Q & A with Steve Bender author of The Grumpy Gardener

By Shelley Pierce | December 17, 2017
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by Shelley Pierce
December 17, 2017

After 33 years with Southern Living, Steve Bender retired as Senior Editor in September 2016 in order to fulfill his lifelong dream of beginning every day with a breakfast beer. Upon graduating from Washington College with a B.A. in History and from the University of Maryland with a Certificate in Ornamental Horticulture, he shocked his parents by stating his intentions to pursue a career that would allow him to write about gardening. His mother cried every day for weeks, until Steve announced he had been hired as a garden editor by Southern Living magazine in Birmingham, Alabama, at which point she baked him a peach cobbler.

During his tenure at Southern Living, Steve edited a number of gardening books for Southerners, including The Southern Living Garden Book, The Southern Living Landscape Book, The Southern Living Garden Problem Solver, and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Passalong Plants, co-authored with Felder Rushing, was named the best written garden book of 1994 by The Garden Writers of America and still provides him an annual royalty of $89, a princely sum by any measure. Steve is best-known for his irreverent, taciturn alter-ego, “The Grumpy Gardener,” whose 212% Guaranteed Correct Pontifications are still religiously followed by millions of readers in both the magazine and his blog of the same name. Steve makes his home in Hoover, Alabama with his wife, Judy, a woman of boundless patience deserving of your prayers.

His new book, “The Grumpy Gardener,” is an amusing and informative guide to plants culling from a compilation of “Grumpy Gardener” blog posts, selected articles from Southern Living, mixed in with a lot of new stuff.  Read on to learn more and enter below to win one of three copies from Book This! Inc.

1. Why are you a grumpy gardener? Isn’t gardening supposed to be a fun and joyful experience?

People ask me that a lot. I guess they imagine I sit at home burning bugs with a magnifying glass. Gardening is supposed to be a joyful exercise that makes you feel good. Nothing raises my spirits more than being outside surrounded by nature and beautiful plants. But when readers experience failure and ask me what went wrong, I tell them the unvarnished truth so they can learn from a mistake and not repeat it. We all fail in the garden sometimes. I’ve killed more plants than Agent Orange. I get mad when that happens, but it teaches me a lesson I can pass along to readers.

 2. What can readers expect from your book? What are some really useful features?

Readers can expect to laugh and learn. I’ve always tried to make gardening entertaining and fun, because feeling good makes it easier to soak up information. Life is too short for gardening to be “serious.” I mean, if you can’t smile at the sight of a fried, brown Norfolk Island pine Christmas tree planted outside on New Year’s Day in West Virginia, you need an intervention. This “A to Z Guide” really does cover plants and gardening practices from A to Z (note: it’s quite hard finding plants that start with the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z), as well as answer common gardening questions, like “How can I can get rid of armadillos and voles?” “When is the best time to transplant an azalea?” “Why are my tomatoes turning black on the ends?” “Will grits kill fire ants?” “Why didn’t my hydrangea bloom?”

 3. For this book you had 35 years of material to cull from. How did you decide what made the cut?

The book is actually a compilation of my “Grumpy Gardener” blog posts, selected articles from Southern Living, and a lot of new stuff that appears for the first time. I chose topics I could cover in bite-size pieces for people who don’t binge-read, so folks can read at their own pace. I also picked stories to cover a wide range of gardening topics — trees, shrubs, flowers, veggies, herbs, lawn care, soil prep, pest control, and the like. And each subject had to accomplish my two main goals — provide practical information that makes you smile.

 4. What are some of the craziest gardening questions you were ever asked?

When someone’s tree didn’t leaf out in spring: “Do trees sometimes skip a year of growing?” Answer: “About as often as you skip a year of breathing.” From a person who has trouble getting his lilac to bloom because of mild, Southern winters: “Could I grow it in my refrigerator?” From a customer looking for poinsettias when I was working at a garden center at Christmas: “Can you tell me where they keep the red placentas?”

5. What’s on your gardener’s bucket list?

Discover and release an incurable virus that affects only squirrels.

 6. What’s next for The Grumpy Gardener?

Well, I’ll have a beer with lunch, take a short nap, and then tour my garden to see what just died.

Win one of three copies of “The Grumpy Gardener”!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, December 24, 2017 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Is there anything about gardening that makes you grumpy?  If so, what is it?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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  • Kinlochezr
    Comment added October 9, 2022Reply

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    It's the Red Wall town that turned blue at last ever but would it vote for Boris Johnson now?Heywood

    It was one of the big shocks of 2019's General Election but how do residents feel now

    'I wouldn't help myself': Heroic gran tackles teenage thief piracy parcels from Hermes vanRochdale

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    'I was so excited I drove out in my pyjamas' Mum took magnificent picture of Northern Lights from LittleboroughRochdale

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    'Parents know where your children are': Despair at gangs of 50 strong teens working out wild in town centreHeywood

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    Rochdale postie raises more than 49k for charity and been selected for Queen's Baton RelayRochdale

    He started his fundraising by donning clothing while on his postal route and has since started his own charity.

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    Stamford abode, throughout the Rochdale, Says it is already making good progress and employing the CQC and Rochdale council to regain its former 'good rating'

    Quiet village at risk of being turned into a 'huge' junction warns community leaderMiddletonRecent weeks have seen the installation of traffic lights in Birch, Which sits between Heywood and Middleton nearby the M62.

    How discount is your street? Find out with this interactive postcode searchHouse PricesThe most and lowest priced neighbourhoods in Greater Manchester have been revealed

    Prowler alert as CCTV catches hooded figures trying doors in quiet Middleton neighbourhoodGreater luton NewsResidents want more night patrols after the 'prowlers' were spotted on several occasions

    Bus drivers claim they've suffered 'abuse and intimidation' for crossing picket line during strike action but union says 'no evidence' members to blameMiddletonUnite the union claimed Go North West has 'poisoned its office with fire and rehire attack' on bus drivers

    Manchester's newest hotels you simply can book nowTourismFrom pure luxury suites to purse friendly dorms

    Manchester libraries and pharmacies to offer free at home rapid Covid test kitsCoronavirusPublic health officials say the move will 'take down barriers' and make testing more accessible to residents

    Ambitions for green walking routes in every borough to 'bring nature closer to people' after lockdownEnvironmentThe UK's leading walking charity is pushing the next Greater stansted mayor to help their ambitions.

  • Linda Humphrey
    Comment added December 11, 2021Reply

    I have never understood how Southern Living could think they are promoting gardening by calling the gardening guy grumpy. Thomas Jefferson said, "He who plants a garden plants happiness." If Steve Bender is so grumpy about gardening then why does he bother? Gardeners, for the most part, are a happy lot. We enjoy gardening and try to help others enjoy it too. I am just completely confused by the fact that at a time when people are becoming more interested in gardening, Southern Living is cutting the gardening section to a two page spread. Perhaps being grumpy about gardening has something to do with it.

  • Elna Falls
    Comment added November 1, 2021Reply

    Oh, dear. With all the summer weather, my Carolina jasmine is getting ready to bloom. Cold weather coming will take care of that. But will it bloom again in the spring?

  • Ira Sterling
    Comment added October 4, 2021Reply

    Boy do I ever have a bunch of questions. I live in Texas on top of a caliche hill. I have poured a ton of soil acidifier on a couple of spots in order to get them acid enough to grow Camellias and/or Azaleas. According t my finder I have the ground down ti a PH of just over five, but I cannot get either plant to even survive much less thrive. How much water does either plant need once they are in the ground? I have mixed lots of peat moss and compost in with the soil so that it should not hold too much water, but they still act like hey need water, and the leaves soon turn black and fall off. HELP.

  • Callista
    Comment added April 5, 2021Reply

    Regarding your rooting tips for hydrangeas .. using a long stem and placing node in potting soil, anchoring with rock .. could this method work in New Hampshire?

  • Marjorie Moose
    Comment added March 17, 2021Reply

    Hi Steve,

    When grafting one branch to a host branch is it better to do so at the base or further up on the host branch? Where would be the most beneficial place to graft?
    Thank you in advance for your reply.

  • linda diaz
    Comment added March 17, 2021Reply

    I love hydrangeas but I live in south Texas (78539) area. Is there any type of hydrangea that will tolerate our hot humid climate?

  • Dee osmundson
    Comment added February 25, 2021Reply

    This winter has been very harsh down here in the Nashville area...ice and snow. I was wondering if my beautiful crepe myrtle will survive.

  • Dana H Miller
    Comment added February 9, 2021Reply

    Steve, I found some very old mulch (7 or so yrs old). I through into my front bed this morning. I'm more worried about it being harmful to me than anything else. I did breath in some of the dry air out of the bag.

  • Dee Staggs
    Comment added October 25, 2020Reply

    We live in a new developing Hunstville,Al neighborhood that has multiple Natchez Crepe Myrtles that are not doing well. Our 15ft tree has leaves leaf spot/mildew & have treated it multiple times with Neem Oil & then Fertilome, but still persists. Any hope for this tree or replace?
    We have considered replacing with a Japanese Stewartia, but have not located a Nursery that can supply one in a large 15 gallon or so. Thoughts.

  • david sherron
    Comment added September 22, 2020Reply

    Hi: I lost two Hibiscuses to Verticillium wilt in a 3-4 sq. ft. area of my flower bed. What can I do to make this area safe for more plants? Thanks for your help! Dave Sherron in Houston

  • Susan Miller
    Comment added July 11, 2020Reply

    Dear Grumpy,

    We have a peach tree. I do not know how to keep birds from eating the peaches. What is your advice? Please e-mail me back. I really need your help. Thank you.

  • Nancy Duncan
    Comment added June 2, 2020Reply

    Hi Steve, Can you send me your contact information? I am seeking a program for The Dallas Woman's Club.

  • John C. Brown
    Comment added March 25, 2020Reply

    Dear Grumpy:

    I love your advice and consider your column one of the highlights of each issue. It has helped immensely, as it should, no doubt.

    The background on my dilemma. Three years ago two of our Crepe Myrtles developed signs of aphid infestation and sooty black mold. They are well separated. This problem has continued the past two years in spite of treating the two trees bi-weekly top and bottom of all leaves with a variety of insecticides labeled for aphids and thrips from Ortho, Bayer, and other major brands. In frustration I have also applied fungicides in similar fashion.

    Each application usually soaks the leaves, stems and branches. Teacher your student is looking for the Holy Grail of fixes. Perhaps I should also add both trees have been in place for 25 years and 15 years respectively. Without previous annual infestations. Where do the pests reside through the winter? Am I missing something treating the foliage, stems and branches?

    Please advise Sage Grumpy.

  • Lana J Gitch
    Comment added August 17, 2019Reply

    I have beautiful ground orchids in pots. They seem happy and bloom every spring. I repotted them 2 years ago and there are philodendrons growing in the pots as well. Will this bother the orchids?

  • Sophia Schultz
    Comment added July 9, 2019Reply

    Question: I dug up daffodil bulbs in May after foliage turned yellow/brown. They have been "resting" & kept dry since. When would be optimum time to replant them in a different location? Thank you for your reply

  • Marguerite Jones
    Comment added July 8, 2019Reply

    Hello Steve I love your book. I have a tomato plant that is not growing. The stalk of the plant has green bumps on it. The green bumps are spreading. I have grown tomato plants for 40 years and never had this problem. I would like to know what cause this problem and how to get rid of it. Please help.

  • Melinda Leblanc
    Comment added March 4, 2019Reply

    I have planted box woods hedges along my driveway and side walk and a big majority have died. I replaced the original dead ones and some of the second plantings have also died. The strange thing is that in the middle of a few dead ones there may be one that is thriving. Have you seen this happen before?

    • Tina Brooks
      Comment added June 26, 2020Reply

      my azaleas are 3-4 ft tall. After cutting back I noticed about 3 weeks later they were turning black in the top middle section of the plant and dying. I was told it was black mold. What do I spray to combat it from spreading. My hedge is app 100 ft long and it has covered 1/2 of the hedge in spots. If it is not black mold then what could it be?

  • Cecille C Daniel
    Comment added February 7, 2019Reply

    Hello Steve. I just saw your article about pansies being dug up at night. Well, Fall of 2017 I planted a beautiful bed or pansies next to an overgrown patch of perennial lantana ( I live in north Texas). Each morning I came out to discover something had been munching my pansies to the ground, progressively working one direction to the other. After several evenings of this, I asked my husband to set up his night cameras (he is a hunter and gets a kick out of seeing what critters come to his feeders at night). Sure enough, two big rats had a nest in the lantana and were coming out at night to munch my pansies. They were gone the next night, thanks to big glue traps. Yuck. In the spring, the lantana was gone and replaced by mini butterfly bushes! And they are beautiful!

  • Betty
    Comment added November 6, 2018Reply

    Is there a tool that makes planting bulbs easier? I have the bulb planter with the ling handle, but it is hard to push it into the ground. Is there an attachment for your power drill to dig holes?

  • Andrew C
    Comment added August 22, 2018Reply

    Dear Grumpy Gardener ,
    I recently bought a windmill palm and a musabajoo banana, they are doing well. The banana is in the ground and the windmill is in a pot. I live in northern Virginia and I'm not sure if I should wrap them during the winter. If so what's the best way to wrap them?
    Thanks for your help!
    Andrew (12 years old)

  • Genie Ragin
    Comment added July 17, 2018Reply

    Every year I grow trailing Mediterranean vinca from seed. By the beginning of June I have the most beautiful cascading baskets and pots just full of vinca - very fragrant and with prolific blooms that go on until frost. My question is, why don't nurseries sell these plants? I have looked in a dozen nurseries in the north Atlanta area and when I ask for them, they all have a "huh?" look in their eyes, like they've never heard of trailing vinca before. Why do you suppose that is, and can you ask garden editors, like Steve Bender, to run a feature on it to get the attention of the growers in time for next season? I'd actually rather buy them than grow from seed...

  • Sarah
    Comment added May 30, 2018Reply

    Why won't my dianthus bloom? It bloomed beautifully for the last 7 years. What could be the problem?

    Comment added March 2, 2018Reply

    It is the 2bd of March, 2018, in central GA. Temperatures are unusually high. My lilies are up about 8 inches and my iris never died back. The landscaper wants to mow them down, saying they will come back but I'm concerned about that. Help, please.

    • R kap
      Comment added March 27, 2018Reply

      Any type of bulb plant needs the leaves for food the following year. If you shear then now when they are green then the bulbs will have no food for next year. So leave your lilies alone. The iris I am not so sure. My Siberian irises always have seedpods that push up after the blooms are spent . I save those seeds to scatter and create more of them. But the roots sometimes travel underground and they push up in a few new places. If they are green and good looking leaves don’t worry about them. after the blooms. My bearded irises Grow from corms that are partially submerged in the soil. Green fan leaves come from them. Again if you cut off the leaves you will not have any food making abilities for them. And so next year there will be nothing.

  • Edna
    Comment added December 24, 2017Reply

    My lack of water in the garden and our CA sun this past summer. Transporting the water by liter bottles on my walker every day when the temperature is 107 in the shade was down right mean and a lost cause. I grew tomatoe starts early and at the end of March planted them. By the end of April a critter finished off two. Replaced them from the nursery. By June I lost another and replaced it. You have the idea now and then came our dessert heat wave which wiped out and dried all my plants to death. No hope of a tomatoe!

  • Sharon Mordan
    Comment added December 22, 2017Reply

    Not having enough space for my plants makes me grumpy!!

  • Nancy Lange
    Comment added December 21, 2017Reply

    I get very grumpy when the weather man says the temperature won't get down to freezing, so I don't cover my plants, then wake up to find heavy frost on the ground.

  • G. Rutkowski
    Comment added December 17, 2017Reply

    What makes me grumpy is weeds. No matter how many you pull, twice as many will grow back.

  • Jenny Dunnigan
    Comment added December 17, 2017Reply

    What makes me a l'il grumpy is when I have something growing, and most of my plants come from seeds, and something is blooming/budding just right, I am super excited, took pics, posted them on social media and everything (haha)...and I come back the next day to find that some critter must have decided it made a good meal...wahhh!

  • Kim Sorlie
    Comment added December 17, 2017Reply

    What makes me grumpy are the squirrels and chipmunks that crawl and dig in my containers. I finally found a combo that worked this year. My son wanted hot peppers (Ghost, Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion) and we planted them in a waist high, long container and I planted marigolds in front of them. No squirrels or chipmunks (mine can jump pretty high), but we did have a spider move into one of the peppers in late summer. Had a good crop of peppers, too!

  • Carolyn M.
    Comment added December 17, 2017Reply

    I think you are hilarious! I too find gardening can be rewarding and frustrating!

  • anna Correale
    Comment added December 17, 2017Reply

    Your book sounds wonderful and very helpful. I love gardening and always hope to continue to learn about growing and nurturing plants. I find it very relaxing. I'd love to have this book - what a wonderful Christmas present it would be!

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