Quite a few of my fruit trees and blueberry bushes are blooming right now. The cool but not freezing winter has had quite a few warm patches that have confused the trees greatly.
My mulberry tree out back – the same Illinois Everbearing I mentioned in yesterday’s post on festooning – is pushing a lot of blooms and new growth.
The risk, of course, is that we’ll get a harsh overnight low in the next month or two that will burn off all the blooms and new growth, eliminating the year’s harvest of fruit.
I really hope that doesn’t happen. This is a tricky time. I can cover some of my smaller trees to protect them but the larger trees are now on their own.
Three of my peaches are blooming:
It’s hard to find more beautiful trees in the spring than peaches. The nectarine out front is also blooming but since it’s a tiny tree I don’t really want it fruiting yet so if any nectarines start to develop I’ll pinch them off. It needs to get good and tall before having babies.
My Anna apples are in bloom right now and the black cherry is also about to pop. Fortunately, my Japanese persimmons, pears, cherries, plums and other apples are still sound asleep.
I hope they stay that way for another month at least. Or that we get lucky and don’t see a cold snap that goes much below freezing.
The mulberry tree (Morus nigra) in my front-yard food forest has proven to be a less-than-exciting variety. Here it is:
It makes decent fruit but they’re not all that big and they’re not nearly as prolific as my “Illinois Everbearing” tree out back.
However, the tree has grown well for the last four years and has some good roots beneath it at this point so there’s no way I’m taking it out.
Instead, I’ve decided to multi-graft it with more exciting varieties.
I started this project on Wednesday of this week.
First, I decided to take off the top of the tree. It was getting too tall for easy harvesting.
Then I took off some of the branches that were growing too close to the ground.
Once the tree was cleaned up a bit, it was time to start grafting. I picked a good branch for my first graft and made a cleft in the middle with my trusty Leatherman:
Then I sharpened up a couple of scions of “6th Street,” a prolific black variety. When they were trimmed nicely, I popped the first one in.
You need to put them in carefully so you don’t snap the long, thin wedge. Using the blade of a knife helps.
After that, I added the second one.
Next I tied it up tightly to pull the cambium layers together.
Your main enemy when grafting a mulberry tree (or anything else) is having the graft dry out, killing the scion before it can join to the root stock. This is why you wrap it up tightly or paint the wound with tree sealer. Or both. In this case, I wrapped everything with parafilm.
And here’s the final graft, labeled with an aluminum tag:
I also added a few scions of “Saharanpor Local Mulberry,” a long-fruited white type, to another branch on the tree, this time using “whip and tongue” grafts to match like-sized wood.
Over time I’m going to keep adding varieties to this tree. Since my space is limited, I can just use this tree as a source of propagative material for my nursery as well as for fruit. Instead of planting all the varieties of mulberry I carry, I can graft on branches and later use them for cuttings I can add to the mist house.
Of course, there’s really no reason at all for doing the following… except for SCIENCE!
What is that graft, you say?
It’s a Brown Turkey fig I whip-and-tongued onto this black mulberry.
Will a fig on mulberry graft work? I have no idea, but the trees are cousins so I’m giving it a try. I got a really tight fit with that graft, then wrapped it up after the photo was taken. I think it would be crazy cool if I was able to grow figs on a mulberry tree…
The winter has been so warm I just couldn’t wait to start grafting. I’ve got quite a few experiments going and if any of them succeed I’ll be quite pleased.
Other than the mulberry, today I added nectarine, sweet cherry and plum grafts onto Chickasaw plum, sweet cherry and nectarine onto a Flatwoods plum, and sweet cherry onto a wild black cherry tree (Prunus serotina). I’m curious to see if they’ll take. All are cousins… so the chance is there.
I’ve got a bunch of plans for the homestead right now.
There are way too many great gardening ideas in my head but I’m going to try and get the important ideas down for now.
If any of these strike your fancy, try ’em and see how you do.
IDEA #1: Micro-farming
I’m thinking of trying my hand at farming a small amount of vegetables for a circle of local friends.
A box subscription sort of a deal. Like… $30 a week and I provide a regular box of fresh-picked organic produce to everyone on the list.
Just toying with the idea right now.
IDEA #2: Massive Banana Circles
I’m also considering hanging gutters on the portions of my house that don’t currently have them, then creating 3 or 4 BIG banana circles to catch the run-off and simultaneously grow us more bananas.
We get a decent amount of bananas right now but I’d like to have enough that each kid can eat one per day. That’s a tall order, but it’s a goal.
IDEA #3: Grafting Mulberries
It’s time to try grafting mulberries.
I’m not happy with the fruit quality or quantity from my largest mulberry tree in the front yard so I’m thinking of grafting a half-dozen different varieties all over it. Ought to be fun.
Imagine white mulberries, Pakistan long mulberries and other types all growing on the same tree. I don’t know about species compatibility since it’s a Morus nigra and I’d be grafting Morus alba and Morus rubra onto it… but hey, why not try?
IDEA #4: Expanding The Annual Garden
This was my last year fiddling with a big patch of sugarcane.
I need more space for food for the family, so it’s goodbye for now.
I’m going to press that area into service as an expansion of my vegetable gardens.
It’s time for me to take a bunch of cinderblocks and get busy building a killer smokehouse.
IDEA #6: Build A Tropical Food Forest
IN NORTH FLORIDA!
That’s right. A friend owns a greenhouse frame and wants me to have it. It’s a HUGE greenhouse.
I’ve got a friend with some land. She and I are talking about setting it up at her place and planting a tropical in-ground food forest beneath it. The plastic could be removed for half the year, then installed in the winter.
I don’t know if it’s workable or not but I’d like to try.
IDEA #8: Grow More Yams
Apparently, there are non-invasive varieties of true yam which grow in Florida and make huge roots.
I want to grow some. I love the winged yam but my nursery license doesn’t allow me to carry it in my nursery.
I’m looking for Dioscorea caymanensis in particular. If anyone has a source, please let me know!
IDEA #9: Grow Sweet Potatoes In Plastic
I’m thinking of covering an area with a plastic tarp or weed cover, then putting small holes in it for my sweet potato slips.
I think the tarp should keep them from secondary rooting and weeds, leading to much bigger final tubers.
Growing mulberries in Florida is a no-brainer… yet it’s surprising to me how rare they are as a fruit tree.
When you can easily grow organic berries in mass quantities, why would you fiddle around with finicky crops like blackberries, strawberries and blueberries?
I remember the first time I saw a mulberry tree. Growing up in South Florida, we were used to oranges, grapefruit, mangos and avocadoes.
But… a tree covered in berries? Wild!
I was 10 years old.
My little brother Brian and I were visiting our friends Rachel and Miles, who were eight and seven. Rachel took us down a little alley behind her house to show us “a blackberry tree.” We picked fruit and purpled our fingers and lips… totally amazed by the delicious abundance.
Rachel is now my wife; and though we no longer live in South Florida, we did take a trip back a few years ago and asked Rachel’s mom if the tree was still at the end of the alley. Sadly, it was toppled during a hurricane and then removed – but a far-sighted neighbor had taken cuttings before its demise and planted them across the street in an empty lot.
We took our children for a walk, met the friendly owner of the trees… and were invited to pick, since the mulberry trees were in full fruit. All of us came home purple and happy, our baskets loaded with berries.
In my yard in North Central Florida, I’ve probably planted a dozen mulberry trees.
The mulberry tree has been praised and demonized… overlooked… fed to silk worms… discovered by hungry travelers… and planted by the Founding Fathers.
Various species of mulberry grow across most of the United States and they are consistent producers of delicious berries. The range is actually astounding, when you consider that mulberries live and fruit in states with blizzards and ice… and in Miami… where people suntan in February.
I’m always amazed when people pick on mulberries as “messy.” That’s like saying “you know, the Mississippi is a great river… what a shame it’s so damp!”
As I say regularly… that’s not mess! THAT’S FOOD!
This Illinois Everbearing mulberry tree is only two years old and already bears gallons of berries!
Sure, songbirds sometimes eat the berries and then re-create Pollack masterpieces across the hood of your Honda… but that’s a small price to pay for mulberry pie… dried mulberries… mulberry brandy… mulberry cobbler… and smiling children with purple fingers.
I read – with horror – that some landscape-minded plant breeders have bred fruitless varieties. FRUITLESS! If I were them, I would watch the sky for lightning bolts. God makes one of the most productive and delicious fruits known to man… and you breed the fruit off it?
Okay – I’m done ranting.
Growing Mulberry Trees
Let’s talk about growing these things. Mulberries will grow in half-shade but prefer full sun. After the first year, they need basically no watering or care to survive. My kind of tree.
Something that’s really encouraging about the mulberry is that it has a juvenile period of almost zero, provided you grow it from cuttings or grafted trees. If you grow them from seed, it can take a decade to get fruit.
Mulberries produce in spring and are an attractive shade tree the rest of the year.
I’ve had tiny trees (not from seed) produce fruits. And when mulberries are young, they grow like weeds. They also respond very well to pruning. I’m trying different methods of tree shaping to keep the berries within reach for ease of picking. Untended mulberry trees can get tall quickly.
As for varieties, that’s where things get complicated. Morus alba, Morus rubra and Morus nigra all look quite similar and hybridize readily, producing fertile offspring. In fact, Morus alba, the “white mulberry,” has been classified as invasive in some states due to its ability to hybridize with the native red mulberry (Morus rubra), threatening the species.
The white mulberry is the famous mulberry of the Oriental silk industry. Though it’s called “white,” it has fruit that range in color from purple to pink to white. Their flavor is said to be less delicious than the “red” or “black” mulberry species, though the fully white mulberries have a nice honey flavor.
There are varieties of mulberries known as “ever-bearing,” since they bear sporadic crops throughout the warmer months, rather than having one gigantic crop all at once in the spring. I own one and it’s wonderfully prolific over a long season.
One of my favorite varieties – for purely aesthetic reasons – is the Pakistan “long mulberry,” a tree that bears graceful 2-3” long fruit. Though my long mulberry is only 3’ high, it’s already bearing a few fruit.
Another use for mulberries that is now being rediscovered is its excellence as animal feed. Chickens and pigs will live happily on the abundant dropped fruit – and goats are inordinately fond of the tree’s leaves.
If you have space… and you’d like fruit within a year… and you want happy children… grow a mulberry. Right now. Growing mulberries in Florida is so simple a child could do it. Go get one – you’ll love it.
Name: Mulberry Latin Name: Morus alba, Morus nigra, Morus rubra Type: Tree Nitrogen Fixer: No Medicinal: No Cold-hardy: Yes Exposure: Full sun to part shade Part Used: Fruit, sometimes leaves Propagation: Grafting, cuttings, seed Taste: Very good Method of preparation: Fresh, dried, jams, jellies, and in awesome cobbler (thanks, Rach!) Storability: Poor Ease of growing: Easy Nutrition: Good Recognizability: Low Availability: Low
I got this e-mail a few days ago – Pamela gave me permission to respond here:
I write you from New Port Richey, Florida, where my husband
and I have just purchased his childhood home. It needs many repairs and improvements, which my husband will tend to when he has the time, he has done everything from roofing to catching lobster in Maine. I on the other hand, have been focusing on the outside. The place which will be our garden some day. My father in law build the house 30 years ago, he had a garden and several fruit trees; among them mulberry trees. Two of them. One was struck by lightning and died. The other hangs across the driveway (not a good place for it). I want to start more trees (in better locations) but don’t know how to cut the tree and start others from those cuttings. The mulberry tree that’s left is quite tall now, I would like to cut it back, to a height where we can reach the fruit and use cuttings to plant more of those scrumptious berries. If you could guide me, our family would be forever grateful.
Congrats on the home purchase – it’s really cool that you’ve been able to hold on to a piece of family history. Sounds like your husband is a man’s man.
And… good questions. Mulberries are survivors. I’m actually surprised that a lightning strike killed one. Mulberries are really tough. In fact, when the nuclear apocalypse happens, they’ll be the only food left for the surviving cockroaches. (Which is good, because the roaches will probably need the energy to rebuild the banking system…)
How to Start Mulberry Cuttings
You’re in luck, Pamela. Mulberries are generally easy to start from cuttings, with two exceptions.
1. Don’t try to start mulberry cuttings from trees while they’re blooming or in fruit.
I found this out from Michael at the Edible Plant Project. The strike rate is really poor because they’ll try to fruit, rather than root. You’ll have much better luck if you try later in the year.
2. Some Mulberry Species Root Easily – Some Don’t
There are Pakistan long mulberry trees with beautiful long fruit – those are really hard to start from cuttings and need to be grafted instead. Red mulberries (Morus rubra) are tougher to root, as are black mulberries (Morus nigra). I’ve had white mulberries (Morus alba) root the easiest, but I’ve had luck with all three after enough attempts. Rooting mulberry cuttings isn’t always possible… but you lose nothing by attempting.
Now let’s get to it.
My method of rooting cuttings is moderately simple. I cut semi-hard wood twigs that are about 3/8″ to 1/2″ in diameter and 6-8″ long. (That’s new growth, but not so new it’s soft and green.) Chopping a branch into multiple lengths will work. I then dip the bottom end into rooting hormone and poke a few of them at a time into small pots filled with potting soil or seed starting mix, then water well so the soil is damp. Then, I put clear plastic 1-gal ziploc bags over the tops of the pots to make mini-greenhouses, and rubber band them in place. This keeps the moisture in. If the leaves and cutting dry out, it’s dead. These pots then sit in full shade until they root. Every few days, I’ll pull the bags off (being careful not to disturb the cuttings) to let some air in and check to make sure the soil is still moist. After a few weeks, they’ll start to root, and after about a month, you’re probably good to take the bags off for good. Just keep misting them occasionally with the hose until they (hopefully) take. Some cuttings may not make it – and some will mold. Don’t worry. Do a bunch and you’re bound to get some strikes. All of them may take – and in that case, share the bounty with friends.
When the cuttings seem good and established, I turn the pots over and separate the well-rooted baby trees into pots of their own. At this point, I also put them into half-sun. They need to get acclimated to sunlight for a while. Full sun can burn the new growth.
For a better strike rate on mulberry cuttings, start them under intermittent mist like a nursery would do it.
“Mulberries, in my case, Morus rubra (MOE-russ RUBE-ruh) are
full of life. One spring I trimmed my mulberry and used the branches for
stakes. They sprouted. Not one to get in nature’s way I dug them up,
gave them to a friend, and they are still growing.”
I’ve stuck some big 1″ diameter sticks in the dirt in my backyard to see if they would do the same for me – and it didn’t work.
Pruning Mulberry Trees
This is a little trickier. Because your tree is a large, older tree, the shock may kill it. But it also may not. I’d take a bunch of cuttings first, and when you have some good solid baby trees in pots, then I’d take a look at chopping their mother down to size.
I know you can severely prune mulberries without killing them. I was told by the owner of the mulberries below that his trees get cut to the GROUND every three years and they grow back and fruit without fail:
Pruning mulberry trees is easier than with most other fruit.
I don’t know if I’d be that crazy if I only had one tree, though.
If it’s in the wrong place, I might prune it heavily… if I had backup babies. If it were my tree, and I was willing to possibly lose it for the sake of science, I’d saw it off at about 4′ and let it grow from there. From what I’ve noted in my own trees, they recover remarkably well from injury, growing new bark around lacerations and pruning injuries. It’s safest to cut it back like that while dormant, just before the spring flush, however. When the sap is up and it’s poured its little woody heart into making a ton of leaves… and then you cut it… I just don’t know for sure if it will come back. The trees down south are relatively young and are used to regular shearing.
Don’t sue me if I’m wrong… but I’ll still bet you can pull it off. New mulberry trees grow and produce very quickly – if you have little ones for back-up, you won’t have to go long without eating their wonderful fruit. Take pictures and let me know if you have success with both your cuttings and the pruning!
And, if you fail on both, I’ll send you one of my own potted mulberries.
Odd berry crops like the goumi berry fill in niches in a food forest or survival garden.
Plenty of people are interested in planting blueberries, blackberries grapes, strawberries and other small fruit. But what about goumi berries? Or mulberries? Or Surinam cherries?
Life isn’t all about the commercial crops found in your local grocery.
In Florida, we’re uniquely suited to growing some amazing and almost unknown berries. Sure, we know about mulberries, right? But how many trees have you seen lately? Probably very few, since the modern idea of a nice suburban yard doesn’t have a place for a messy (that is, HIGHLY PRODUCTIVE) tree like a mulberry. Heck no – let’s plant a freakin’ worthless ornamental!
When things collapse, you’re going to be glad for mulberry trees.
Can’t eat all the fruit? Dry them for later.
Weather won’t allow it? Ferment them and make brandy.
Not legal to make brandy in your locale? Feed them to your chickens.
Seriously – that’s not a mess, that’s food. I’ll do a future post on mulberries since I’m just using them as a passing example here.
If you’re down in South Florida, you can grow cocoplum or Surinam cherry hedges and have something to eat as well while you enjoy your privacy. Heck, you can eat berries naked once the hedges fill in enough. It’s fun.
In the middle of the state, goumi berries are a great choice. A relative of the popular silverthorn (used extensively for hedges), goumi berry shrubs fix nitrogen and bear delicious, tart red berries with tiny silver spots on them. I’ve got a half-dozen in my front yard in both sun and shade. Plant them in your food forest and the roots will also feed the trees around them.
Another native with edible berries is the “Simpson Stopper.” They’re a decently sweet little red berry with an interesting bitter grapefruit aftertaste. One of these days I’ll dry some and see how that works out. Just another way to think outside the typical berry basket.
Bonus: most people don’t recognize these plants or their food value, meaning you can be eating goumi berry jam while the rest of your town is dealing with major food theft issues.
Just a few thoughts. Now go… plant some odd berry crops!