Arches and pergolas add useful height to any garden plan, but they can be expensive to buy. For little cost, you can make your own structure over a path for a cottage-garden vibe. It’s easier than you’d think, and the tunnel can be as long as you like. Simply buy or source some willow rods and sweet pea seeds (Lathyrus odoratus), and within a couple of months, you’ll have a beautiful, scented walkway.
For every 3 feet of tunnel, you’ll need approximately 40 willow rods that are about 9 feet long. Use “brown” willow branches, which are branches that were cut and then allowed to thoroughly dry until dead. If you use branches that are green and alive, they may root. If the tunnel will be for children, the rods can be a little shorter. Once you have the necessary amount of willow rods for your project, soak them all in water to make them more pliable.
When the rods are flexible enough to work with, push the thick end of each rod into the ground on either side of your path, spacing the rods about 3 inches apart. Now, bend over the tops of each opposing pair of willow rods so they meet in the middle. When you’re happy with the height of the tunnel, tie the rods together at that point to form a series of arches. Strengthen the top of the tunnel by twirling any thin ends around the opposite rod and then tying the ends securely.
Now, strengthen the sides of the tunnel, and give your sweet peas plenty of horizontal supports to climb. Take a flexible willow branch and carefully weave it horizontally through all the uprights, about 8 inches from the ground. If it doesn’t reach all the way to the end of the tunnel, continue with a new willow branch, tying in any loose ends as you go. Repeat just above the first lateral, but weave in the alternate pattern to create a strong bond. Weave in another branch so you have three lateral rows, and then repeat this procedure on the other side of the tunnel. Weave in two further groups of lateral sections at about 16-inch intervals on each side so that the tunnel is strong and secure.
After finishing the tunnel, you’ll be ready to sow your sweet peas. Space seeds about 2 inches apart along the base of the tunnel on each side. You want a profusion of color, so really pack in the seeds. Water well, and protect the seedlings from slugs and snails until they’re established. Tie in the stems to the supports as they grow to help them along. To encourage them to produce more blooms, pick the flowers regularly. To maximize the color and scent as you walk through your sweet pea tunnel, don’t allow any seedpods to form on the plants — unless you plan to save seeds from some of them to plant next season. Unlike vegetable peas (Pisum sativum), the highly fragrant sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) produces seeds that are poisonous to humans and pets.
As your sweet peas blossom, stroll through your tunnel and enjoy being surrounded by the scent and beautiful colors of your garden creation.
A Note on Soaking Brown Willow:
If you’re making a garden structure that you don’t want to be rooted in the ground, brown willow is the one to go for. This wood won’t sprout if pushed into the ground, but, for most applications, you’ll need to soak it before you can use it so it’ll be more flexible. Soak branches for one day per foot of length (for example, soak a 7-foot willow branch for seven days). If you’re purchasing willow, you can purchase it dry or pre-soaked. If you buy it pre-soaked, you’ll need to use it within about three days, or it will dry out again.
Many willow suppliers sell affordable “soaking bags.” Alternatively, you can soak your willow in the bathtub if the branches are short enough. You can also easily fashion pond liner into a trough by propping up the sides with bricks, boxes, logs, or other sturdy materials.