Friday, 5 February 2016

Rescuing a Mulberry Tree

When I was growing up I always wanted a mulberry tree, but we never planted one in our garden because they were too messy. I still don't have one, but I now have a Mulberry bonsai-in-training which I got off our club raffle table several years ago. It's not a beautiful tree though, and I tend to prioritise fruit over styling.

Lately I've found that mulberry seedlings keep popping up in the most inconvenient places in our garden and I've been trying to rescue as many of them as I can. But sometimes that's easier said than done.

One seedling chose a really bad spot to grow. It somehow managed to root itself in the tiniest gap between a wooden telephone pole and a rubber tube carrying wires from the ground to the top of the pole. To make matters worse, just behind it is a brick wall, and in front of it is a paved driveway. There's really no space for a tree to grow there.

For the last couple of years I've been watching that tree develop. Due to its inappropriate position it has been cut back several times, but the trunk has been fattening up quite nicely and I'd have loved to turn it into a small bonsai if I could. Sadly digging it up without causing serious damage is impossible.

I hate to waste anything that can grow though, so a few months ago I set about rescuing it in the only way possible - air layering it as close to the ground as I was able.

I tied a piece of wire tightly around the part of the trunk where I wanted roots, then created a makeshift pot - the top half of a juice bottle, slit down one side, which I could easily slide over the trunk. Once I'd filled that up with soil, I wrapped it in black plastic to give the roots a dark environment to grow, leaving the top open so that I could water it every day.

From time to time I checked on its progress and eventually I found the first signs of roots forming. After that patience became a problem. I was desperate to remove the tree before I made a mistake and let it dry out, something which could easily have happened during a mid-summer heatwave combined with a severe drought. At the same time I wanted to ensure that there were enough roots to sustain the tree once I removed it from its original base.

When I started the air layer, the tree was probably about two feet tall with two thin stems growing upwards, but it grew strongly and soon extended above the wall. I estimate its height was about seven feet when I finally decided it was ready to be detached from its parent tree and start a life of its own.

In the ground, ready to be separated from its parent tree

This was what it looked like from up close.

Two trunks coming out of its makeshift pot

The first thing I did was chop it back to a manageable height. Then I removed it from the base and got to work potting it up.

There was a pleasant surprise waiting for me when I opened up the parcel. That little tree had produced a lot more roots than I had hoped for in a few short months.

A mass of roots

I soon realised that the small pot I'd prepared would never do and quickly found a larger one to plant it in. Finally I defoliated the tree.

After cutting back and potting - January 2016

I wasn't really planning for a twin trunk when I started the air layer and with the benefit of hindsight I probably should have removed one stem at the time, but for now I'll leave it as is. In a year or two, when its root system is more settled, I'll see whether to keep it this way or whether to remove one trunk. Perhaps I'll even be able to separate it into two trees.

Here is what remains of the parent tree - a small stump, tightly wedged up against that pole.

Remains of the parent tree

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