Site Selection and Preparation
The first consideration when planting mulberries is to choose a location away from driveways and walkways, where the berries and bird droppings pose a hazard. Do not plant mulberry trees near septic systems, as they have invasive roots. Consideration to their mature size also needs to be addressed; unless you are planting a dwarf variety, most mulberry trees will attain a height exceeding 30 feet tall and equally as wide. Properly pruned, they can be a delight to relax in their shade on a warm summer day, as they have a pronounced cooling effect. Mulberries will fruit heaviest in proportion to the amount of sunlight received, but if a heavy load of fruit is not your main concern, most mulberry varieties grow reasonably well under almost any sunlight condition, short of complete shade.
For optimum growth, the soil where you are planning to plant your mulberry should be well drained and between pH 5.5 and pH 7.0. If the soil is below pH 5.5, it can be limed. Soil with a pH between 7.0 and pH 8.3 can be treated with sulfur to lower the soil pH. Although not ideal, Morus rubra and Morus nigra can grow in soils up to pH 8.5. Your county agricultural extension office can accurately test your soil for pH and nutrients (some even do testing for free), or you can get a soil test kit from a home improvement center for under twenty dollars. Ideally, soil treatment should be done at least a year before planting, but few have that kind of foresight.
If the planting location is not a rich organic loam, you should add a good amount of organic matter to the planting hole, as this will greatly enhance the growth of your tree and protect the roots from becoming too dry during droughts. One or two bags of compost (from a nursery, home improvement center, or your own mature compost) should be mixed in at a ratio of 1 part compost to 3 parts soil from the planting hole.
A simple test to determine if your soil is in the proper pH range for growing mulberries: Take two “zip-lock” quart bags and put a quarter cup of your soil in each bag. Mark one bag “acidic test” and the other “alkaline test”. Put a tablespoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) into the bag labeled “acid test” and mix well. Add water to cover soil, and while expelling the air out of the bag, immediately seal. Put aside. In the bag labeled “alkaline test”, add one-quarter cup of white vinegar and seal as before. Look at the two bags. If the “acidic test” bag has a lot of bubbles or foam, your soil is acidic and could benefit from liming. If the bag labeled “alkaline test” has a lot of bubbles or foam, your soil is alkaline and could benefit from the addition of sulfur. If you don't see little white bubbles in either bag, check them again in an hour. If both bags show no signs of bubbles and have not puffed out at all, your soil is most likely in a good pH range for mulberries.
The planting hole should be at least three feet across and deep enough to accommodate the roots without bending. Remove your mulberry plant from its container and if it is slightly root-bound, place it horizontally on the ground and, using your fingers, loosen up the roots (at the outer surface only). If it is heavily root-bound, using a hand pruner, make 3 to 5 cuts down the sides and across the bottom, cutting through the mat of roots to a depth of about an inch (This is extremely important: Root-bound plants will stifle and suffocate their own growth if planted in the root-bound mode). With a helper holding the plant in the planting hole at the same level it was growing in the pot, start filling the planting hole with the soil/compost mixture; breaking a few times to water in well. Staking your plant is a good idea to prevent it from being uprooted by wind or varmints.
For bare-rooted trees planted in the dormant winter season (mail-order plants are often shipped this way), plant in the same way as specified above for the container grown plant, but put extra emphasis on keeping the plant well watered until established.
If the plant is dormant and without leaves, it is only necessary to water infrequently when the soil starts to become dry. When growth returns in the spring, keep it well watered. A ten dollar soil moisture meter works quite well to assist in knowing when and how much to water. After their first year, mulberries can withstand more infrequent watering. Established trees seldom die in drought periods, but water-stressed trees will drop their fruit (a moist soil is also needed for good fruit set).
If available, mulberries enjoy a 4” to 6” blanket of leaves or mulch extending at least 3 feet from the trunk (but not touching the trunk). Mulching keeps the roots near the surface moist and cool while inhibiting weeds which rob the tree of nutrients. Fertilize with two cups (10-10-10 or equivalent amount) of fertilizer containing minor elements when leaves begin to appear in the spring (but at least four weeks after planting). Fertilize again early summer; if your soil is fairly fertile, a light application every spring may be all that is necessary to produce abundant crops of berries. Mulberries do very well with organic fertilizers or composted manures.
Young trees are also much more susceptible to harsh winter conditions. So often it is reported a young mulberry tree failed to break bud in the spring. Young mulberry plants do not have thick bark and a deep root system, nor do they acclimate well to an approaching winter. If a hard freeze is in the forecast while the young mulberry still has green leaves it may be wise to give it some protection. It should also be protected during extremely cold winter events. An easy practice is to mound mulch to protect the young tree. If winter conditions become too severe for the branches above the mulch, at least you will have a live plant in the spring (make sure your mound of mulch stays well above the graft union). Carefully remove the mulch in spring before bud break.
Mulberries generally need very little pruning to grow into an attractively shaped tree (if their ornamental value is your main concern). Morus albas are especially prone, though, to branches which overlap each other, and some authorities feel those branches should be removed. Because of mulberries tendency to bleed a white sap when cut, it is recommended to save major pruning jobs for the winter months, “when the sap is down”. Mulberries grow rapidly, and soon that little stick you planted can turn into a towering monster, leaving just a few lower branches reachable for berry harvest. This is where it becomes advisable to prune the tree so most of the fruit remain accessible. Pruning out the center branches growing upright, opening up the center of the tree, and encouraging lateral growth, will keep the majority of the harvest within reach. Opening up the center allows the lateral branches to receive more sunlight and increase the yield on those branches. Pruning doesn't hurt production, as mulberries produce fruit on new growth. Branches can also be made accessible by pulling down their tips until almost touching the ground and then releasing, thereby reshaping the tree.
Pruning can also be used as a tool to induce fruiting. In areas of the country lacking sufficient cold weather for certain cultivars, heavy pruning can be used to stimulate fruit production. It may be necessary to remove one third to one half of the plant to be effective.
As to their hardiness, a Carolina mulberry grower testified as follows: "Yeh can't kill the things. Yeh kin plant yeh mulberries jest like yeh would cane—cut it off in joints and graft from the one yeh want to. I moved a tree last yeah. Jest put a man cuttin' roots off— and he cut 'em scandalous—and I hooked two mules to it and hauled it ovah heah.
I didn't 'spect it would live, but it did."
"A Georgia Tree Farmer"; J. Russell Smith, The Country Gentleman, December 4, 1915, pp. 1921-22.
Insect infestation can affect the beauty and charm of a mulberry tree, but seldom pose a serious problem for obtaining good fruit production. If you learn that certain fruit-loving insects are a problem in your area, most varieties of Morus alba have an early fruiting period which occurs before most insects “wake up” from winter dormancy. Since ants are in a symbiotic relationship with certain insects, “Tanglefoot” applied to the tree trunk to stop the movement of ants can go a long way to limit insects such as scale, mealybugs, and aphids.
This common caterpillar can defoliate large sections of a tree. Prune out the branches containing their nests of webbing, if so desired. Better yet, open their nests with a stick to give birds a treat.
Whiteflies make their presence known by flying up from lower leaf surfaces in a cloud of white when a branch is disturbed. Their sweet excretions cause the growth of sooty mold. Infestations seldom become a serious problem and control is not recommended.
Various scale insects can infect the trees, feeding off their milky sap. They usually only do limited damage affecting new growth. A dormant Oil Spray applied before Spring can reduce their occurrence.
White cotton-like masses on shoots and twigs indicate Mealybugs. A large infestation can hurt tree growth and vigor. Removing infected twigs and Neem oil sprays help to control their numbers.
These sucking insects can cause significant leaf damage, identified by characteristic white to yellow streaks on the leaves. Well managed trees in good health and vigor are less susceptible to infestation. Morus alba cultivars are generally the most susceptible.
Fruit flies can be a problem in some parts of the country. Not affecting tree health, their larva can develop inside fruit and make it less desirable (but still edible). Over-ripe and damaged fruit are the most susceptible. See the section on “Harvesting fruit” to remove these and other insects from your fruit.
Stink bugs are attracted to MOST fruit trees and mulberries are no exception. These crafty, juice-sucking insects are always on the look-out for predators, so disposing of them can be challenging.
Leafroller larvae (caterpillars) can cause severe defoliation in some years. The moth responsible does not seem to discriminate between mulberry plants and no cultivar appears immune to infestation. The larva protects itself from predators by using its silk to pull sections of leaf into a tunnel. Bacillus thuringiensis sprays are a safe, effective control.
Bacterial and Fungal Leaf Spot are the two main diseases which affect mulberries. Both are spread by rain and wind. Raking up fall leaves under the tree may help delay the onset of Fungal Leaf Spot, but control is difficult or impossible if conditions become favorable for development. Fungal Leaf Spot is more pronounced on older leaves and often results in premature leaf drop. Affecting the vigor and beauty of the tree, it seldom seriously affects fruit production.
Bacterial Leaf Spot is a more serious disease and causes a dieback of new growth and a stunting of growth in general. Progression of the disease can be minimized by pruning off the affected growth during the winter, but it cannot be eliminated.
The best control measures for these two diseases, especially in locations with warm, wet, and humid springs and summers, is to plant cultivars that are more resistant to these diseases. Morus macroura cultivars and hybrids do exceptionally well, as do Morus rubra cultivars and hybrids. Shangri-la is a Morus hybrid that originated in Naples, Florida that is supposedly disease- resistant (it probably is a Morus rubra or macroura hybrid).
Popcorn disease (from Mississippi State University Extension)
"Popcorn disease of mulberry is caused by a fungus (Ciboria carunculoides). It occurs in late spring and early summer. The white mulberries are more susceptible to this disease. The disease manifests on the developing carpels and looks like popcorn kernels. It is a serious disease if the tree is being cropped for commercial purposes; however, it does no harm to the overall health of the trees, thus homeowners do not need to worry (if the tree is only used for ornamental or shade purposes)."
"So, if this disease does occur what can be done to stop it? Sanitation is a good first step — clean up any infected material and remove it from the area where the tree is growing. There is very little else a homeowner can feasibly do to reduce the disease. Spraying the tree with Bordeaux mixture may help too, but getting coverage over the entire tree may be problematic. As with many fungal diseases, the severity will depend on the environmental conditions from year to year. Some years will be worse than others."