Gardening: Weave it in wood

In Mike Lilian's garden  live willow is used to fence off the orchard. Photo / Supplied
In Mike Lilian's garden live willow is used to fence off the orchard. Photo / Supplied

This spring my partner and I made a trip down to Oamaru for my birthday. I'm a huge fan of traditional crafts, and this town has them by the bucketful - or should I say trugful. My main objective was to meet a master of coppice crafts, Bill Blair, who fashions functional and elegant garden and farm tools out of green wood, steamed and bent to shape (trugs). But that's a story in itself.

I had also heard about a craftsman, Mike Lilian, who grows his own willow from which he weaves baskets of all shapes and sizes from flat flower baskets to picnic baskets, and anything between, including a new hit, woven eco-coffins.

Fortunately, Kakanui, where Mike's home business, Wind Willow Basketry, is based, is a township close to Oamaru, so we stopped by on our way through. Motoring up the rural driveway to his red-roofed villa I was struck with his garden, and most interestingly, the way in which he enclosed his orchard. Mike had woven live willow stems into a fence about 1.5m high. The fence was a living basket, and made quite the vision beside blossoming fruit trees, daffodils, bluebells and some fine-looking chooks.

Further up the driveway, my jaw dropped as I set eyes on raised vegetable beds which were bounded by perfectly woven "basket" edges of about knee height. Mike revealed that the woven willow on the raised gardens needs replacing every four years or so, as they have a short lifespan, and are aimed as a showcase of his craft. The live fence, on the other hand, is a permanent fixture. It is clipped back in winter after the leaves have dropped and comes alive again in spring.

Venturing further into Mike's fairytale-like garden, there were various woven living structures, such as an archway with climbing roses tangled through the willow, and lollipop-like willow "standards" with twined, decorative trunks. Woven garden bed edges are most often seen in Britain and are made from hazel poles, which are far more durable. Hazel is traditionally used to make woven "hurdles" or moveable sections of fence to keep sheep temporarily penned.

There is quite a history of craft in English gardens, made popular again by William Morris at the turn of the 20th century, who reacted against the mechanisation of the industrial world in favour of natural forms and honest materials and crafts. Morris is better known for his classic wallpaper and is one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement in design history. His gardens reflect this philosophy. Morris preferred to divide his gardens into "rooms" with woven fences and straight paths. He believed this provided a good contrast to the soft curves of plant choices inspired by wild places. He created simple gardens featuring "species" flowering plants, evocative of natural settings, as opposed to overbred, heavily petalled cultivars, which he considered too great a departure from nature.

As gardeners, this is something worth considering. When plants are bred for copious petals and unusual colours it is often at the expense of scent or nectar or both. Heavily petalled "double" flowers sometimes mean nectar is inaccessible to the insect, and often there is less of it. This ultimately affects the food source of insects, including bees and butterflies, and will have an impact on the diversity of ecology in the places we live.

Get the look

* Bambusero: bamboo craftsman Mark Mortimer makes custom fences of woven bamboo in various styles, from the English hurdle look to Japanese designs. www.bambusero.co.nz

* Brustics: for the brush fence and pergola roof, to eucalyptus pole fence panels. www.brustics.co.nz

* Basketry and coppiced crafts: www.windwillow.net www.coppicecrafts.co.nz

Make it yourself

* Kanuka poles have excellent durability above ground. Source them from firewood suppliers. Just ask them to put some aside for you before they're cut into short lengths. Bind with rope seasoned in a wax/oil blend. This timber is very hard, so drill holes before nailing.

* Find your own willow source and cut new weaving stems in winter. In my student years I found cut-down willows which were sprouting long new shoots, and bundled the stems on top of my Lada, feeling like a Russian peasant. I made a little woven fence in our garden which survived several years.

- Herald on Sunday

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