Sow Good Seeds: Mulberry Abundance

Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. My hope is that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.

This summer I realized — somehow for the first time — that the small tree growing along our fence line is a mulberry tree, producing deep purple fruits as the warm days set in. I eagerly traipsed out with a bowl for collecting, feeling a bit like Sal as I alternated dropping berries in the bowl — kuplink! — and popping them in my mouth.

Such abundance — all for free, and I didn’t have to plant or tend it! Given the tree’s location, I imagine a bird or small creature planted the seed, and it’s evident that they enjoy the berries too, based on the purple splats on the driveway. I imagined all the cobblers and quick breads and sauces I could make, saturating my Pinterest algorithm with mulberry recipes. 

My enthusiasm waned as I came to understand some of the mulberry’s shortcomings. Their sweet flavor is pleasant but lacks dimension. They have a stem that is technically edible but annoying to remove. Also, I’m finding seedlings elsewhere in the yard, threatening to overtake other plantings. I could start a mulberry farm pretty easily, but would I really want to?

The field of permaculture holds a principle of “obtaining a yield” — in other words, work with the world around you to get or produce what you need. This seems fairly obvious: the point of a vegetable garden is to yield vegetables, after all. Working a job yields monetary income, which pays the bills. But what if the idea of yield was expanded? Where can we see potential and possibility for greater yield? 

I’m inspired by Food Not Lawns, a movement that has been “turning yards into gardens and neighborhoods into communities since 1999.” A grass yard can yield some products: space for croquet or picnicking or frisbee and the enjoyment that comes from recreation in open space. Often, though, lawns go unused, occupied only by the person mowing once a week. What if lawns yielded fruits and vegetables and flowers for pollinators instead? If plants aren’t edible, even the aesthetic beauty of native flowers can be a yield, as well as habitat and food for other creatures. Sharing produces with neighbors and swapping tips and stories yields stronger community relationships and resilience. 

The concept of yield is linked to the ideas of abundance and sustainability. When yield increases, there is greater abundance to be shared, reducing competition for scarce resources. Also, a system needs to yield products in a sustainable and equitable way. If your job produces a high income but leaves you stressed and exhausted, it’s not a healthy system. If a farm produces bushels of vegetables but relies on fossil-fuel-based pesticides and low-wage labor, it’s ultimately taking more than it’s giving. 

There isn’t always the rosy glow of dew-kissed leaves and overflowing baskets: if my spindly tomatoes and stubborn broccoli plants produced like the mulberry tree, I’d be a bit more satisfied with my garden this season. But I’ll take it — it’s the yield that has presented itself to me. There may be some mulberry muffins in store for me yet. 

Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.

Any views or opinions expressed in “Sow Good Seeds” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.