Shrub Willow Just Might Save Us, If We Start Planting Now

People are always putting off the idea of fixing climate change with the idea that some genius somewhere is going to invent some sort of Dr. Suess like machine that is going to magically take all of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses out of the air and make big cubes out of it that we can then bury in the ground somewhere. There are many serious problems with this idea:

  1. We will never be able to develop this technology in time to make any kind of difference with climate change. The ‘final hour’ is upon us right now.
  2. Carbon Dioxide represents a mere 0.0391 percent of the air we normally use. In order to get any real amount of CO2 out of the air, our machine has to sort through an incredible amount of air to get to a relatively small percentage of CO2.
  3. These machines will need to use massive amounts of energy to function. Where is that energy going to come from?

Shrub willows can easily grow about 8′ a year

It just so happens that we are in luck. Evolution has already created amazing machines that capture CO2 out of the air and store it in their roots. These machines are plants, namely trees. A new study shows that if we planted 1 Trillion trees right now that we would be able to curb 5-6 degrees of climate change (which is where we are headed). With a world population of about 7.5 Billion that means every man, woman and child must plant at least 128 trees. Some native trees like Shrub Willow & Poplar grow 10x faster than most other trees.


The Coppicing head on a New Holland harvester shown here harvesting 3-year-old poplar

Shrub Willow is incredibly easy to plant, I can easily plant about 800 in one hour without any help. All you need to do is harvest a bunch of one or two-year growth and soak the ends in water until you are ready to plant. Then cut up the stalks into sections that are 8-12 inches long. I do this with a chop saw or a table saw. You can cut several thousand cuttings in a few minutes if you cut them in giant handfuls at a time. This can make quite a mess and you have to spend some time picking up the shrub willow cuttings before you head out and plant.

Just find a wet spot and stick your piece of shrub willow into the ground and leave about an inch sticking up. You can plant them directly in water as long as a small part of it is sticking out of the water. The only way that the willow will not grow is if you stick it in with the buds facing down or it drys out. Willows can never be ‘too wet’ and will grow even with the roots and part of the trunk submerged in water. The longest part of the whole planting process by far is looking at the stem and figuring out which way the buds go (or will go when they bud out). The best time to plant is in the spring when everything is wet.


A broken coppicing head

Shrub willows are great as a windbreak, or to keep streambeds from eroding. They also do an amazing job of recapturing nitrogen fertilizer that runs off from farmers fields. We are having toxic blue/green algae blooms in all our lakes every year now. If farmers surrounded their fields with the Shrub Willow then the algae blooms would stop entirely.

Shrub Willow makes an amazing mulch that my wife and I have used extensively for the last several years. It seems like stuff grows like crazy in it, and I have recently planted 466 chestnut seeds on my property using nothing but three handfuls of shrub willow and composted cow manure 50/50 with every seed. I’ll be posting the results of my planting here.


The ESF fields near Syracuse

As a biofuel Shrub Willow is amazing. It can grow to be 20′ tall in less than 3 years. A single acre of shrub willows can provide all the energy needs for an average American home for an entire year.

Biofuels represent over 1/2 of the renewable energies and yet it is seldom talked about in the mainstream media. There is a great article about frequently asked questions about shrub willow on the Northeast Bioenergy Extension Blog here.

You can also get more information about the ESF Shrub Willow project here.

living willow hedge

You can make living structures like this one easily with shrub willow

I don’t see a future without fast-growing wood shrubs and trees like willow and poplar being grown in almost every available space. I personally have planted thousands of the shrubs as a ‘living fence’ around my property which looks a lot nicer than any fence you would ever build. Although for large areas it is ineffective at keeping deer and other animals out, it is a huge boon to the local bird populations and deer can browse on the soft willows year round.

When it comes to energy we must start using sustainable fuels and stop pumping up fuel from the ground and burning carbon that has been stored for millions of years. Willows as a biofuel is extremely competitive with fossil fuels right now, we don’t really have a choice. If we want to survive as a species we must change the way we view the world and ourselves and make choices that will heal the earth instead of continuing our downward spiral.

Biofuels are an essential part of that process.

Start planting trees and don’t stop till they put you in the ground.