February 26, 2024 | Rome, Italy

How does your garden grow?

By |2022-03-12T04:21:05+01:00March 7th, 2022|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Mr. Hornworm may be a pest, but he's a handsome fellow,

y husband is a thief. It is really all my fault. One day I sidled up to him and suggested he lift a few bags of my neighbor’s elm leaves and deposit them on my compost pile. They were being thrown out after all, and I was just doing my civic duty to keep the streets clean, right? Now every week my compost pile is rich with grass clippings from the local garbage bins, leaves from the shedding trees, and every potato peel, orange skin, and coffee grounds from my kitchen.

My husband buries the garbage in the middle of the heap, and contrary to popular belief, the compost pile smells sweet, like turned earth and springtime. When our love was still new, I asked him to take my kitchen scraps into the garden and bury them near the tomato patch. Do what with what? He looked as if he had been asked to butcher the cat for supper.

They’ll turn into tomatoes, I said. Trust me.

“Yeah, well, you told me tomato hornworms would fascinate me too.”

In the first days of courtship, I had actually tried to get him alone by asking him to see my slides of hornworms.

He looked accusingly at the bowl of artichoke leaves and peach pits in his hands.

In the first days of courtship, I had actually tried to get him alone by asking him to see my slides of hornworms, a different approach at least. He was too curious to say no. I have a little trouble with hornworms myself, but after the initial shock of finding a dragon attached to the underside of a healthy tomato branch, I decided that if I couldn’t beat ’em, I’d join ’em. I took four rolls of slides and learned to marvel at the creatures in my garden.

You have to murder hornworms of course, but a light, dusting of pyrethrum made from chrysanthemum roots will discourage the moths that lay the eggs. It’s either the worms or the tomatoes, take your pick, but they are a wondrous thing to look at, for a few minutes at least.

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. It’s a wonder we had any gardens at all where I used to live in Southern California. We should really have been riding camels and living in dunes there, and yet it was a city filled with swimming pools, tropical jungles, and an increasing threat of water shortages.

How does your garden grow? Take a walk through your plants and try to imagine how simply everything would work, what little maintenance your garden would need, how much less water it would require with a proper drip system, perhaps a xeriscape, and all water-loving plants grouped together.

A xeriscape which for months I called zeroscape, because it made sense — landscaping that needs little water, from the Greek word xeros, meaning dry. I was introduced to xeriscape by Annabel Cameron, a garden designer, who keeps me abreast of what nature is doing and how to go along with it. I often see gardeners raking the earth down to its bare skin, blowing leaves into the streets for the city to clean up and struggling to keep gardens green in winter by heavy use of fertilizers and too much water. A xeriscape eliminates the need for such combat, because it thrives peacefully on its own ecology with little need for moisture. Drought-resistant plants, such as succulents, cactus, grasses, and hardy ground covers are perfect for xeriscapes.

“Ah,”I said, “you have met Wolfgang,” and proceeded to introduce them to one of the wonders of the insect world.

A xeriscape is not imposed upon the earth but is what our gardens would look like if left to grow on their own. The same principles apply to flower, vegetable, and turf areas. Nature has reasons for seasons. Just as we huddle together for warmth and draw ourselves in during winter, dress for the cold, metabolize a bit more slowly to utilize our resources efficiently, nourish ourselves with carbohydrates, so does the garden gather its resources for the coming spring. When spring busts out all over, it takes a lot of energy. Things are conceived in the winter in the plant world just as they are in the animal world. That little green sprout in the garlic is a baby bulb, about to multiply. Those wintry trees outside the window are sitting there gathering strength to pop out blossoms in March or April.

You can plan a garden by dedicating a small space to water-loving plants and then designing the rest as a permanent, drought-resistant area and you’ll enjoy the benefits year after year, especially when the water bills arrive.

A garden without vegetables is like a plate of tomatoes without olive oil. A book called “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back,” by Ruth Stout, changed my gardening habits forever. Ruth, at 70 years, would simply, in spring,  rake back the thick organic mulch protecting and feeding the soil, plant her seeds, cover them back up and wait. A few weeks later, she would go out again and pluck tomatoes and squash from her thriving plants. Having been a mulch gardener for some years now, I can only say that it works.

My garden is allowed to go through its seasons without having me beat it into submission when it wants to rest, and the summer and autumn crops pay me back tenfold for my patience. Fragrant creeping thyme, marjoram and yarrow brighten the schiste walls and act as mulches for the spring bulbs. Mulches are not only beneficial to the vegetable garden; they are being used more and more in xeriscapes as alternatives to large areas of thirsty grass, and as paths and ground coverings between flowers and shrubs.

Mulches will obliterate weeds, and I find that occasional pests will eat the mulch instead of my prize tomatoes and rosebuds. Insects are much maligned in the garden. I remember my stepchildren screeching suddenly as they played on the newly placed straw. I ran out to find them wide-eyed and petrified as they stared at a perfect praying mantis who eyed us with equanimity. “Ah,” I said, “you have met Wolfgang,” and proceeded to introduce them to one of the wonders of the insect world, named after one of the great gourmets of the world, Wolfgang Puck.

That season, Wolf took care of most of the aphids and potato beetles he could find, with a few choice wasps for dessert. My mantid cases, ordered through an organic seed catalogue, had hatched in the spring and deposited large families of mantids throughout the neighborhood — mantids, being gourmets, munch on the harmful insects in your compost pile and in your garden. After a brief first lesson on the garden and its delightful inhabitants, my stepchildren rushed into the kitchen to get Wolfgang an offering of leftover broiled chicken. Even mantids like a change now and then.

A xeriscape, a shrub, flower and turf garden or a vegetable patch will be pest-free with a few simple tricks. One of my considerations each spring is to plant enough for everyone.

Insects exist. But there are far more beneficial insects in a healthy garden than pesky ones, and insects tend to attack small areas of weakened plants, then move to the more luscious ones.

No beneficial insect is immune to pesticides and fungicides, so you must really decide that you are going to go natural and stick with it.

No beneficial insect, like ladybugs and mantids, is immune to pesticides and fungicides, so you must really decide that you are going to go natural and stick with it, or the good will go out with the bad and the ugly. The great benefits of an organic garden, of course, are the large bouquets of flowers you will cut and the abundance of tasty fruits and vegetables on your table, and you will not have to worry about ingesting or breathing harmful chemicals. An ex-salesperson of pesticides once told me that he got out of the business fast when he discovered that none of his fellow workers were over forty, a sobering thought.

Because of my mulch, which keeps in moisture and protects roots, I harvested tomatoes well into January. The fruits were smaller and took longer to ripen, but they ran circles around the hard, plastic balls that get advertised as tomatoes.

Nature is very kind to those who play her game. The intricacies of the growing season will become more evident as you watch your garden produce its bounty and then take its siesta. The pale, subtle colors of winter are all around us in February and even early March; tree barks change from brown to pale green to gray, and the Zen sculptures of bare tree branches against a winter sky make it easier for us to watch the squirrels performing

amazing gymnastics. The resting earth is a different kind of beauty from the sudden mustard yellows on the hills or the intense jewel colors of the first Zinnias and poppies in a spring garden, but the gray-green of santolina or the soft, textured foliage of lavender can brighten any winterscape.

Your garden is, in my husband’s view, a free lunch.

Be as kind to this special place as you are to the one who buries the kitchen trimmings, and you will have tomatoes on your table forever.

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.