MANHATTAN, Kan. -- If next to a body of water that flows or sometimes floods, bare earth is simply soil loss waiting to happen.

"Sometimes grazing or even wildlife is at fault. But many eroding stream banks have lost their vegetative cover during floods or as a result of housing or farm expansions. Now the exposed soil is open for scour erosion and bank sloughing," said Deborah Goard, watershed forester with the Kansas Forest Service.

In the central High Plains, fall or spring rains tend to produce the highest odds for runoff that triggers serious erosion and the resulting water pollution.

Fortunately, a relatively low-cost way to reduce those odds is an activity best done during winter, Goard said, when many other landscaping and farming chores are on hold. The process is basically gathering and planting willow cuttings during the plants' dormant season.

On slightly or moderately eroding banks, willow plantings can be the primary conservation tactic, she said. In severe erosion cases, they can supplement more structural techniques, such as tree revetment, which are cut trees anchored to unstable streambanks.

"Roots of substantial vegetation help bind the soil," Goard said, adding that the willow roots will grow once spring weather warms the soil. "They increase soil stability by many thousands of times. Willows just happen to do that comparatively easily and quickly."

Cuttings from the sandbar and black willow species -- both common in Kansas -- are effective for streamside plantings, the forester said.

But, three other factors also can have a big impact:

  • Cuttings should range from 1 to 4 inches in diameter and from 2 to 8 feet long. The wider and more forceful the stream, the greater the cuttings' dimensions should be, to keep them from washing away.

    In general, cuttings can be shorter next to the water and get longer as they're planted up the bank, because when they're driven or augered into the ground, their base must end up at or below the water table. Other than that, they can go 3 to 4 feet apart in staggered rows.

  • The bottom end of a cutting must be the one buried in the ground.

    So, from the first, willow recyclers must keep track of the top (closest to the branch tip) and the bottom (closest to the trunk) of cuttings. They can make each bottom cut at a slant, which will make driving the cutting into the ground easier. They also can dip each cutting top in a 50-50 mix of white latex paint and water.

  • To stay viable, cuttings must stay moist during hauling and storing. On-site, they can even rest in the stream until planted.

  • Goard recommends that landowners get site-specific advice by contacting a professional forester while planning a willow planting.

    The contact information for the Kansas Forest Service's district foresters is on the Web at

    Landowners also can get more information from a "Willow Cuttings" fact sheet that Goard has just released as part of a riparian management series. The series is available through any district forester or Kansas State University Research and Extension county or district office. The fact sheet is also online.

    SOURCE: K-State Research and Extension news release.