Looking for an way to get your children involved in the garden? This DIY Willow Playhouse is just the ticket – it goes up in a matter of hours and can be crafted from living materials that are sustainable and lovely.
Using Willow in the Garden
Remember our post on using willow to create winter protection in the garden? The truth is, we use willow year round in the garden! From simple trellises to sword fighting in the children’s garden, willow is a versatile tree to use because, although it can be brittle, it’s smooth and strong. There are many varieties of willow and most will work for something in the garden, even curly willow makes an attractive accent to homemade baskets and wreaths.
If you’re fortunate to have willow growing on your property, then learning to use it in the garden and elsewhere is a wise thing to do because willows can take up a lot of space, suck water and make a leaf mess every fall. If you’re going to live with and love willow, you’re going to need to make it as useful to you as possible. And, yes, being remarkably beautiful is a useful trait.
Willow is traditionally used in Europe and elsewhere to create living garden structures like arches, trellises, playhouses, mazes and even furniture. Yes, you read that correctly, LIVING garden structures. Willow contains auxin, a powerful rooting hormone. These hormones are so powerful that if you stick a willow branch in the ground at the right time of year and keep it damp, the willow will root and sprout. We’ve used willow stumps as seats around our outdoor fire pit, left them up over the winter, come back in the spring to find roots coming off of the stumps and nestling their way into the ground. No joke.
A Willow Playhouse
One thing we’ve used willow for in the children’s garden is to create a playhouse. Part of it is living and part of it is not – that was just how it turned out as a result of benign neglect and a harsh winter the year we built it. The kids wanted a playhouse in their garden but we just didn’t have the funds to buy materials and we didn’t have a lot of time. What we did have a lot of was willow. If you don’t have willow on your property, search around your neighborhood and see if someone else does. You can heavily prune a willow without causing damage to it and they may be so glad to have you cut theirs back for them!
You can also purchase willow whips (straight, leafless willow branches) but I’ve never done that so I just suggest you Google it.
This process of making a willow playhouse is not more complicated that preparing the willow, sticking it in the ground and weaving it together to form a structure. FYI, the best time of year to do this for a living willow playhouse is in the early spring or the fall, after the heat of summer has passed. So, here it is step by step…
DIY Willow Playhouse
Think. Think about what size you want your playhouse to be. Think about what shape you want it to be. Think about how much willow you have available.
The bigger the structure, the more willow you’re going to need. Also, a simple tepee style won’t require as many whips as a more complicated structure. Our willow playhouse, the one we’ll be walking you through today, is domed shaped. Its about five foot in diameter and around five feet tall at the center. Google as many pictures as you can and do a few sketches – make sure the children are doing this with you. Even if they draw a castle that’s bigger than your house, you want them involved and dreaming.
Gather all your materials next. Let’s say you’re making the same shape we did, you’ll need eight, two foot lengths of #4 rebar (1/2″ in diameter). If this is your first structure, as it was ours, I really suggest you use a PVC pipe frame. Its not difficult to build, will add strength to your structure and will save on how much willow you’re going to need (remember I mentioned that you’re going to need a lot).
For the frame, you’ll want four 10-foot sticks of 1/2″, schedule 40 PVC pipe (“40” refers to the thickness and means it will hold up well in different climates). You’ll also want four 90 degree elbows for connecting the lengths of PVC when you form the top of the dome.
With a hacksaw or a pair of ratcheting PVC pipe cutters, cut each of your PVC pipe lengths in half. Lay the pipe on the ground when you cut it and insert each of the new ends immediately into the 90 degree elbows. Using the elbows will allow you to bend the pipe at an angle that will provide strength and structure.
Using a small sledge hammer (4 lbs will do), pound the rebar at equal distances from each other in a five foot diameter. Pound them halfway into the ground, about a foot in depth. Go get a drink of something cool.
Slip the end of a jointed length of PVC over one protruding rebar and then slip the other end over the rebar directly across from the first. You may need to readjust the elbow a bit to get the pipe to slip all the way down so that its flush with the ground. The elbow joint should have its point sticking up towards the sky.
Take the next pipe and do the same thing. You’ll place each pipe over one of the protruding rebar, one after the other. Bend each length of pipe directly across from itself onto the rebar. As you add more pipes, the center will be a bit crowded but just jostle them around a bit until they cozy up together.
Strip all your willow lengths of leaves; jus toss the leaves in your compost pile. Begin weaving the lengths of willow into the PVC frame by inserting the thicker end in between the pipes – wedge it however you can. Weave the rest of the willow length in between however many poles it will reach. Its a lot like making a basket so you might want to review this post here to refresh your memory. Move around the structure, adding layer after layer of willow lengths. You can add other materials like grape vines, if you’d like. Our grape vines have grown in around the willow house over time – they weren’t even planted when we built the playhouse but have since decided that their favorite trellis is the playhouse roof.
Speaking of the roof, once you’ve weaved and weaved and weaved and you’ve finally made it to the top of your dome, you may decide to want to give the roof some extra protection. When we made our willow playhouse, we ran out of willow before we reached the top so filling in with another material was a necessity. We have a lace vine that grows very vigorously (as they usually do) and has created a kind of thatch over the years. We cut out large patches of that and placed it over the roof, wedging it in the PVC frame and securing it with long lengths of green vine.
Actually, you could make a playhouse using this method with any organic material that will hold up – vines, other pliable branches, corn stalks. The reason why using willow is so cool is because willow will live if you plant it in the dirt – remember that part. Eventually, any organic material will breakdown in the elements…unless its alive!
Hold back some of your willow branches for planting next to your PVC/rebar frame. We used several different widths of willow branch and there didn’t seem to be any size that “took” better than another. Dig a hole just wide enough to plunge the willow branch about 4 inches into the ground and then firm the dirt back around it. Water around those holes for the first few weeks.Now it’s time to have the kids sweep the dirt floor, put in their fairy or Ninja pieces and set up shop. Be sure to let us know how it turns out – send pictures!