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Choosing a mulberry pruning method

Chickens with mulberryMulberries are a permaculture favorite, and there are lots of theories zipping around the internet about how best to integrate them into a homestead.  When it comes right down to it, all of the methods revolve around pruning --- do you prune the tree at all, and if so how?

Mark's the one who brought this issue to my attention, because he's been watching our two year old Illinois everbearing mulberry grow like a weed in the chicken pasture all summer.  "Do you think we'd end up with more fruits for the chickens if we pruned our mulberry small and mashed a lot of trees together, like in a high density apple orchard?" he asked.

I'm glad Mark raised the question, because I'd been assuming we'd just let the mulberry grow to tree size and do its thing.  Various websites explain that it's not really essential to prune a mulberry tree, and I know of several big, unmanaged trees that I stole fruits from as a kid --- they seemed to bear heavily.

Mulberry leavesDespite not needing to prune a mulberry tree, there are various reasons you might want to.  In permaculture circles, lots of folks coppice mulberry trees, using the wood and leaves as a source of organic matter (and as fodder for herbivorous livestock).  A fascinating report by the FAO suggests that you get the most leaf production if you cram mulberries close together and cut them often --- optimal spacing seemed to be 2 feet apart, with cuttings every 112 days.  This study was carried out in a tropical setting, so you probably wouldn't see the 8.5 tons of dry matter per acre here in the U.S., but mulberries still might beat the average 3 to 5 tons you'd get from a grass and clover hayfield.

Mulberry ripening

Of course, as I've mentioned previously, chickens aren't really leaf-eaters.  Another study (included in the FAO report) found that you can replace up to 9% of your chicken's daily ration with dried mulberry leaves without lowering egg production, but I read the same thing about duckweed, which our spoiled flock was supremely uninterested in.  Instead, I want to focus on fruit production since I know our chickens will scarf down lots of berries.

PollardingMulberries produce fruits on last year's wood, so straight coppicing is out if you want fruit production.  On the other hand, if you remove only half the branches each year, your mulberry bush can produce fruits on the old wood while growing new branches for next year's crop.

For even more efficiency, I'm considering pollarding, which is just like coppicing, but keeps a trunk and three to five branch stubs instead of cutting the tree to the ground each year.  Annual pruning involves removing the twigs on half of the the pollard stubs, while leaving the other half to bear fruit.  This way, I won't have to worry about chickens damaging the tender young growth that would come up from a traditional coppice each spring.

What will I do with all the wood I cut out?  I plan to try rooting hardwood cuttings next year, which will let me fill the chicken pastures with little mulberry bushes.  Or so I hope!  Stay tuned for more posts on my pollarding and propagation experiments.

A chicken waterer at the far end of the pasture keeps the flock spread out so they don't scratch any one spot bare.

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Did you still get good fruit production pruning them smaller? I have a small yard in the city and would like to give mulberry bushes a try but I'm afraid if I keep them pruned at bush/small tree size (no more than 5 ft) I won't get any fruit. My neighbor has a 35 ft tree and I'm going to take cuttings to root but I can't have a full sized mulberry in my yard as it will completely cast my garden in shade.
Comment by Ally late Thursday afternoon, October 3rd, 2013
Ally --- We ended up getting quite a lot of fruits this year, despite the fact that I not only pruned the tree heavily last winter, I also picked half the tree's leaves to feed silkworms. I didn't pick the fruits --- just let the chickens have them --- so I don't have an idea of quantity, but there always seemed to be at least a few fruits ripening up all the time. It's definitely worth a shot in your small space, where any fruits are probably better than none.
Comment by anna late Monday morning, October 7th, 2013

hey there. i would love to hear any updates on this.

i currently have 25 red mulberry trees that i intend to plant in our chicken/duck yard. i am trying to determine the best approach. i am considering 3-5 foot spacing between trees and 5-6 feet between rows. i am also considering pollarding as opposed to coppicing so that new growth is not damaged by the birds. i intend to keep the area fenced off this year until the trees are established and inter-planting siberian pea shrub (i hear chickens love them as well) to help keep soil erosion down (lots of birds scratching in loose soil) and provide extra nitrogen (though the chickens will supply plenty) to keep up with regularly pollarding of the mullberries. i also intend to annually (likely in winter and then let the birds into the area late spring after the first chop and drop of the mulberries) lay down a think layer of wood chips, which will grow mycelium and house earthworms. i figure this will add much extra benefit for our poultry if managed properly. i intend to do the chop and drop pollarding as biomass reaches a good quantity, and dropping it directly between the rows. while i do not think the birds will eat the chop and drop directly, i think the active scratching they will be doing to find earthworms and mycelium in the wood chips will shred the leaves and they will indirectly be consuming it as they eat. at least this seem like decent logic - i cannot be sure, but that protein has to go somewhere right? where if not in the birds i wonder? i also think the chop and drop can be used to cover areas where they have exposed the soil from scratching, and keep the earthworm habitat good. as it decomposes and keeps in moisture it will also attract other critters for the birds to dine on. of course, i am also hoping to get some fruit, either for me or the birds, or both.

at any rate, this is the condensed version of a method i hope to get figured out in the next couple of weeks. i would love to hear anything you have learned that you think could be of use to me.

thanks :)

Comment by Alexander Meander late Tuesday evening, March 29th, 2016
It sounds like you have quite an adventure planned, and I'll be curious to hear how it turns out for you! Here, I've opted to stop pollarding our mulberry. Despite what the books say, I was getting a lot more fruits on older branches. So, in the interest of peak production, I've let the tree go to grow at its own pace.
Comment by anna Sunday afternoon, April 3rd, 2016

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