I taught a series of classes several years ago on “Jewish Gardening” – we covered topics like grafting, neighborly gardening, work on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and בל תשחית (the prohibition against destroying fruitful items). Those were heavy topics, but here’s a light one: Grow your own Aravos!
[Note: "ערבות Aravot" are willow branches, although they come from specific types of willows, not all willows. I'm not enough of a botanist to be able to explain which willows are appropriate in technical terms. In any case: These Aravot are one of the four plants used by Jews as part of a special ritual during the Succot holiday.]
I am a big believer in growing your own aravot, because (1) It’s easy, (2) It can be done in most climates, (3) The bush is attractive, and (4) Even should you keep the aravah bush small, it would still provide replacement aravot for you during Succot.
I did this for the first time 5 or 6 years ago in Allentown (Zone 6-7), and although I cut the bush back in the spring, after a few years I still arrived at Succot with aravot that were 10-15 feet tall.
First, here’s a simple way to root them:
1) Remove dead leaves from the aravah branches. Use more aravot than you plan to put in the ground, in case some don’t take.
2) Select a two-liter bottle, the wide-mouthed kind used for fruit juice. Important: Cut the collar of the bottle now. Otherwise, the mass of roots that develop during the winter may be too dense to fit them through the mouth of the bottle at the end, and cutting the plastic at that point may also damage the aravot themselves. (I didn’t do this – and the result is that my former home in Allentown has three large aravah bushes which are all rooted in the mouth of two-liter bottles. I cut the bottle safely, but couldn’t cut the collar.) Alternatively - just use a wide-mouthed vase you won't need for several months.
3) On Hoshana Rabbah, fill the bottle 2/3 of the way with water, and put the aravot in the bottle. Make sure all leaves are removed below the water line. (We don’t plant in the ground on Hoshana Rabbah, but this halfway planting may be permissible to avoid loss of the branches. Those who don’t wish to do even this on chol hamoed might preserve the branches in damp paper towels in the refrigerator.)
4) Keep the bottle in a sunny location.
I changed the water whenever it got cloudy, and added small pieces of miracle-gro sticks every 4-6 weeks. The miracle-gro is not necessary, though, and it adds to the need to change the water, to avoid mold.
You should see small root hairs develop fairly soon (several days), and real roots after that. Parts of the branches that are above water will develop leaves, too.
In the spring (I did it in April), take the aravot out of their bottles and plant them in the ground. The leaves may fall off; don't worry about it, they will come back. Choose a sunny site, but make sure it’s far from the foundation of your home; the roots can become quite strong.
And that’s it! I cut them back in the spring, in order to encourage the development of branches lower down, and they came back every year, thank Gd.
Hatzlachah, and let me know how it goes!
[Update 10-21: I set up my aravot right after Succot, and already have roots and leaves. How are yours going?]