The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Building with living trees

Living chairI've been pondering a shade house somewhere on the north side of the trailer for years. The idea is to have a cool spot for summer dining, mushroom growing, and seed starting during the hot season while still allowing rain to fall through the "roof."

But the idea has never quite gelled into a finished form because I'm not quite sure what I want to make the structure out of.
So when I stumbled across the photo to the left from Pooktre Tree Shapers, a light bulb went off in my mind. Maybe I need to build my shade house out of...trees!

Building with living trees has a long history which may have begun with living root bridges in India. However, those of us lacking a tropical climate can't get away with using aerial roots for construction. Instead, we have to focus on temperate-zone trees that grow quickly and (hopefully) have the ability to easily graft together (inosculate) when nearby branches touch. Plants that commonly inosculate and might be used for tree sculptures include apple, almond, ash, beech, crepe myrtle, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fig, grape, hazelnut, hornbeam, linden (aka basswood), maple, olive, peach, pear, privet, river red gum, sycamore, willow, and wisteria.

Of these, willow is probably the easiest to use since you can root a willow cutting simply by sticking the twig in the ground. Plus, the resulting growth from the willow is malleable and extremely vigorous, making it easy to shape and quick to grow. Finally, in our wet soil, willows are bound to thrive, although I should mention those of you gardening in drier climes might focus instead on elm or plum. (As a side note, using fruit trees to make structures is enticing, but the maturation process will be slower and you'll struggle to mesh your sculptural needs with the plant's fruiting needs. In other words, this is one instance where I'd probably recommend against going for an edible-landscape selection.)

Living willow arch

What have people built from living willow trees? Chairs like the one shown at the top of this post (although that tree is likely a plum), stairs, shade arbors, arches, pergolas, and the newly named "fedge" (a fence that's also a hedge because it's alive). I highly recommend this site (which is where I found the photo above) if you're looking for large-scale ideas, or check out this site for an inspiring array of willow fedges.

Now, before you get too excited, I should tell you that creating structures out of living trees is a long-term project that can take as much as a decade to fully mature, so you'll want to think through your plan up front and make sure you're willing to wait for the finished product. In addition, during the early years, you're committing to a summer pruning and training campaign much like the one you'd use on a high-density apple orchard. In general, you'll want to train the young growth into its final shape as it appears, then rub off new branches that pop up in the wrong spot during the summer months. After the sculpture matures, you'll still need to prune perhaps twice a year (which can provide a handy source of goat fodder or mulch for your garden).

Shade room idea

I'm pondering starting out with a simple arch over our current mushroom station. A lattice of willows at the back could arch across and merge with two larger trees in the front to make a shady bower. Now I just need to determine whether our wild black willows (Salix nigra) are a good choice for tree sculptures, or whether I should splurge and buy one of the willow hybrids that are reputed to grow up to 15 feet the first year. Decisions, decisions....

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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How fantastical can you get??! Awesome...and I do wonder about this for "public spaces", say, in Bristol...thanks for posting this:)
Comment by adrianne Mon Mar 16 08:50:38 2015
Comment by Terry Mon Mar 16 09:34:13 2015
I have no experience yet with mulberry, but have read that it is a very fast grower. Given your mulberry experience, what would you think of using mulberry? I love this idea.
Comment by Charity Mon Mar 16 11:40:20 2015
If you choose a fast-growing willow (15' in a year), I'd worry about it getting out of hand too quickly. You'd certainly be pruning it more often than twice a year. And what is its mature height (if you include that in the finished product)? But the idea of tree sculpture is certainly fascinating! That chair was a work of true patience!
Comment by Rhonda from Baddeck Mon Mar 16 13:02:49 2015

Mom --- I'm glad it tickled your fancy! I agree that the photos are very inspiring!

Charity --- I think the issue with mulberry would be that they don't self-graft easily. You could still create a structure out of them, but would probably want to weave the trees together to consolidate them since the branches won't naturally fuse where they touch.

Rhonda --- I agree, that does seem to be the compromise --- fast growth versus too much growth! And I wish I could find more information on the internet about what these tree sculptures look like in a decade or two. It's hard to plan for the tree's eventual growth while also making it functional in the short term. Definitely will take some experimentation!

Comment by anna Mon Mar 16 16:33:30 2015

Why not build the roof out of a shutter-like structure?

I've seen a moving shutter-roof over a terrace at a house in Swtizerland, and it looked like an off-the-shelf construction. That shutter could be completely closed to be watertight, but could also be opened so that about 4/5 of the surface was open.

Of course you don't have to be that fancy. Making a fixed shutter roof can be done in multiple ways depending on your woodworking skills and how neat you want things to look.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Mar 16 17:16:41 2015
My father got corkscrew willow branch from someone and has made many cuttings from it over the years. I got one from him thats 3 years old and it is very vigorous and has a healthy 3.5" trunk. I say go with the willow. Yes it will need pruning and training more often due to its crazy growth but any other slower plant will need the same just over a longer time. Plus it doesn't take that much time to prune it etc. I like the corkscrew cause everything on it from branches to leaves are curly and it really stands out. My dad keeps on telling me to cut it down before it gets to big but I've been holding off as I want to use it for a privacy screen on the side of my pool. But screw that I'm gonna train it and some cuttings into that damn chair, that's awesome!
Comment by Marco Mon Mar 16 21:39:15 2015
I planted a golden weeping willow 15 years ago and it's about 45 feet high and about the same width. They grow about 3-4 feet a year, like hemlocks and Leyland Cypress. It is near the creek so there's no problem with it getting too dry, but... but... but... when the wind blows hard (as it did this afternoon 3-16-15) limbs tend to go flying. Willows are really very weak trees, as are silver maples, and some red maples, so I'm not sure you'd want to have those trees near your house. My neighbor bought a trailer that had two mature red maples practically on top of the house (about 4-6 feet away) and had to cut them down due to wind damage and the fact that one of the trees was rotten on the inside.
Comment by Na Yan Mon Mar 16 21:42:07 2015
I have been pondering living fence, possible an edible fence, to keep the chickens out of the garden. I was going to go with raspberries but that will take 5 years to get thick. When you shared that site with all the living willow fences I decided to go in that direction. Plus I want to take up basket weaving and waddle and dob. So I went to the closest nursery and they I my had one willow. Dwarf Blue Arctic Willow. I am happy to send you a cutting, if you are I retested and when it gets a bit bigger.
Comment by Kathleen Tue Mar 17 18:13:21 2015

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