Just One Word: Plastics


There’s a famous scene from the classic Dustin Hoffman film The Graduate. It’s also one of the most quoted moments in the film, and often makes the list of most-quotable lines in all of film history.

Hoffman portrays Benjamin, a recent college graduate without any direction. At a party, a family friend with career advice approaches him.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Plastics. That’s the quotable line. At the time, Benjamin questioned what Mr. McGuire meant — but I had no doubt. Mr. McGuire was talking about plastic flowers.

I come from a long line of plastic flower gardeners. My mother, for one, loved decorating the inside of the house with plastic flowers. I could wake up in the morning in a house bursting with vases and bowls and baskets of pastel tulips and buttery daffodils — and then return from school to find those same containers filled with daisies and roses.

In late September, mums and fall-colored leaves would appear — the summer flowers packed away neatly until the following year.

Joe’s mother is also a plastic flower gardener. Along the front of her house is a low-cut hedge of ixora (above), a sub-tropical shrub that always seems to be blooming. In December, though, the same hedge has plastic poinsettias blooming, and in the summer it’s lilies.

For my entire gardening life, I admit I mocked plastic flowers in outside gardens. It made no sense to me that with so much natural material from which to choose, why opt for plastic?

There was a house in my Long Island, NY, neighborhood that had magnificent tulips lining the property from spring through the summer, into fall and even winter. In fact, they were the first flowers — always fully open — to reappear as the snow melted. Did they not see, I wondered, the ridiculousness of plastic flowers?

Yes, I maintained, the plastic gardening life was not, is not — and would never be — the gardening life for me.

And then I arrived in Florida, and embarked on a gardening project. Everyone here decorates the outside walls of their houses with some kind of artwork — perhaps a colorful lizard sculpture or some decorative grillwork or a smiling sun made of metal.

My house is white, topped with a terracotta barrel-tile roof. It’s very Mediterranean looking, and I thought the best way to decorate an exterior garage wall was by mounting terracotta pots to it — a kind-of vertical garden worthy of a Greek island.

I purchased nine pots and nine iron rings that would hold them to the wall.

Geraniums, I thought, would have been nice, but the location was under an overhang and so would have been too shady. Then, I considered orchids — but before I invested in nine orchids, I did a trial run.

Adjacent to the front door is a terracotta wall-mounted urn. I filled it with dirt and planted succulents. It was a great way to display natural greenery against the white of the house. I thought it looked great — and so did the ants.

Florida ants never, ever stop. They discovered the urn with the succulents and quickly established a nest in it. They marched in trails all around the front door, and eventually started exploring the inside of the house.

I cleaned out the urn, and it remains empty. Nine pots filled with potting mix were not going to work. Nine pots filled with potting mix were an invitation to an ant invasion. So, Joe attached the rings and pots to the house — and I tried to convince myself that empty pots were enough of a decoration.

It was one of those projects, however, that was obviously never finished. Joe would look at them, then at me, and say, “And when?” Even visitors kept asking what I was going to put in the pots — like I had some kind of secret up my sleeve.

The truth is, I had nothing up my sleeve. I thought of antique finials or some kind of colored glass objects. At some point, Joe brought up the word uttered by Mr. McGuire all those years ago: “Plastics,” he said. “How about just plastic flowers?”

There’s a craft store near the house with a plastic floral section. There were blue roses and orange daisies on top of lime green peonies, which were next to bright pink heliconias and succulents with blue-green leaves. Seasonal flowers were all mixed together. There was nothing real in this plastic flower market. There was only plastic.

“No,” I said — but in my mind, that “no” sounded like this: “Plastic flowers? Are you mad? What kind of gardener would I be if I planted plastic flowers?”

Deep down, though, I thought he had a point. I wanted greenery on the wall, but I also didn’t want bugs — and if I was going to go with plastic flowers, the trick was finding plastic flowers that didn’t look plastic.

It was during a stroll through IKEA, of all places, when Joe pointed out tufts of plastic grass. They looked . . . okay. They looked fairly decent. On the way to the cash register I kept telling myself, “I cannot believe you’re planting plastic.”

Once home, Joe took charge and placed the grass on top of cubes of Styrofoam so the tufts could sit higher in the pots — and I had to admit, they. . . they looked nice. Really nice. Even passable as living plants — only no ants and no watering.

I don’t think I’ve reached the point of tucking in plastic flowers to fill out a border. I hope I never make it to that point — but perhaps Mr. McGuire was correct. There’s something to this plastic thing — and if I’m anything like my mother or Joe’s mother, I’m sure I can find some seasonal plastic to rotate in and out of my nine pots.

I Won A Tree


Frangipani

At each monthly meeting of the local garden club, a raffle is held. For one dollar, members can win something — usually a plant — donated by another club member.

In the past, I’ve won a sturdy plastic hand rake, a sprouting Everglades tomato plant, and an orchid — small items that don’t take up a lot of space in the shed or garden.

Mostly, though, purchasing a raffle at the meeting is a chance to support the club.

Club raffles are an interesting beast — or rather, the club members themselves are. Some members like to stack the basket and so they purchase five to ten dollars worth of tickets. Others, like me, are more conservative — just a dollar and a dream.

The thing is, I’ve never dreamed of winning a tree — especially this tree — and yet, here I am with the winning ticket and my new tree.

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Aloe, ‘ow Are You?


Aloe

I always wanted to be a deejay. When I was younger, I had two turntables, a mixer, and crates and crates of vinyl records.

There was one small problem, though.  I never wanted to get fingerprints or scratches on any of the records — which was why my vinyl collection remained in pristine condition, and the only deejaying was in my own mind.

Still, when it comes to thinking up headlines for posts, I often turn to music for inspiration — and this post about my aloe was no different. I began with “Aloe, I Love You,” courtesy of The Doors — because, I do love this plant.

Mine was a gift from Joe’s sister, Donna. She gave it to me years and years ago — and for those years and years, it was a typical northern houseplant, a solitary presence in a clay pot, brought outside in summer and over-wintered indoors.

I was thrilled to have an aloe — practical and beautiful, medicinal and magical. Each day seems to bring about new wondrous uses for the gel inside each of its pointy, succulent leaves.

The problem is that snapping off an aloe leaf to soothe a burn or an abrasion was never my first thought. No, I’d rather run for a bandage or even a store-bought “aloe” lotion than risk damaging the plant.

It was my deejaying debacle all over again — although this time I knew my being a gardener wasn’t an imaginary mind game. I just didn’t want to take advantage of a plant. I wanted it to be pristine.

But something exciting happened after bringing the aloe to Florida, where this houseplant could stay out all year long. Of course, there was the initial shock, but in time, the green became more vibrant and smaller aloes began to pop up all around the mother plant.

Aloe

My clay pot for one had become my clay pot for many, and I wondered: Is this what aloe is supposed to do?  It actually makes more plants on its own?

Then, Adele arrived with this lyric, “Hello, from the other side” — and I began to contemplate what was happening beneath the soil of said clay pot. In other words: Aloe, from the underside.

Aloe

Just like removing a vinyl disc from its sleeve, I gently tapped the aloe from the only home it has ever known. And just like holding a record by its edges and turning it over to examine it for any imperfections, I observed and marveled at what was hidden by the clay pot.

The houseplant I had always counted on to be a solo artist was more like a member of a band.   Once unpotted, the lead singer — for want of a better term — had developed a lengthy root system, each one traveling in a circle to match the shape of the clay pot.

Aloe

It’s at this point that all record and deejaying analogies come to an end. While I may be a deejay in my mind, in reality, I’m a gardener —- and unlike my treatment of vinyl, I wanted to scratch at the soil, to separate the roots and smaller plants a bit, to clip and cut and leave my mark.

As I began, I first noticed that the thicker roots were actually runners, some of them ending with a small aloe plant — and each of these had its own set of roots and runners.

Aloe

Aloe

The larger of the small aloes were easily separated from the main plant, but the smaller ones needed some clipping.

Aloe

Aloe

Aloe

I lined up pots of all sizes, as well as some hollowed out coconuts, for planting — so that each of the aloes could be a star in their own right — and, in time, fill out and make more plants.

Aloe

Aloe

The aloe that started it all was returned to its clay pot, now a bit roomier, so that it too could once again produce more plants.

Aloe

At the end of the day, when it came time to reflect on what I had learned about aloe propagation and a headline, it seemed to make sense to name this post: “Aloe, ‘ow are you?” It’s really the question I asked myself — with a cockney accent, because a name like aloe kind of begs for that — whenever I looked at the clay pot filled with plants.

That being said, it’s time to bring my tale of aloe to a close — and in the sort-of words written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney: “You say goodbye, and I say aloe.”

A Streetcar Named Dracaena


Dracaena fragrans

“Oh, look,” whispered the sweetest of voices on the slightest of breezes each night when I stepped outside. “We have created enchantment here.”

I thought I was alone, but the powdery scent of perfume had me thinking otherwise. The voice was quite feminine, I imagined, and absolutely southern — dripping with refined charm and long, slow vowels.

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