Erosion Problems: Can Willow Spiling Stop Erosion Sustainably and Long Term?

It sounds like a fairy-tale: Weave a living retaining wall that just gets stronger and stronger as the years pass and continue a tradition that is thousands of years old! Willow Spiling is a natural, sustainable, long-term solution to erosion. A perfect example of rediscovering an old practice for modern times.

This land bridge (huge culvert at the bottom of the ravine) was twice this width when we bought the property in 2014. We have debated and gotten multiple repair estimates and had pretty much resigned ourselves to losing this access point because all estimates were cost-prohibitive. I did find some useful ideas like this planter that I could DIY, but this erosion is past the point of even that helping. Willow Spiling is our last option, honestly our only hope at this point. In simplest terms, Willow Spiling is like weaving a basket along any area with erosion…..but every twig used in the basket is still alive with a root firmly anchored in the soil that continues to grow and get stronger over time instead of rotting and getting weaker.

Willow Spiling is simple and low cost, so for me, a great way to protect from erosion. The traditional technique weaves willow branches into a fence or wall and is currently one of the most popular methods for controlling erosion on slopes in China. We are going to take some time here and explore the history of using willow to control erosion, what specific types are best suited to various conditions, and how you can build them yourself.


The ancient Egyptians used willow as a natural remedy to stop bleeding, treat inflammation of the stomach and for urinary tract infections. But Willow also served the Egyptians by becoming the natural barriers they needed to fight erosion. In England you are likely to come across Wattle fences at historical sites which use dead wood as posts and dead branches as the weaving material into a huge “basket” that protects gardens, play areas or even as the structure for raised garden beds.

It has been used for centuries to provide shelter, create fish habitats and stabilize the soil on riverbanks. The history of willow spiling in the United Kingdom goes back to the late 1600s, when it was used as a river-bank erosion control method. There are currently a few British companies that can come to your property and install this “soft engineering” but that isn’t an option for us, so you can watch over my shoulder as I plan out this project.

The above hybrid of the wattle fence and the willow spiling is sometimes practiced. Here, two parallel rows of trees are closely planted and pruned in the copicing style so that strong trunks form as fence posts. After branch triming each year the branches are stacked between the trunks as a wall of brush. I like the concept, but the thick layer of brush might create unwanted wildlife habitat in your garden or back yard. Perhaps if the rows were placed closer together it might end up tidier.


Willow (Salix) is an Old English word for a plant that has long, slender stems and branches. It was common to see willow trees by riversides because the wood of the tree easily bends under wind or water force. Willow is a tough, versatile tree with over 300 variaties, so I’m only going to touch on a very few.

The Weeping Willow may be the very first image that pops into your mind when ‘Willow’ is mentioned. The weeping variety grows up to 30 feet tall and has long drooping branches that create an arching canopy when in full bloom. The branches have an appearance of hair and grow best in moist soil with plenty of water. This tree is so distinct and iconic that it is good to imagine this version when you consider the process of weaving living branches into a basket/fence/net to catch soil that is eroding away. It’s easy to imagine those long thin branches being used in that that way. If you’ve ever taken care of a weeping willow then you know what it does to the lawn below it too. Not only the grass-killing shade, dodging the branches while trying to mow but also the constant limb/leaf litter. These drawbacks for lawn usage though are assets when trying to grab and rebuild soil that was lost to erosion.

The Pussy Willow is perhaps the second willow that would come to mind with it’s delicate white fluffy pods. The Pussy Willow is hardy for zones 4-8 and propagets as seeds but even more easily as cuttings. A versatile plant that can grow into a 20 foot tall tree or be trimmed into a small shrub that prefers very wet soil. This was my first impulse to purchase for my project, but it prefers full sun and can only tolerate some shade. In mid-summer my land bridge becomes deeply shaded, so I kept looking.

For my erosion problem, I purchased Salix Purpurea L. also known as Purpleosier Willow from Cold Stream Farm out of Minnesota. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this particular strain is best suited for protecting river banks and there is even a male clone ‘Streamco’ available that does not produce suckers to prevent invasive spread. We’ll see. Willows are known to hybridize on their own and add even more confusion to the already crowded 300 species World Wide. In a year I’ll publish an update on the seedling’s health and how well they are doing for this use.

How To Plant and Build

On their own, Willow trees naturally grow along river banks where their roots hold the soil in place during storms and high water flows. Just through nature, this provides stability for your river bank or ravine edge. It grows rapidly and is resistant to strong winds, heavy rain, and even droughts. All this while offering a wide range of benefits, including increased habitat and flood control. They can grow up to 6 feet in their first year, so periodic maintenance is very important (and encouraging) often in the first year. The plantings can be installed on slopes with any degree of incline and have even prevented landslides in some cases. The best time to plant is in late winter or early spring.

We take the natural benefits of the volunteer Willow a step further by ‘weaving’ the saplings into a living retaining wall while they are young and flexible. The best way to install willow spiling for long-term use is by burying it in the ground at least 2 inches below the surface. There are several techniques, one involves planting larger cuttings/seedlings of willow trees straight up from the ground and then weaving between these posts thin long saplings that have been planted at a tight angle (45 degree angle or even tighter).

Another technique is to use seedlings all of the same size and to plant one row at a 45 degree angle to the left followed by another row at a 45 degree angle pointed right. Weave both seedlings going both directions to each hold equal weight…no reliance on a ‘pole’ in the center. The basket above is offered as an example of how that would be constructed.

My ditch is so steep and the erosion is so aggressive, that I plan to experiment with a technique I haven’t heard anywhere. I plan to follow the first technique with an additional step to anchor the retaining wall. After planting the upright row in a straight line and another row at 45 degrees, I’ll then plant smaller willows horizontally straight into the steep ditch walls at staggered intervals. I will then tie these ‘horizontal willows’ to the upright willows with jute twine and begin their process of weaving into the basket fence. I hope over time these anchors will prevent the entire wall tipping over and into the creek.

I first became interested in how I could use my own forest twigs from reading this great book about using green wood to construct projects. The idea of using living saplings was fueled by this book though.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How To Build A Retaining Wall That’s Flexible

I made lots of mistakes in planning the basement for my Greenhouse, and one of the first that I recognized was that I didn’t contract for the retaining wall. My concrete guy was so nice and accommodating and had already happily changed my door locations the night before the walls went up. I couldn’t bear to ask his help for this too.

I’d put a concrete pad in with a contractor friend and knew that this far North you have to dig at least 36″ deep to get below the frost line. The footings will actually heave out of the ground as the ground freezes and thaws if you don’t. However, I watched the entire process of basement construction, and they didn’t put footings in that deep during construction. Perhaps because the footings are nearly 8′ under the ground in almost all areas the few exposed areas are protected? I went with that theory and dug a modest hole for the footing to the west of the small concrete patio/pad.

I framed it out with some scrape 2×3, couple of screws and left-over wood stakes. The fall rains kept causing me problems and I had to use other left-over lumber to create a sort of ‘tiering’ on the slope to hold back the clay. Those same rains made it impossible for me to drive my mini-van back to this area (no truck at this point). When I researched my van’s hauling weight limit 400 pounds was the lucky number, so I never hauled more than 8 bags of Quick-Crete at a time over the rear axel. It was a brand-new van and on rainy days I would park at the highway and carry each bag to the construction site.

A make-shift water-catchment experiment saved me from having to haul in very much water to mix in with the Quick Crete.

Everything was mixed in a wheel barrow with a hoe and shoveled right into the hole. I finished the surface with a trowel I had gotten at a garage sale and broken broom head.

The idea was to install the this footing and extended ‘patio’ at about 1/4″ to 1/2″ lower than the original. This would allow water to drain from the professional patio so it would be less likely to get trapped and freeze or seep under the basement door. It also created a little lip that served to hold the cement blocks for the retaining wall in place.

There might be a day when a staircase is built on this North side of the Greenhouse. Maybe someday a goat shed will be added as a lean-to. I don’t know for sure, so dry-stacked cement blocks were chosen for this experiment.

Cement blocks now come in two shapes plus the ‘cap’ blocks that sit on top to finish it off. The regular block has concave ends on both sides. There is now a ‘end block’ that has a smooth end on one side and the other end is smooth with one channel. I haven’t messed with cement blocks in decades, so I don’t know when this became a thing, but it is a very nice cosmetic element when you are using them the way I am.

I had originally planned to use my retaining wall as a sort of staircase and it worked well in that way before I had built the stair case inside. However, after breaking my leg the summer of 2020 that idea is dead to me. Now the plan is build up the wall high enough that I can barely see over it. As the rain washes clay down onto the patio I can scrape it off with a flat-edge spade and toss it back up into the corner of the basement and cinder blocks. Continuing to back-fill so the earth can protect the basement from the winter cold.

My only block-wall experience was with the kid’s Legos, so all I knew was to the wall was to crisscross the cement blocks. My youngest recognized the pattern and said that’s what he does in Minecraft! This plan uses twice the cinder blocks you would normally need, but that made perfect sense when the wall would be used as a ‘staircase’. Now that I’ve decided that’s too dangerous, I appreciate that such a thick wall is not going to be pushed over easily. The blocks are less than $2 each, so it’s worth the ‘extra money’ to not have the wall tip over, and you buy yourself options when you have extra building supplies on hand.

As you can see here, the roof drip-line is 14 feet above the basement. The rain falls with such force that is has cut a straight channel in the heavy clay and the amount of water has built up and pushes the cement blocks in just this one year. All new blocks are added 1/4” in from the block below, but it won’t be long before I’ll have to remove the whole wall, dig some of the clay out and restack it again.

Overall, this setup works for the Greenhouse because it is flexible. We can restack the configuration if we decide to put a staircase or ‘deck’ of some sort on this side. We also could enclose this side and remove all this dirt and re-use the blocks. There are a ton of options!

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How to Build a Chicken Shanty with Cattle Panels

We had to build this chicken shelter out at the Green House when we were sure we had a rooster in our flock of ‘pullets’. I already had the fence, metal roofing and hardware cloth. I just had to buy $3 worth of wire, so the project was nearly free for me. I wouldn’t recommend you go buy these materials to make this because it isn’t a pleasure to behold and because it can’t carry you through winter needs (at least not Zone 5 Winter needs). However, if you need warm weather shelter in a hurry, this was a fun, fast build that could be streamlined.

Using ratcheting strapping I was able to bend cattle panels by myself into arches and hold them in that position while attaching scrap boards with metal ‘strapping’. The two cattle panels were then wired to each other and scrap metal roofing put on tilted to the West to help shield from the sun in the summer but encouraging lots of airflow which is crucial for chickens. The very top was covered to provide rain protection from Thunderstorms.

The arch shape creates a perfectly matching grid of strong metal that makes it easy to support a 2″x3″ across as a roost. At first the hens didn’t want to leave the ground at all, but eventually they found the very top roost even though it was a bit of a tight fit.

At this point the structure began to get very heavy to move. I’m unable to drag two cattle panels across the bumpy ground because of all the surface area and chances for it to snag on a rock or tree. I was able to stand inside the arch and lift the entire structure. The arch is taller than 5’6″ and 8′ wide. At my height even with my arms fully extended above my head, it barely cleared the ground and caught on every little clump of grass.

My daughter joined me in wiring hardware cloth and chicken wire onto it to make it more secure, but this proved to be largely unnecessary because hawks were deterred with simple woven hawk netting.

Once all this reinforcement was done the shelter was too heavy to be a chicken tractor (which was the original plan) but too open to be a chicken coop that could protect through the winter.

It was absolutely necessary to add a cap on the roost end to keep driving rain and the occasional chilly wind at bay. The construction crew had left behind some tarps. I wired two small scraps to the arch end and tucked them under the metal roofing. For a summer sunshade on the west side, I was able to slide the tarp between the cattle panel and hardware cloth and no additional attachments were needed.

The construction tarps worked perfectly. The white side reflected the heat of the summer sun, and the black side insured that it was truly dark on the other side. The feed bags that I had experimented with did not fair nearly as well as the heavy construction tarps. The chickens relentlessly pecked at the feed bag on the left of the large tarp and the feed bag that had been on the right didn’t last very long either. Their light coloring didn’t create deep shade and they seemed to mostly block the occasional refreshing wind. The black underside of the construction tarps made a huge difference in the shade effect, and was worth the blocked wind.

A few more boards were added to the structure as a ‘door frame’ of sorts. A simple staple gun made very quick work of securing the chicken wire to the frame. I really struggle with doors though. I don’t like making them because they tend to sag or not swing smoothly. I got lucky while trying to figure out my door problem.

Someone threw out a “baby gate” and it became the door to the chicken coop. Simply wrapping chicken wire over it made me feel more secure about it, though looking back that was probably unnecessary because there is no roost within 3 feet of the door and the electric fence keeps out everything but hawks.

Which brings us to the hawk netting. This hawk netting is very very heavy and much more visible than the lighter netting we are now using in the subdivision. I highly recommend what I have, but I can’t find the exact seller. This is the most similar netting currently out there. Each junction is knotted and the individual strands are strong and UV resistant.

You probably want less than what I bought though. I bought the 50’x50′ size and had a large coil of it left over wrapped around the entrance. I kept worrying that a mouse would set up residence in it, or chew it up for nesting material. Looks like I got lucky this year, but next year I will try hard to use the entire net and make a much larger roaming area for the hens.

Doing this makeshift project for free became almost as fun as the experiment. A simple solution for the door latch was needed that wouldn’t waste anything but that would stay solid and not be frustrating to use. I rigged this.

It’s purposely set at an angle so if a racoon were to shake the door the latch would just slide further down into the ‘locking’ position. All these little security measures I put in are funny now because it wasn’t long before I had to prop up the back corner of the shelter to give the flock more roaming space.

All that hardware cloth that is supposed to thwart racoons, opossums and dogs was lifted a foot into the air making it useless. The flock acted like the cattle panel was some sort of guillotine that was just waiting to fall on them. They would hesitate on one side and suddenly sprint under like they were cheating death. I thought I would have to build some sort of framed in door to make them feel more comfortable. The photo below is months after lifting the corner, by that time the hens were no longer afraid, just cautious.

By the end of the summer the flock had eaten all the nearby grass and went in and out any available hole. They would dust-bath in the low lying area right under the metal edge of the cattle panel. Glad I never found the time to build a special door!

I don’t recommend you build this if you have the means and time to go ahead and build an all-season coop or if you can put together a truly light chicken tractor. That said, I’m really glad I had a chance to experiment with this set-up because I discovered some things I want to include in my future chicken coop.

The first thing I wanted in this coop and all future coops is this little ‘knee wall’ that keeps the chickens from rushing the door when you bring treats. As a kid I was really afraid of chickens because they can be a bit aggressive. I still don’t like walking around them if I’m in shorts…my Barred Rocks bite me right through sports pants.

I want for myself and I hope for you: a set-up that not only makes keeping livestock less of a harassment, but also elevates it to fun. Something we can share with our kids, friends and neighbors. Being able to visit my chickens in flip-flops is fantastic. The knee-wall is the first half. The second half is to not walk where the chickens walk/roost. I don’t like tracking chicken poo around on my shoes. So the knee-wall only really works if you can hang the feeders and waterers at arms length.

You may have noticed that the chicken feeder is always hung and the waterer too. These are hung several feet from the roost so poo doesn’t get in the feed or on the waterer. They are also hung snug to the ceiling to prevent a chicken from figuring out how to roost on top of them (don’t use a horizontal board as the support for the chain). Because a chicken seems compelled to poo in it’s food, it will find a way to roost on a board with only 4″-6″ of clearance if that means it can poo in the food…I don’t know why. In time I started hanging the chicken snacks in the same way to prevent chickens from trampling every edible bit before their sisters could eat it. If you pair hanging food/water with a knee wall you can reduce walking into the coop quite a bit. Of course, then there is the egg-laying issue.

I broke my leg before finding time to think about laying boxes. I was in no condition to build something, so I compromised and bought this really large litter box, filled it with wood chips and stationed it near the coop door. There is a really expensive one on the market if you want it to look great and be too heavy to tip over. I taped up the vents on the top to keep out rain and light and the hens loved it. They very quickly adapted to it and I think they preferred it to the nesting boxes we have in the subdivision because it was so dark and private. It was big enough for two pullets to lay at once, which is good because some nesting boxes I almost purchased weren’t large enough to accommodate a single full-sized Plymouth Barred Rock.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be using a litter box in my ‘dream coop’. What I mean is that the nesting box needs to be really big for my hens. It must be accessible to the outside or at least arms length from the knee-wall. My Homesteading Hero housing the rooster and two hens this winter is finding that my hens won’t use her perfect nesting boxes any more regularly than her last hens did. She has a fantastic set-up that lets the chickens sleep inside her wonderful barn with their very own window. That window shines right into her nesting boxes. Hens like it dark and private for laying, and I wouldn’t have understood that (and a few other preferences) without my experimental chicken shanty.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.