December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

A mantis called Wolfgang

By |2018-03-21T18:59:31+01:00March 7th, 2014|"Suzanne's Taste"|
A mantis can fascinate children, and one named Wolfgang all the more.

y spring fever starts in March. I can’t help it — the bird balls hung in the lemon tree are filled with frantic little beaks, and I imagine that I can spot the spinach seeds germinating under their layer of mulch. A merle suddenly swoops down into the basin set out for the love doves and takes a spring bath, beak to claw, splashing out most of the water onto the border of mint around the terrace. Mojitos will be good this summer.

Because of a garden, I turned my husband into a thief. I sidled up to him in the early days of courtship and, batting my eyes, suggested that he lift a few bags of my neighbor’s elm leaves and deposit them on my compost pile. I was helping keep the city clean, right? And my neighbor was thrilled to toss them my way the next time he raked. But under cover of night, my husband kept his eye out for high-quality grass clippings when he drove through our neighborhood (and others!). Soon, he became a bagman of the highest caliber.

When love was new, I asked him to please take my kitchen scraps — coffee grounds, potato peels, severed fish heads — to the tomato patch and bury them deep beside my little plants.

“Do what with what?” Perhaps there is a limit to love’s labor.

“Trust me, amore. They’ll turn into luscious tomatoes for your bruschetta.”

“Yeah, well, you told me I would be fascinated by tomato hornworms, too,” he reminded me, looking accusingly at the bowl of artichoke parings, cucumber peel, and peach pits in his hands.

In those first days of love’s discovery, I had actually tried to titillate him with my impressive slides of the legendary hornworm. They were beautiful, crisp close ups, the red eye of the hornworm piercing in its bright green body. My husband was too polite to say no, but he did ask afterward if he could pour us both a stiff drink, and that led to other things, so you never know how inspirational those little suckers can be,

My garden is practically a part of my body. When I am troubled, I sit in my garden. When I am happy, I am happier still in my garden. And March is not too early, even in the city, to contemplate any little patch of earth that will hold a tomato plant, a little basil or rosemary and a cappucine (nasturtium) for a crazy salad.

As I amble around Rome I am tickled to see that many shopkeepers and apartment dwellers in the center have made room for edible plants in their window boxes or hedge holders and that the plants actually flourish with a little TLC even if not much sun. They also seem to elicit respect from passers by. No one pinches the bounty of these plants that make Rome’s center into an eclectic little cobble-stoned garden.

Even a tiny garden-in-a-box will often attract the good fortune of ladybugs or the magic of a mantis. My stepchildren were once petrified and then fascinated by Wolfgang, a mantis who showed up one afternoon on a tomato plant in the garden of our rented summerhouse and sat calmly making his own mantis music to elicit a treat. Normally we fed him ground beef but sometimes he got bits of broiled chicken. Even mantises (manti?) need a change of menu every now and then.

If you do plant in pots or barrels or boxes, mulch with whatever you can find at the nursery to maintain the moisture around your plants. That will help them last through summer’s droughts.

Kids love to plant, though not the wait time, so if you want a quickie garden that will delight your bambini, plant radishes and arugula. They grow very quickly and encourage more involvement from your little ones in the future.

The rich open markets of Rome provide everything a cook needs to create, but there is nothing like the smell and caress of good earth on your hands and watching your lowly kitchen garbage turn into fragrant loamy soil.

And if you can get a guy to steal compost for you, more’s the better. When the ripe jewels of your garden are sliced on his bruschetta, he’ll realize he has a pretty hot tomato right in his own backyard.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.