Down to Earth: Tootie and the Plant Babies

Tootie came to work for me early one spring. “I love plants,” she said simply, “and thought you might want some help.”

I did indeed. At the time, I was managing a small landscape nursery, a retail greenhouse, and a landscaping staff of twelve for a private estate. Anyone who loved plants would be a valuable asset in the greenhouse, so I welcomed her.

Tootie (pronounced like the chocolate-roll candy without the “s”) came with no real plant knowledge, but she had a quiet assuredness that everything would grow if given a chance. She soaked up information about plants like dry soil absorbing water. I began to teach her the names of the 200 or so plants we grew, and I opened our shelf of reference books to her. For her, learning a plant name was like meeting a new friend, and I would often overhear her as she worked, talking to the plants and practicing their names.

I introduced Tootie to our propagation bench, where cuttings were placed, and she immediately took to the “sandpile”, as we called it. “Can all plants have babies this way?” she asked me. I explained that a wide range of plants can be rooted from cuttings. She took great satisfaction from turning snippets of greenery into rooted, growing plants.

Our propagation bench was 30 inches wide and 6 feet long, big enough to hold a few thousand cuttings. The bench had a comfortable work-level bed with 8-inch sides, set on 30-inch legs and built of treated wood. The bottom of the bench was a layer of 1/4-inch hardware cloth covered by plastic window screening. I had designed the bed myself, just as I had ­designed the bermed greenhouse that housed it.

The cutting bench was filled with a mixture of perlite and sphagnum peat moss in equal quantities to a depth of 4 inches. Misting sprinklers were located 15 inches above the surface, attached to a moisture-regulating valve. At regular intervals, the sprinklers emitted a fine mist that kept the medium consistently moist. I explained to Tootie that, when propagating from cuttings, the most important part of the process was to keep them from wilting for the first few days after they were inserted into the rooting medium.

Over the course of that year, Tootie tried her hand at propagating all kinds of plants. She discovered that mint would root in less than a week and rosemary took several weeks, depending on the time of year when she took the cuttings. Tootie learned to use a rooting powder on the woody plants such as juniper, yew, and rosemary.

She soon took over demonstrating to new employees how to root cuttings. She taught them to take short cuttings, about 3 inches long, and remove all but the top few leaves of each. She would carefully run a knife through the soil, then insert the cuttings at an angle, all in a line. As I had shown her, she put cuttings about 1/4 inch apart in rows as close together as the leaves would allow so that a thousand or more cuttings could be placed in a small space.

That summer, our potting and landscaping crews really struggled to keep up with the bounty of plants that Tootie produced. She multiplied our scented geraniums so rapidly that we had to hold special sales. The lemon verbena, mints, germander, sage, and dozens of other plants bulged the sides of the greenhouse, crowded the storage area, and overflowed the nursery. Tootie’s work at the propagation bench provided “plant babies”, as she referred to them, for dozens of new herb gardens in our neighborhood.

Tootie has slipped in and out of my life since that summer, and, with each appearance, she reaffirms my belief in magic. I think of her often–her curiosity about all living things, her generosity, and her nurturing spirit.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.