Children of all ages absolutely love dens, whether they are hiding under the kitchen table covered with a blanket or have made a tent with a sheet suspended from the washing line, the appeal of hiding somewhere where they are masters of their own imaginary worlds seems almost universal. Sadly, sooner or later, Mom wants her kitchen table or washing line back!
Making a willow den is a cheap, affordable and sustainable way of making an outdoor playhouse in the garden. And what’s more they are heaps of fun to make!
Children will develop all sorts of skills in the process from problem solving, creative design, resourcefulness and learning about plant propagation.
A willow den can last for years, but if the elements should take their toll they are much easier to patch up than bought playhouses. Living willow dens are best made in Spring. You can leave it to grow really wild or prune it to keep it in shape.
For your willow den you will need:
- Willow whips -Salix Viminalis is the best variety if buying. (See below)
- Digging implements
What to do!
- Choose a safe and suitable place in the garden to site your den. Avoid constructing it under trees and while willow thrives in moist conditions the den will not get played in much if it is too boggy!
- Mark out a circle. Push a stick firmly into the ground, tie a piece of string to it which should be the length of the circle’s intended radius. Attach another stick to the end and keeping the string taut while you walk around in a circle using the second stick to mark the ground.
- Willow whips have a natural bend, aim to plant your whips so that they bend inwards towards the centre of your circle.
- Plant your largest willow whips around the circumference of the circle at thirty to forty centimetre intervals. Again this does not have to be perfectly regular. You might find the ground is soft enough just to push the willow in. You need to push it in to about ten centimetres deep. Firm the ground around the stems using your feet.
- Bend opposite whips towards each other and tie them with string to form a dome.
- Now plant smaller whips in the spaces between the bigger ones. Plant them at an angle so they form a fretwork across the larger whips. Weave them or tie them into to the central structure. Don’t forget to leave a suitable gap for the ‘door’.
- Weave any left over willow throughout the framework to provide additional strength. As this is not planted it will eventually die, but by then you will hopefully have a strong, sturdy den.
- Give all the whips a really thorough drenching which should be all they need to get going. However if conditions are very dry during the first few months additional watering may be necessary.
- Move in and wait for your den to grow!
Willow weaving is an ancient craft with many uses. These days you can buy stems of willow, known as willow whips. Willow should be bought in late winter or early spring. For this activity you need ‘living’ whips of about 7-9 foot long. You should be able to see little buds along the stems. Uniform sizes are not important, this is a natural living structure after all. Obviously how many you need will depend on how big you make your den.
Collecting Wild Willow
It is possible to collect wild willow, however you should always make sure you have permission from land owners to do this. Just about any willow that is growing wild locally will be suitable and you can be confident it is well adjusted to the local climate – look out for fine rather than broad leaved varieties. (How will you know? Do reconnaissance in the summer months!) Use clean, sharp secateurs to avoid introducing any disease. Only take a few whips from every plant and don’t over-harvest any one area. Healthy willows will produce new vigorous whips.