I mistakenly created a bit of friction years ago when I wrote a story about an heirloom raspberry I had been enjoying. After all, we gardeners are little more than willing tools in our plants' evolutionary schemes to spread their offspring over the countryside.
My mistake was to suggest that gardeners could pick one up at the same garden center where I had bought mine. Oops. The folks at the garden center were as polite as they could be, but they hadn't been able to get that variety for a while. They had to send away a few disappointed readers.
When I heard that the garden center couldn't get the raspberry— grown by a Jack Carpenter and called Carpenter's Heirloom, according to the handout on plant care that came with my plant—I tried Googling both the grower and the plant. No luck. According to the folks at the garden center, he's from somewhere north of Winston-Salem. Or maybe Greensboro. If you know the guy, ask him to shoot me a line, wouldja?
That was the beginning of my quest. I'm trained as a horticulturist, but I had never been interested in the propagation of plants. I'm more of an impulse shopper and would rather just buy one already in the pot than take the time to plant a seed or root a cutting. It's a temperament thing. I thought of myself as a "how-to-culturist," but until then I never cared "how-to" propagate plants.
But now I had a plant on my hands that people really needed to know about. Why? Raspberries have a reputation for being difficult to grow in the South, but this one was more like a healthy, well-mannered pet with benefits. It rolled out lots of berries, had survived two moves and had been problem-free for years. It had other advantages. Most raspberries send up shoots from their roots a few feet away. If you have a big field, that's great—you've got more plants. But in a small garden like mine, this habit—called "suckering"—would be a pain. Every year, one would have to dig up rogue plants out of the lawn or flowerbeds. Ignore them for a year and they would overwhelm the garden. Carpenter's Heirloom stays in one place—a good quality for plants in small gardens. And the berry has a remarkable color.
I've always liked raspberries best, but the normal red color never seemed to match the flavor to me. The flavor always felt sort of purple in my mouth. So this raspberry's fruit color—a rich, deep purple—reinforces the flavor. Oh, and did I mention the berries' "purple" flavor has a perfect balance of tart and sweet? And they are so tempting that my wife rarely has a chance to bake with them; we shovel them onto ice cream or cereal or just devour them by the fistful.
All in all, I had a great berry-producing plant for the small garden, but I felt anxious about not being able to recommend a source to anyone. Unless ...
As a student at N.C. State in the '80s I had taken the required class on nursery management taught by the late J.C. Raulston (for whom the arboretum in Raleigh is named). I didn't plan on running a nursery and took the class under protest (but no one cared). But 20 years later in the fall of 2008 I dug up the textbook and put together a loose plan for propagating this bramble and other plants to sell at Duke Garden's annual spring plant sale.
I could have sold the two-dozen raspberries I had twice over. Which made me miss even more the two-dozen cuttings that didn't root. I reasoned that I had taken the six-inch cuttings a bit late in October, and the early cold weather kept half of them from setting roots.
The following year I was determined not to repeat my mistake and started earlier. By the end of September I had started about 50 purple raspberry cuttings. Each had a few leaves to help grow new roots and they looked happy. A week later we had a blowy day that made me think of March winds. At home I found the shade cloth I had tented over the cuttings had been blown away. In the heat this time, I had lost not half but all the cuttings.
The good news is that a couple dozen baby heirloom raspberries are growing into their second year in other people's gardens. And the mother plant is sending out lots of leafy shoots as I write this. And as my friends who follow baseball would say, there's always next season.
Skip your normal breakfast routine.
Go to your backyard. Pick organic, homegrown raspberries on a warm, sunny weekend morning in June.
Fill a large bowl with a modest amount of vanilla ice cream.
Cover ice cream with a double or triple layer of raspberries.
Eat with a big spoon.
All raspberries—purple, red, black or yellow—need the same kind of care. At least eight hours of sunlight on well-drained soil, organic fertilizer, regular watering and mulch. The canes want to bend down and root in every direction, so tie them to a trellis to hold them up. In September, cut to the ground any canes that fruited that year and cut any others to about five feet high. Simple as that.
Frank Hyman is a garden designer and lecturer and a once-and-future organic farmer. You can sign up for his monthly garden newsletter at www.frankhyman.com.