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How To Train A Weeping Pussy Willow To Grow Taller

This beautiful plant grows very densely. Here you'll see how over time I've trained a Weeping Pussy Willow to grow taller.

train weeping pussy willow grow taller

I had zero experience with growing and maintaining this plant because it’s not often seen in California. Although there were quite a few Pussy Willows growing around the pond on my childhood farm in New England, I didn’t even know there was a weeping variety.

My client, who lives just south of San Francisco, had been her eye on this weeping beauty in the Wayside Gardens catalogue and finally ordered her coveted specimen.  I’ve had quite a few questions about how to get a Weeping Pussy Willow to grow taller.  After 13 or 14 years of pruning and training this 1, I want to share with you what I’ve done.

train weeping pussy willow grow taller

The Weeping Pussy Willow before its pruning. It was starting to eat up the rhododendron!

How would this Weeping Pussy Willow do?  Who knows but because gardening can be 1 big experiment, I thought it was worth a try. Her plant arrived in a 2 gallon grow pot wrapped in paper and stood about 4′ tall – it was a puny sight to say the least.  This small tree, Salix caprea “pendula”, has been relatively growing slowly (California gets no rain for many months and they like a fair amount of water) but has really taken off in the past 5 years. I’m no longer her full time gardener as I moved south to Santa Barbara and recently to Arizona but I still make it there a couple of times a year for a have at it with the Felcos.

Training this plant to grow tall takes a bit of effort but it’s well worth it.

Lots of new shoots always always appear on the trunk and at the base of this plant too. These need to be removed.  I always remove the shoots and smaller branches coming off the main weeping branches and a portion of the ones heading straight upward. For my eye, they spoil the beautiful weeping form (and isn’t that the reason why you buy a plant like this?) as it’ll looks better when it’s thinned out a bit. These plants are grafted and will never get significantly taller than the height you bought it at. This is exactly why the Weeping Pussy Willow never gets as tall as the upright Pussy Willow.

Important to know: The Weeping Pussy Willow part is grafted on top of of a Pussy Willow trunk. Never saw off below the graft because the plant will revert to that bush form.  

train weeping pussy willow grow taller

That big swollen part is the graft.

This Weeping Pussy willow has grown more in width more than in height.  It turns into a massively foliated blob if not pruned a 2-3 times a year in the temperate coastal California climate.   Pussy Willows are tough and are actually pretty easy to maintain. We’ve lovingly nicknamed this plant “Cousin Itt”.  And yes, when now left unpruned this specimen turns into the leafy version of the amusing character from the Addams Family.  It received a really bad haircut about 2 years back but with a hefty dose of restorative pruning has returned to it’s healthy, weeping fullness with a vengeance.

train weeping pussy willow grow taller

Here you can see those shoots coming off the trunk.

This is always a challenge, but I must admit, I do enjoy it. Once I start and get into it, I’m immersed into pruning nirvana.

Here’s what I do:

– Starting at the front, I take out a few of the older branches so I can see to work my way in.  I take them all the way back to a main branch or the trunk otherwise an excessive amount of those side shoots will appear again.

-I work my way in & out of the plant, concentrating in 1 area, so it can be thinned out.  Some of the smaller side branches which remain on those main branches get removed also.

-Along the way I prune the branches up off the ground & away from other plants. I also remove those shoots which come off of the base & the trunk & those which shoot straight up.

-I continue around the plant until it’s thinned to my liking.

train weeping pussy willow grow taller

I remove those shoots growing up.

To get this plant to grow taller, I’ve selectively left some of the branches which arch up and out. I’ll then tip prune them to insure upward growth.

This big pruning now takes me about 2 hours to do, not including clean up. If you’re in a cold climate you probably only need to do the pruning and training once a year, which should be right after flowering.  Weeping Pussy Willows supposedly max out at about 8′ tall. This 1 has already hit 7′ and I’m not going to let it get too much taller.

Cousin Itt has been a learning experience for me.  But when you get right down to it, isn’t that what gardening’s all about?!

Happy gardening,

Nell's signature
train weeping pussy willow grow taller

Oh the pile left to clean up!

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8 comments:

  1. Beautiful job! LOVE this tree!!!! Question, I have an 18 inch salix pendula that i bought in the grocery store and it says to prune it back after it flowers so each branch is only 4 inches long from the stem. That sounds so severe. It will be a stick with 4 inch sticks coming out of the top. Is that correct?

  2. Hi KJ – This tree is doing quite well this year because the Bay Area got lots of rain! Another gardener severely cut this Weeping Pussy Willow back (about 5 years ago) to 18″from the stem & it recovered. I had to thin a lot of new growth out but because this tree grows quickly, it came back fine. So yes, you can cut it back but it’s not something I do. Nell

  3. I, too, have a very small tree, about 18″ to 24″. You say a tree will naturally get bigger than it is when you buy it. What if I plant it outside close to a young redbud? Will it be fine?

  4. Hi Carol – Yes, it will get bigger over time as the weeping part above the graft grows. It should be fine near the redbud, but not too close. You can keep it pruned to be on the smaller side but the roots like to spread. Nell

  5. I work in a nursery. I have a customer prunes his like an umbrella. Ugh. He likes it “neat”. He’s never had flowers. Maybe because he prunes it long after flowering?

  6. Hi Brenda – Ugh is right. the charm of this plant is it’s weeping form. It’s the fact that he’s pruning it so hard combined with the timing. The best time is after flowering. He’s most likely pruning it quite a bit to keep it in that shape. Nell

  7. Thank you so much for all of your pruning info. I am in Nova Scotia, Canada and my weeping pussy willow is one of my favs in the garden. My question is, because it is grafted, if i prune out the suckers coming up from the bottom and root, will they be a form of willow tree? I would really like to know any of your experiences with propagation. Thanks so much!

  8. Hi Rebecca – The suckers coming out of the base won’t form a tree. They’ll grow into a bush form because that’s what the base is. Nell

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