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How to Prune Pussy Willows

Pussy Willows and Feeding Wild Birds

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Pussy willows can be constrained to look like shrubs through proper pruning, as mentioned on Page 1. These plants love moisture, and consequently they thrive along banks of streams and are useful for controlling soil erosion. But pussy willow shrubs have more typical landscaping uses as well. If you prune your bushes properly, they form privacy screens or borders. In spring carefully pruned pussy willows serve as specimen plants for the lawn. Page 3 discusses what to do with pussy willows after harvesting them from their bushes.

Pruning Pussy Willows to Keep Them as Shrubs

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 a "new" shrubs.

Of course, you will also be pruning with an eye to shaping the pussy willow shrubs to suit your tastes. Use sharp anvil pruners and make your cuts above nodes. 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, unimpeded/unimpeding 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 and Feeding Wild Birds

The Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project of Prince Edward Island, Canada notes the importance of pussy willows for feeding wild birds and other wildlife:

Willow buds are second only to the buds of poplars as preferred food of ruffed grouse. Beaver ... muskrat, red squirrel, and snowshoe hare all include willow in their diet. 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. 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.

On Page 3 we move inside and discuss forcing pussy willows. This technique is a must to know for anyone impatient for spring....

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