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.