Thursday, April 25, 2013

From the inbox: two mulberry questions

I got this e-mail a few days ago - Pamela gave me permission to respond here:

"Dear David,

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. My experience with mulberries has been that they're 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...)

Question #1: How to start mulberry cuttings.

You're in luck, Pamela. Mulberries are easy to start from cuttings. The only caveat: don't try to start cuttings from trees while they're blooming or in fruit. I found this out from Micheal 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.

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 rubberband 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 take really well. 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 they 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.

And, for an even easier method, Green Deane relates in his post on mulberries:

"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 recently to see if they'll do the same for me. Since it's fruiting season (and because I'm not as awesome as Green Deane) I don't have much hope... but mulberries are amazing, so we'll see.

Question #2: What about cutting a really tall tree to size?

This is a little trickier. Because it's 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:

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 go for it... 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 might be safest to cut it 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. :)

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At April 25, 2013 at 4:37 PM , Blogger Leon said...

> rooting hormone

? I usually just cut some willow sticks and stick them in the same cut-off plastic bottle as the trees I'm trying to propagate. The rate of success is probably around 1 out of 5 with mulberry. But it sounds like there is a more reliable way to do it ... What's "rooting hormone"?

Another question - we may have someone who will donate tractor time to make a bunch of swales on the BSF but that means that we'll need to plant tons and tons of N-fixers/pioners to hold the soil fast.... Any recommendations as to the species and sources for cutting/seeds/etc ? Must be able to take care of themselves after the establishment period. If animals can eat them that would be a bonus.

Thanks, dude! I haven't commented much lately (lambing season!) but I'm reading (and so do some of the fellow Cat Herders here), so keep it up please!


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