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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