Dwarfing Mulberries: An Afternoon with Dr. A.J. Bullard

“Over here are the mulberries. This one is a pure Morus rubra that produces 2 inch fruits.” “Liza. Can you tell me what is different about this tree?”

This is the way of Dr. A.J. Bullard. He playfully taunts you with little snippets from his 70+ years of tree knowledge and then immediately follows it up by asking you seemingly impossible questions. “What is different about this tree?” 

Dr. A.J. Bullard isn’t a former horticultural professor, but a former baseball player and Dentist who is a botanical wiz. He reads botanical textbooks and then writes letters consisting of page upon page of single spaced revisions and fact checking to the authors. The most common complaint he voiced to me in reading these texts was how everyone seems to copy information from book to book rather than doing the research for themselves. Dr. Bullard is that man, the guy who has studied the intricacies of the Southeastern plant world so thoroughly and in real life that he often receives identification questions which have stumped the arboretums and universities (and he figures them out).

I didn’t know this about A.J when I went to visit him. I knew of him as the former president of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) who probably knows more about mulberries than anyone in the US. His knowledge is integral to the advancement of mulberries as a tree crop in the United States.

This blog post/essay is in relation to a running conversation about mulberries that I’ve had with A.J ever since we met (my boyfriend would tell you that I talk to A.J on the phone more than I talked to him when we first started dating).  The full conversation will be in the form of a presentation at this year’s annual NAFEX/NNGA conference in Tifton, Georgia. Among the multitudes of reasons why you should be there, hearing A.J. talk is one very, very good reason.


“What is different about this tree?” 

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Slowly, we approached the above pictured mulberry tree and he asks us again: “What is different about this mulberry tree?” I think on it for a bit and come up with nothing, so he asks again. “What do you see that is different with this tree?” I got nothing, A.J. No idea. “What about the height? It’s no taller than 12 feet,” he says. Ah, right…mulberries aren’t normally 12 feet tall unless they are a naturally dwarfing cultivar. “Correct!” “What if I told you this wasn’t a dwarf cultivar? What if I told you that I have figured out how to dwarf mulberries?”

Dear readers- Have you ever had your mind blown? It’s a flooding of immense realization and wonder and excitement, all at the same time. What I’m about to tell you not only blew my mind, but in a strange way paralleled my own exploits.

Dwarfing trees is a huge deal these days. Thousands and thousands of orchard acres are getting converted yearly into dwarfing orchards because 1.) more trees per acre=more fruit per acre 2.) smaller trees are easier and cheaper to manage/harvest. If you pick up an fruit industry magazine, there’s usually a very good chance of the magazine featuring one article on the promise of better dwarfing rootstock for pears/cherries/peaches/name fruit tree in the coming years because that’s where the industry is headed. However, there are some downsides to all of this and it’s usually in these three sectors: Costs (because trellis systems or support posts are expensive, Longevity (dwarfing rootstocks are shorter lived, maybe 25 years), and Input (these trees require tending from humans or else they’ll suffer and/or die).

What A.J has done to get dwarfing mulberries would allow an orchardist to fit close to 200 mulberry trees per acre. It costs less than, say, planting the same number of apple trees per acre on an m26 rootstock (semi-dwarfing) because the trees you plant are able to stand up without the need for support posts. They are longer lived (the trees pictured are 40 years old). And there are no chemical or water inputs necessary (other than establishment necessities).

Mulberry trees are naturally tall for fruit trees, usually around 30 feet or more (for M.alba and M.alba x M.rubra hybrids). Given the standard size, if you were to prune heavily every year, you could probably fit 70 trees per acre (more like 40 trees per acre if you didn’t prune heavily). With Dr. Bullard’s dwarfing methods, you could likely plant 3-5 times that amount per acre. Which, just to throw it out there, would be an incredible set up not only for people wanting to sell mulberries, but also for pastured chicken or pastured pork operations (more about that later).

Alright, so what goes into Bullard’s dwarfing methods? Note: What I’m about to discuss is only an hypothesis. We don’t know what is actually going on, but this is our best guess. Well, we think the name of the game is incompatibility. If you study the history of apple rootstocks like I have, it’s only a matter of time until you start to come across accounts of rootstocks (aka, the roots to which you graft your cultivar/scion/variety) imparting various characteristics into the cultivar/variety (here’s a fun essay on the subject I wrote last December). Some characteristics include a change in flavor, tree size, fruit size, disease resistance, yields, and death, among other things. Some of these characteristics (like death) are deemed incompatibilities. Keep this in mind.

Alright, so what did A.J do?

He took Morus alba (white mulberry- brought over from Russia in the 1600’s for silk production) and to it, he grafted Morus rubra (red mulberry-our native mulberry) or a rubra x alba hybrid. He planted the grafted trees in pots and let the rubra send out a vigorous shoot. Then he tightly wrapped a copper wire just above the graft union and buried the whole tree, leaving a small amount above ground. What grew up from there became a dwarf mulberry tree. Across the boards. At one point in time, he had an orchard of around 150 cultivars and he employed this method to fit them all into his yard. If you look at the above picture, you’ll see other dwarfed mulberry trees- all different cultivars.

He put the trees on their own roots using a method very similar to the one I made up 2 years ago (which you can read about in this essay). That’s part of the reason why my mind was blown, because I’ve been down this rabbit hole before with apples; only with A.J I got a chance to see a glimpse of what the future could possibly look like for my experiments. And also, there are major agricultural implications for this (a later essay).

Why does it work? We’re not totally sure, but we both think it could be some form of incompatibility transferred from the M. alba into the M.rubra which imbedded itself into the scion/variety/cultivar by the time the rootstock/nurse root girdled off and the tree was on it’s own roots. That incompatibility caused dwarfing. If you look at the ground where tree hits soil, you’ll see a bulge. Perhaps that’s where the vigor went.

Anyways- this is all very exciting and details of all of this, including how exactly to do it (which I’m doing as we speak) will happen this year at the NAFEX annual meeting in Tifton, Georgia.

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WOMEN NEEDED for March 4th & 5th Grafting Workshops- UPDATE to the UPDATE

THE MARCH 4TH AND 5TH CLASSES ARE FULL!!! HOWEVER….

The classes are man-heavy and I’d like to see more of a gender balance in these workshops. I’ve decided to enlarge each of these classes (March 4th and 5th) by 6 participants and those spots are only for women (or those who identify as women). What would it take to get you to this workshop (or future workshops), ladies? Whatever it will take to get you here, I want to know. Please fill out this form!

Say you bought an apple tree at Home Depot. It was a red delicious and you got one hell of a deal (maybe $10 dollars or so). You’re excited because the tree is cheap and soon you’ll have arm-fulls of apples from you own backyard.

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Well, this is all well and good until you taste these apples and find out what an awful mistake you made. Especially when you sneak over to your neighbor’s yard and try one of the apples off of their trees. You ask them what it is and they’ve forgotten, so you’re sad that you’ll never be able to buy another tree like it. You can either cry as you’re eating your gross red delicious apples, or rejoice because there is hope for you yet!

!!! I CAN TEACH YOU HOW TO TAKE A CUTTING OFF OF YOUR FAVORITE TREE AND MAKE YOUR OWN TREE FOR WAY LESS THAN WHAT HOME DEPOT CHARGES!!!

That’s basically what this workshop is all about. Sign up and I’ll not only teach you the nuts and bolts of grafting an apple tree for far less than $10, but you’ll go home with 2 trees.

With the skills I’m going to teach you, you will be able capture the fruit or ornamental qualities of whatever trees you desire and bring them to your own backyard or orchard. You’ve found a tree without any disease that tastes great? No problem! You will soon be able to propagate it. Whoa, look at that bloom! With my guidance you’ll know what to do in order to capture it…

Grafting is seriously one of the most empowering tools you can learn. I mean, it’s basically combining the thrill of creating a Frankenstein with the utility of being able to eat whatever fruit you damn well please from your backyard.

The cost of this workshop? $40 dollars.

What you’ll take home? A lifelong skill which will enable you to capture all the flavors you desire. Also you get 2 trees.

Where will it be held? Jefferson, MD

When will it be held? March 4th (sold out), March 5th from 1 to 4

And who will be leading it? Yours truly, Eliza A. Greenman. Monikers include: Elizapples or the Apple Queen (of Kyrgyzstan).

Sign up now! Spaces are limited!

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Workshops in NY! Come one, come all (until spots fill up)

The Home Orchard: a series of workshops with Eliza Greenman

May 9th: Fruit Tree Topworking Workshop!

Imagine a single apple tree in the spring blooming with a bouquet of white, pink, red and purple flowers. Imagine that same singular tree with red, green, yellow and russeted apples in the fall. That tree is possible to obtain if you learn how to topwork. Come and learn the art and technique of adding different varieties to a tree. On Saturday, May 9th, heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman will walk you through the steps necessary to change an apple, pear, or hawthorne tree over to something you find more useful to your lifestyle. Whether you want to convert an abandoned orchard over to different varieties, or you are tight on space and want one of your trees to supply great pie apples for every month of the apple season…the learning starts with topworking.

When: May 9th, 3-5pm
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to bring: Loppers or hand pruners, sharp knife (a single bevel grafting knife is strongly preferred), gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot: egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 6th: Growing Low-Input/Low-Spray Apples for Hard Cider

Cider apples are different from your normal grocery store apples. Not just in variety, but also in management technique. Come take a walk through the orchard with heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman to learn the basics of good and bad when it comes to growing apples for hard cider. We’ll identify and discuss beneficial insects and cosmetic diseases, concerns and triumphs in the orchard, and tips/tricks to deal with these concerns. The goal of this workshop is to have the participant leave with motivation to experiment, make observations, and join a network of people working to supple and make quality products which do not harm local ecology or the consumer.

When: June 6th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 13th: Summer Pruning Workshop Summer

Pruning is a practice and art of addressing vigor in apple and pear trees. When practiced in combination with dormant winter pruning, a tree is able to produce more fruit and have less disease. Come learn the basics of tree vigor, how soils and winter pruning can interact with the vegetative growth of your apple trees, and how to bring the tree back into balance through summer pruning.
When: June 13th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to Bring: Hand pruners, loppers, gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com  with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

August 8th: Fruit Exploring and Summer Grafting

Learning from the landscape is one of our best tools in combating climate change and forming a more sustainable agricultural future. If you know where to look and what to look for, the landscape transforms itself into a realm of purposeful human legacies and thriving natural adaptations. Fruit Explorer/Orchardist Eliza Greenman will teach you how to track human legacy through trees, select for wild and thriving genetics, and how to propagate it all through summer bud grafting.
When: August 8th: 9-4
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $25 per person. 25 slots available.
What to Bring: Camera, notebook, single beveled knife (grafting knife preferred), footwear and clothing for walking outside, sun protection.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

September 19th: Hard Cider 101

This workshop will cover all the basics of making hard cider, from pressing to fermentation. Participants will take home a fermenting kit and a 5 gallon carboy of cider to ferment at home.
When: September 19th: 10-2
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $100 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

the over ambitious apple farmer: grafting

As greenhorns (beginning tradespeople), we often have no idea about what we are physically capable of getting done in an hour/day/week/month/season. If there’s a will, there’s a way….right? Let me talk about that for a bit.

I thought my business (Legacy Fruit Trees) would pre-sell 500 trees this year. I pre-sold 4000 instead. “Not a problem,” I told myself…”I’m capable and competent, I sooo have this covered. ”

And so I started grafting. Do you know how long it takes me to graft 250 trees? 8 hours. That’s almost 2 minutes per tree and what I consider to be fairly speedy rate. Here’s the process:

1.) Acquire rootstock (I bought rootstock from Treco, Cummins, Adams County and Cameron Nursery). Rootstock determines the size of your tree (in most cases) and how many years to fruiting. I accepted orders on everything from “standard” rootstock (30 foot tall tree taking 10 years to fruit) to “semi-dwarf” rootstock (down to 12 feet tall taking 2 years to fruit). In a later post, I’d like to review these companies and the quality of rootstock I received, but for now we’re sticking with the basics.

2.) Acquiring scionwood. Scionwood is the most recent year’s growth on an apple tree (any tree you find desireable, you can clone and it all starts with scionwood and rootstock). The time to collect it is in the late winter, when the tree has gone fully dormant (all the sap in the tree is now down in the roots).

3.) Grafting tool. For me, I used the Graftech Manual Grafter by Ragget Industries (review to come later). In the past I just used a victorinox grafting knife, but since I prune for 2 months straight before grafting, I have to give my wrists and carpel tunnel a rest and went with the foot powered machine.

graftech manual grafter4.) Cut scionwood. Cut Rootstock. Stick them together so the vascular cambium  from each are making as much contact as physically possible.

Harrison graft5.) Wrap and seal. I wrapped with a rubber band and sealed everything up using Doc Farwell’s graft sealer. This is the most time consuming of the process and is also the most important. You don’t want your graft union to dry out. Many people used parafilm which will wrap and seal all in one, but it’s not tight enough for my needs with this grafting tool. It will work with other methods, though.

6.) Stick in moist sawdust/peat moss in a cool place and wait for bud swell.

Ok, that’s the quick rundown. Now, 2 minutes per tree…4000 trees…that’s 8000 minutes! 8000 minutes of doing the exact same thing over and over and over again.  At first this was a  lot of fun because grafting is really cool. It’s like putting frankenstein together, only less scary and ultimately ending in delicious fruit. This fun didn’t last very long, though. I started day-drinking beer around the time when my cuticles started to bleed (probably day 6-or-2880 minutes).  It was also really cold and as you can see from the picture below, my grafting shed was (it’s now remodeled) a bit breezy.

Grafting ShedSo I hired someone to help me. The guy showed up and showed real promise and I made the rookie mistake of paying him after 2 day’s worth of help. He never came back.

Then I hired a 14 year old. To all of you out there: NEVER HIRE A 14 YEAR OLD! I had these aspirations of taking him on under my wing and turning him into an orchardist…until I had to re-graft every single one of his trees…which was about 500 of them. Really, if you are going to hire a 14 year old, you have to watch their every move and don’t trust that they understand anything. I wasn’t able to do this because I needed to graft alongside him (you know, to get more done).

A month passed and I hadn’t finished grafting. My fingers and wrists ached, all my clothes were covered in grafting sealer, and my loathing of the activity soared to new heights. This was compounded with the death of my 3 month-old puppy (FedEx ran her over while I was on my way out to the grafting shed) and I was absolutely miserable with 1500 trees to go.

I shared my drama with an apple mentor and he suggested that I stop grafting, plant the rootstocks, and do some bud grafting in the summer. Of course! There was a way out! Budding 1500 trees this summer is doable (I think). If it’s not- I’ve located a professional bud grafter who will come and do all of my trees for me. Yesssssss.

Lesson learned: Discovering (through experience) how long a task will actually take you is called “Wisdom.”

Lesson #2: No matter how passionate you are about an activity, you can burn out. I didn’t think it was possible….

Lesson #3: Teach a bunch of friends how to graft well before the time comes for you to actually start grafting your trees. Have them practice over and over again. Then, hire them. Make sure your friends are over the age of 14.