materials at the University of Illinois Extension office, located at 707 Windsor Road, Suite A., Charleston, 61920; phone 345-7034; or web site:

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