Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Stacking functions

While permaculture may encompass many different things, what I love about it from a land management perspective, is the intelligent design. It saves effort and resources, if you can align just one element, to do more than one thing! Or to put it another way - stacking functions.

Nothing can demonstrate this better, than a simple Mulberry tree...

Beginning to ripen

This was my breakfast, yesterday morning. I love nothing more than to meander under the mulberry, and pick black fruit, during spring. Those fruit, the birds leave me behind that is! Thankfully, this is a particularly large tree - being the first one we ever planted.

Nonetheless, before the spring rains arrive, causing the leaves to grow and hide all that emerging fruit, the birds always threaten to strip the tree bare. Even before the fruit has a chance to turn black! But somehow this mammoth tree, always manages to offer us (and the birds) a delicious bounty, before all the fruit is gone again.

 At least, 12 metres (40 ft) tall

This tree, is taller than Middle Ridge chicken coop - now my shade house for propagation. If you live in a suburban area, perhaps a tree like this would be better managed (as recommended) by heavy pruning. This encourages more fruiting and allows you to access more of them - rather than the birds.

But this is where stacking functions, and intelligent design enter, for larger acreage. Our problem is too much sun exposure. It dries out the land. So in this instance, I require the tree to reach it's absolute maximum potential. The more it grows, the more it shades. With less moisture lost to evaporation, during the hotter times of the year, I'm getting better water efficiency from what does fall from the sky.

March 2015

The mulberry tree was planted in 2010, and by 2015, I was implementing a new swale behind the mulberry. It's another one of those, stacking functions, concepts. For I needed to irrigate the mulberry, as well as prevent soil erosion. The water formerly ran straight down slope, taking soil with it.

The mulberry became a catalyst to observe, how we could alter the design of the slope for a better outcome. Primarily aimed at reducing soil erosion, and improving water efficiency - a swale became the perfect design element, in this instance. Remember, when dealing with a much larger scale, a tree is not JUST a tree, any more. It's never a lone ranger. Rather, it becomes a catalyst of interconnected functions.

My job is to find as many ways as I can, to assist those links to evolve. So the natural sequences can simply do the rest. Intelligent design, allows you to step back for the most part (eventually) with minor tweaks to assist the process along.

 2016 Addition

I'm always looking for ways to improve the design. Most recently I've incorporated vetiver grass on the side of the swale. Not only to help stabilise it, in large water events, but also to grow mulch I can throw into the swale. It will break down and disperse nutrients, while immediately protecting the soil from sun exposure.

Plant: vetiver grass (1) Functions: dynamic accumulator & soil protection (2). Whenever I prune the vetiver grass, it goes straight into the swale. Over time, this will improve the quality of the soil, feeding the mulberry. Over time, this will increase the quantity (and quality) of fruit which grows.

Changing seasons, for the mulberry

This will be a familiar sight to those in the Northern Hemisphere, at present. Fall. We call it Autumn, in Australia. Whenever the weather turns cooler though, leaves start dropping. Which is no different for the mulberry tree, given it's deciduous nature too. It drops a giant nutrient bomb, every year, on the ground - to help feed the soil.

So the mulberry is a dynamic accumulator, as well as a fruit bearing one. A single tree, with so many functions. I will be happy to list them all at the end.

 My hideaway

This is where I access the mulberry, through all those low hanging branches. I'm actually standing in the swale. I could prune those branches back, making it easier to access - but I prefer the benefit of shade, keeping the soil as moist (and as cool) as possible.

In the heat of the day, under the mulberry is the best place to be. Which is why I recently planted one, up near the permanent chicken coop! Once it gets some size to it (a) the shade will keep the chickens cool (b) keep them protected from wedge tail eagles, flying overhead, and (c) bring a network of bugs to the soil, for them to eat, as well as the bounty of fruit that falls.

Down-side of berm

Back at our most mature mulberry, I have plans to utilise the down slope berm, further. Always evolving this particular design. Because there are so many opportunities to stack functions. At the moment, the lantana downhill is benefiting from the mulberry and swale. Lantana is a weed, we're attempting to remove gradually - as we find something to replace it with.

The very edge of the mulberry's treeline, I hope will be perfect for growing goji berries. I germinated some from seed during winter, and proper placement in this evolving design, could see them bearing fruit successfully, as well.

A tree is not just a tree, on the larger scale. It's potential for expansion, and support for transitional periods - such as I've outlined, in the evolution of our mulberry. Intelligent design, can only continue to evolve. Stacking even more functions together, over time.


Remarkably (if that were not ALREADY enough) a tree can also be valuable medicine. Rich in antioxidants, these mulberries help the immune system fight against infection. My little Mister, is home sick today and wanted strawberries for breakfast. They're all but done for the season, but I had a perfectly productive mulberry tree, just outside. Best to beat the birds to it!

To summarise,a mulberry tree has many stacked functions:

  • Dynamic accumulator
  • Soil stabiliser
  • Earthworks enhancer
  • Overhead shade
  • Air cooler
  • Protection for shrubs
  • Livestock guardian & fodder producer
  • Fruit bearer
  • Medicine

This barely scratches the surface. I haven't even mentioned how trees are natures', original climbing trellis for vines, and also acts as a windbreak for my shade house.

Do you think I should attempt to grow a vine on my mulberry? I was contemplating a passionfruit, but knowing how vigorous those are, they'd cover the goji berries in no time. I don't want to make extra work for myself, keeping the passionfruit in check. Plus I like the fact, the leaves drop in winter, and let the light in. So maybe a deciduous vine?

What are your recommendations/experiences, for a suitable vine under a deciduous tree?


  1. That's a magnificent tree, Chris: I haven't planted a mulberry yet; maybe it's time to give one a go. I don't have any ideas for a deciduous vine to grow up it; my knowledge of such plants is pretty thin. I feel it might be best to leave well alone as the tree is doing so well on its own. I've been carried away by the plant stacking idea in the past, but often found the competition between the plants worked to the detriment of both. It needs careful selection I think. Just my 2 cents worth.

    1. I'm glad our tree stuck around, to grow so big. Sometimes I get lucky, lol. There were plenty more trees which bit the dust! Never a mulberry though. I think the birds would love any mulberry you could bring to your backyard, Bev.

      Careful selection of the right vine, is critical here, I think. Because you're right - I don't want to strangle the successful system I have going. I was considering a grape vine? Still thinking about that one. The goji berries I want to go in at the drip line, first. Thanks for your feedback.

  2. I have a dwarf mulberry in a pot that's doing well but, oh, how I'd love a big mulberry tree like this! So many functions. I hope to get some fruit off my dwarf tree next fruiting season. In the meantime, I'm busy chasing the Currawong away from my blueberries! Meg:)

    1. I must say Meg, we're addicted to mulberries here. We can't get enough of them. I hear no complaints from the resident bird-life either, lol. Truly, those Currawongs are quick too. They nick it, even before the fruit is properly ripened. Cheeky! Good luck with your dwarf variety, Meg. You'll have to fight the Currawongs for them too, lol.

    2. I have had some stern words with this Currawong, Chris. Definitely not fussy as to whether the fruit are ripe or not. Cheeky indeed! Meg

  3. Even in my tiny garden it's pure joy to be able to pick berries from the vines/bushes, but sadly no tree's here.

    1. I was admiring your bramble berries, not long ago. They were so prolific. Make use of the space you have - and you certainly do!

  4. Chris, our old mulberry tree is massive but I think the fruit has finished now. I do have some frozen to use down the track. My hubby did buy a dwarf mulberry but it is still in the pot and I have no idea where he would actually find a place to plant it anyway. One of these days.....

    1. By the time our first mulberry tree is finished fruiting, the one lower in the gully, starts to ripen. We didn't plan it that way. It was just a happy accident we stumbled upon. The gully gets less sunlight in winter, so that particular tree, is slower to set fruit.

      I think you've done well to experiment with a dwarf variety too. I'd love to hear the differences (if any) that you discover, between the standard and dwarf varieties. You've got me thinking, where I can put a dwarf mulberry now.

  5. Hi Chris,

    Finally I am trying to catch up on a few favourite blogs. I have been kept busy the last couple of months and I will blog about it shortly. My veggie garden has had a big makeover with a shade completely over and the wicking beds renewed. Hopefully my patch will do so much better.

    Our mulberry tree is struggling although each year the fruit it produces is a little bit bigger and better. It has been very slow growing, so I have been giving it extra water. I think I will dig a bigger trench around it to catch the water when it does rain. Our land is flat and sandy so I am not sure whether swales would work.

    We are in drought and we had not had any decent rain since June and things were so dry, then today we had a thunderstorm go through that dumped 10mm on the thirsty soil and the plants and trees all breathed a sigh of relief. I wont have to water for a couple of days, yay!

    Thank you for this post, it has inspired me to do more for my poor mulberry tree.


    1. Great to see you again Tania. I know how hectic things can get, especially when there are large gardens to maintain, on top of everything else. Super excited to see your new vegetable garden overhaul. I was just thinking to myself recently, I should redo my hugle beds, in the vegetable patch. Some things have worked, others haven't - so they need tweaking.

      My mulberry took many years to get to the size it is, but it also took a while to develop a consistent heavy-load of fruit. The fruit isn't always as sweet and juicy, if we don't get enough rain either. But I take what I can get, lol. So do the birds!

      I've heard the trick with swales in sandy soil, is to fill them completely with wood chips. They absorb water like a sponge. So long as you keep the swale in shade, it shouldn't dry out too quickly either. A large mulberry would cast a lot of shade, so you should be good for that.

      We would put cut sapling trees into our swales that were on sandstone. Similar effect to sandy soils, in that the water passes straight through. It would hold moisture in the rainy season, because of the woody material acting like a sponge. Since we cleared those swales, making hugel beds with the material, the plants haven't done too well near those swales. We may have to reinstate woody material in those swales, again. Good luck with you're mulberry. Always tweak the system, of what hasn't died on you, lol.


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