Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A living playhouse made with willows

Ever since I planted willows on several farm properties while working with an environmental organization back in 2007, I've been fascinated with them.  We stuck bare little sticks in the ground and then these amazing shrubby trees grew; the farmer coppiced them after about 3-5 years, right to the ground, and then they came back!  They were super plants!  Plus they're beautiful.  Then I helped work on a "fedge", or a living willow fence/hedge that was planted on a property in NS I visited while working in another job.  When I saw that you could plant young willow branches and tie them together to make a living playhouse, I knew it was only a matter of time before I tried it myself.  It took me about three years, but I finally did it.

Note: mine does not look as pretty, woven, and perfect as those you may find if you google a willow dome house.  But I'm really happy with it.  And this is how I did it:

In early April, I gathered about twenty-two or twenty-three willow branches that were about 2-3 seasons old and about 8-10 feet long, that had grown up from a coppice (they'd been cut to the ground and allowed to regrow from the stump, so there were many stems growing simultaneously from the same plant), rather than ordering straight cut lengths from a willow nursery, so mine are a little rustic, slightly less flexible, and a bit more branchy.  I convinced my younger sister to help me round them up and borrowed our dad's truck to get them home.  Thanks, Bec!  Once I got them home I trimmed off the side branches from each main stem and set them aside.  I didn't take pictures during this whole process, sorry!

I cleared an area in a perennial bed in our front yard, near the veggie garden so that the littles could play in the shade nearby while I garden.  Using a big 10-inch spike/nail thing with a string tied to it to measure the circle's radius, which was roughly 3-4 feet, I poured a trail of flour around the circumference of the circle which would be the eventual walls of the dome.  My students could tell anyone that I am horrible at drawing circles, so that string really helped me have a proper circular shape for the base.  Then I used that same spike and a mallet to pound holes into the ground every 30 centimetres or so (switching between imperial and metric like only a Canadian can!) in order to open up a hole for the branch.  I pushed the cut, bottom end of the branches as far as I could into the holes and as I made it around to where I had begun, I left the space between the first and last willow pole just a little larger to act as the door.  I lashed the branches together at the top to form the dome's roof, and then took the larger of all the side shoots I had cut off and planted them in between the larger branches to help fill in space, and so that I can weave them through eventually to reinforce the dome's walls.  You are supposed to put two to three between the structural willows and weave them through in an almost basket-like weave, but I didn't have enough so I am planning to do it with shoots coming from the established branches as they grow.

However, the top of my willow dome was really unattractively tied, due to the fact that at that point I was exhausted and wanted to go inside and sit down!  I left it like that for about a month, hoping against hope that the branches would take.  Ideally, I would have had them buried more deeply, covering more of their length in the soil, but the ground was still partially frozen and I had a hard time getting them in.  I wanted to do it while they were still dormant, and with work it has been hard to set aside much time for this sort of project, so I just sort of jumped at my chance that weekend and hoped for the best.

Then this weekend, I untied the tops and retied them, and I feel that it looks a lot better.  Not perfect, but more rounded and less embarrassing to have so close to the property line! Next, I put down a layer of mulch as the "flooring", and to finish it up, I planted scarlet runner beans that we started in my classroom at the base of every structural pole to climb up and help fill in the space as it gets established this year.  I'm really pleased that with the warm weather this weekend, the yard is greening up and I was rewarded with buds bursting open on each of the main poles and all of the small branches as well, showing me that (at least for now) our living playhouse really is alive!  I'm very hopeful that I can keep it that way, and as I have willow cuttings that I planted last fall coming up in other parts of my yard, the materials to "renovate" or fill in gaps that may not make it will be much closer at hand next time. :)

Here are some photos from this weekend.  I still plan to put a small outdoor rug in with outdoor cushions to make it cozy.  It's hard to see the little door, but in the first photo on the left it's the little arch toward the right of the dome.

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