Field Testing The Mulberry for Commercial Production in the Midwest
Beginning in February of 2016 I began to search for mulberry trees in the region that were reputed to produce excellent fruit. Using social media, connections with the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX), online wild foraging maps, and word of mouth, I was able to identify and collect scion wood (dormant cuttings used to graft or clone new trees) from over 50 varieties of mulberry trees. I collected around 20 unique samples (but many cuttings from each tree) from
Athens County where I live, 20 unique samples from Columbus, Ohio where I found a great online map of hundreds of edible fruit trees, and about a dozen from around the Midwest. The ones collected from out of state were generously cut and mailed by other fruit enthusiasts and include samples from Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan.
These samples were then put into ziplock bags with a damp paper towel and stored in the refrigerator until April. During this waiting period I ordered one of every mulberry cultivar that I could find available at nurseries online, ending up with about 15 cultivated mulberry varieties.
In April, I hosted a grafting workshop and trained a half dozen people to propagate mulberries using a whip and tongue graft. I had pre-ordered 500 mulberry root stock from Lawyer nursery (The size I ordered turned out to be smaller than I anticipated and next time I will order larger ones; the ideal grafting stock having a base diameter a little smaller than a pencil).
After the workshop, I hired three of the participants to stay and help me graft onto 250 of the rootstock over the next three days. After grafting and sealing the grafts with wax, the trees were put in damp peat in tubs and placed in a warm humid room to heal. A few weeks later, when trees were beginning to break bud outside, my grafted trees were taken outside and put into individual pots with compost and placed in a fenced in nursery). The 250 that were not grafted were immediately planted into mowed grass at a spacing of 1′ along a fence row to be grown into a hedgerow or living fence.
Around this same time the cultivated trees from other nurseries began to arrive and were planted out into their permanent homes at a spacing of approximately 25′. Each tree was mulched and a cage put around it to protect it from deer.
Shortly after this we hosted a community festival at the farm, featuring local products, local food and beverages. The hope was to harvest and include mulberry in all of the dishes, but contrary to my belief that every year is a good fruit year for mulberries, this year was not and we only had mulberry to include in a tamale dish. At the festival we were still able to give a tour of the nursery and the newly planted orchard and discuss the project and our vision for a sustainable agroforestry system for our region.
The summer was spent watering and weeding the nursery stock, the new orchard and the hedgerow and periodically knocking off new bud growth below the grafts. Either because we were not all very experienced at grafting mulberries, because of the small diameter of the rootstock, or the difficulty in general of grafting mulberries, of the 250 grafts attempted about 80 took.
Of the 80 successful grafts, I picked one of each variety to plant at my farm, sent 10 to be planted at another farm, 10 to another, and have 10 left. In the fall, the fifty trees reserved for my farm were planted in several configurations: trees planted at 25′ spacing will be allowed to reach full size, trees planted at 10′ spacing will be pruned to small shrubs for easier harvesting, and trees planted at 1′ spacing to be trained as a living, fruiting fence.
I hired help to prep the site, dig holes, spread compost, etc and then brought my college class out for a planting day to put the trees in the ground, stake and cage them, and water. Another colleague brought two of his classes out to the farm for a tour and further help planting.
After planting and several waterings, the trees are on their own for the Winter. Currently I am preparing for another round of grafting in the spring and planning our next festival.
We have planted orchards in three distinct configurations to be managed in three separate ways.
Trees planted at 25′ spacing will grow to full size and will be pruned for maximum fruit production. Planted in a recreation area of the summer camp, fruit will be harvested by kids climbing trees, plucked from low branches by browsing visitors, or shaken onto a sheet. If it proves too inconvenient to harvest from the tall trees, fruit will be allowed to fall to the ground and be foraged by chickens and/or hogs.
Trees planted at 8-10′ spacing will be heavily pruned to grow into small shrubs up to 8′ tall. This will make hand harvesting convenient.
Trees planted at 1′ spacing will be trained into an impenetrable hedge that acts as a living fence. Fruit on one side can be picked by humans and fruit on the other side can be harvested by livestock.
Since beginning this project I have also learned that the leaves of white mulberry are edible to humans and livestock and are very high in protein. I’ve experimented by stripping leaves and feeding to hogs and also cutting and carrying leaf laden branches to the hogs. Hogs greedily devour the leaves, often leaving commercial corn offerings in favor of the mulberry leaves. This opens many new opportunities in mulberry production and I have read that in tropical areas mulberries are cut up to four times a year to feed to livestock. I hope to acquire a fruit crop, then cut leaves for my livestock in early July and again before leave drop in the fall. Leaves of the hedgerow can be foraged at will.
I have not yet eaten the leaves as the spring growth is reputed to be the best and I was not yet aware of this opportunity. Next year I plan to try it as a food as well as a medicinal tea (both reputed to be beneficial in moderating high blood sugar levels).
Additionally, we have learned that because young mulberry wood is particularly pithy and weak, grafting larger diameter scions onto larger diameter wood (approximately pencil diameter) is easier and should provide better results.
I also experimented with propagation by hard and soft wood cuttings at different times of year, each experiment yielding about a 10% success rate, which given the time and effort required is still worth trying, especially if improvements can be made.
WORK PLAN FOR 2017
In 2017 we will host another grafting workshop in late March, plant more trees in the spring, and plan to harvest as many mulberries locally as possible.
Harvested mulberries will be washed and frozen or dehydrated. We hope to sell them to a local cider maker and a local brewer as additives to alcoholic beverages that will be sold out our mulberry festival.
The fruit will also be highlighted in a range of culinary dishes, and eaten fresh and dried at the festival in hopes of increasing consumer awareness of the fruit.
Trees will be pruned as necessary and hopefully fruit will be harvested from our orchards (some trees were already fruiting in the nursery the first year). The best and earliest varieties will be noted and marked for further experimentation.
I will once again use the orchards to teach my community college students and summer camp participants. Hopefully each will get to enjoy some fresh fruit as well.
In the winter I will continue research on best practices for growing and propagating mulberries, synthesize information of other practical uses of the trees, such as firewood, fence posts, animal feed, herbal tea, and others, and work to create a guide for growing and utilizing mulberry in the Midwest.
This pamphlet will then be distributed from the farm, at other events, and through local non-profits.
We had only six people attend our first grafting workshop, three of them stayed for three days of grafting and are now proficient grafters.
Between my class and my colleagues’ classes, 60 Hocking College students were given tours and lectures on agroforestry and participated in the planting of the orchards.
At our festival around 300 people were exposed to the idea of mulberry as a commercial crop, around 30 came on the orchard tour.
200 children helped with the project in some way or another at my summer camp programs, whether it was propagating by cuttings, eating fruit from mature trees, planting or watering, everyone who came to camp got involved in some way or another.
Throughout the summer I also gave 10 tours of the farm to couples and small groups. At each tour the mulberry project was highlighted and discussed at length.
At my annual talk at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, I presented the project to a crowd of 50 sustainable agriculture enthusiasts.
Much of my social media posts have shown great videos of pigs eating mulberry leaves, as well as documenting the project from start to finish. Footage of the pigs and mulberry is also featured in my camp promotional video.