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It’s January and yes, I’m busy! Lessons learned from a spider plant

The spider plant in Jessica Damiano's home has

The spider plant in Jessica Damiano's home has produced abundant plants. Credit: Newsday / Jessica Damiano

It’s January, a time when co-workers, neighbors and friends seem to utter the same words at the very sight of me: “Slow season, eh?”

Actually, no. There is no slow season as a journalist, but more to the point, there’s no slow season as a gardener, either.

January is when the gardening catalogs start filling up the mailbox — and when I give the ink in my Sharpie a good workout, circling heirloom tomatoes (and some especially good hybrids, like my favorite Big Boys), newly bred perennials and some plants that have been on my wish list forever but never quite made it into the garden (will this be the year Harry Lauder’s walking stick finally calls my front yard home?).

This is also the month when I dust off my seed supplies. It’s too early to put them to work, of course, but I want to be sure they’re ready when I am. I need to order a replacement fluorescent bulb for my grow lights, and maybe I’ll spend one of my newly acquired gift cards on a proper heating mat to help coax seeds into seedlings.

As I look out my kitchen window, I see evidence of my slacking. Those tomato plants I meant to pull up in October somehow escaped eviction, now a mere horizontal shadow of their former selves. I’m thinking I’ll yank up the plants but leave the stray, partially decomposed tomatoes on the ground, where their seeds just might survive winter and sprout at precisely the right time next spring. It’s not exactly following the rule book, but plants don’t read books — or my column — and sometimes they just do their own thing. In fact, the best tomatoes I ever grew were born of a happy accident in a compost pile.

Speaking of compost, the contents of the tumbler will need to be tumbled. And I really should carry out the compiled kitchen scraps to join them. That will require putting on boots, a coat and gloves, and trudging across the backyard, probably after dark, because during winter, that seems to be the only time I’m home.

In the only sunny corner of the kitchen, in front of the French doors right next to the dogs’ bowls, sits Lila, a behemoth spider plant given to my daughter by her advisers as she began her freshman year in college. There was an obvious lesson to be learned: As Lila grew from a mere cutting to a mature houseplant, my daughter was to become introspective and notice she, too, was growing, as well — broadening her horizons and blossoming, if you will, in her knowledge and maturity. But Lila never made it back to campus after vacationing at my house that first winter break, and so the lesson-learning fell to me. I haven’t, thank goodness, had 26 babies, as Lila has, but I have learned some important things over the years:

1 Sometimes you outgrow your comfort zone and need a change of scenery in order to grow. I’ve had to replant Lila three times so far, each time into a bigger pot to accommodate her ever-growing root system. It’s always a little scary (will the move stress her out too much?), but in time she always settles in nicely and grows larger and stronger because of that difficult experience.

2 Beauty will only get you so far. I’m a sucker for color, and in the past my choices in houseplants have been Amaryllis, paperwhites and the occasional African violet. The first two are fleeting, sticking around for a couple of months while you pour all your blood, sweat and tears into them and then leaving you like a kid off to college. The paperwhites get tossed, and I save the Amaryllis for the next year, but invariably forget where I stashed them. As far as the violets are concerned, they don’t like me very much and, after several betrayals, the feeling has become mutual. Simple Lila, however, with her spiky, striped and steadfast green foliage, isn’t exactly a looker, but, boy, is she loyal.

3 If you want to be successful, in life and in the garden, you need to plan ahead. And this is why I spend January thumbing through catalogs, assessing seed-starting supplies and cooking compost.

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