With the wide array of horticultural products already available to consumers, the exploration for various value-added crops is constantly in progress. Production of woody ornamental cut stems represents a specialty niche (Stahl, 2004), and the potential to significantly expand the market of woody cut stems has been recognized (Armitage and Laushman, 2003; Greer and Dole, 2008). Previous research of willow ornamental cut-stem growers (Saska et al., 2010) revealed producers’ interest in the expansion of the crop with new markets and product offerings. The novel concept of using live, brightly colored willow stems to create living structural elements and the possibility of its transformation into a new product is currently under investigation at the University of Connecticut.
The concept is based on a relatively recent adaptation of the traditional craft of basketry, and it has been introduced in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Denmark (Gro, 2004; Warnes, 2004). The living structures are planted in spring as dormant 6- to 10-ft-long willow whips and bent into different simple shapes and forms. By mid-June, they set roots and foliage, quickly naturalizing the area. Living structures will continue to grow and fill in for many years, changing according to the seasons, becoming more substantial and mature over time. They may be grown in both public and private landscapes including residential gardens, require only minimal maintenance, and once established can function as natural elements for children to play with, as accent features in ornamental gardens, and as decorative fences or shelters (Danks, 2010; Kuzovkina, 2008; Warnes, 2004).
The potential of living structures for playgrounds has been emphasized in the United States (Danks 2002, 2003, 2010), and our previous research evaluated the feasibility of their establishment and maintenance needs in Connecticut (Kuzovkina, 2008). While the production systems developed for willow biomass production (State University of New York, 2002) can be tailored to provide the adequate material with the required dimensions for the structures’ construction, research efforts have focused on development of the designs. With the help of Kim Vergil, an artist familiar with the technique, a portfolio of living structures as DIY kits that included a dome, wigwam, tunnel, fence, and arbor has been developed (Kuzovkina, 2008). Each kit includes live willow whips, step-by-step instructions on how to construct each form along with ties and cultural guidelines.
The production of fresh cut stems as a specialty crop for DIY Living Structures Kits may appeal to a wide range of agricultural producers. Willow can grow on marginal land with only basic input as predicated by organic principles and has sustainable off-season harvest time in early spring. Willow plantings grown for the production of willow cut stems can be strategically incorporated into riparian buffers along the edges of farmland. Riparian buffers are known to decrease nonpoint source pollution while improving water quality and provide a wide range of ecosystem services and conservation benefits (Jones et al, 2010). Willows are an efficient component of riparian buffers because of their high transpiration rates and extensive root systems, which trap runoff from agricultural fields, thus assisting farmers with nutrient management (Kuzovkina and Volk, 2009). Willows incorporated into buffers and harvested in early spring may serve as a unique production niche for farmers by offering opportunities to supplement incomes during the dormant season (Saska et al., 2010).
To determine the viability and preference for this product, we evaluated if the production of willow stems for DIY Living Structures Kits has a promise to evolve into a profitable crop and identified the locations of a niche for this product. We verified that the kits are appealing to people interested in gardening and learned more about consumer’s perceptions and preferences.
For the survey, we selected a consumer segment represented by Master Gardeners. Members of the Extension Master Gardener volunteer program, which is offered in the United States, receive extensive training in the field of horticulture provided by cooperative extension services.
Master Gardeners represent a sizable segment of the gardening public [the number of active Master Gardeners in 2005 was 80,519 people (Meyer, 2007)] and a knowledgeable plant consumer group. Their opinions are often used in research projects as opinion leaders or data collectors (Brzuszek et al., 2010). Master Gardeners may also influence the gardening public and define the role of horticulture in their communities (Brzuszek et al., 2010) guiding the development and dissemination of new trends.
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Brzuszek, R.F., Harkess, R.L. & Kelly, L. 2010 Survey of master gardener use of native plants in the southeastern United States HortTechnology 20 462 466
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Stahl, L. 2004 Woody decorative florals. 8 Oct. 2011. <http://ruraladvantage.org/pdf/3rdCropOps-WoodyOrnamentals.pdf>
State University of New York 2002 Willow biomass producer’s handbook. State University of New York, Syracuse
Warnes, J. 2004 Living willow sculpture. Search Press, Tunbridge Wells, UK