The Grumpy Gardener Wants to Teach You How to Garden With Attitude

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Southern Living garden editor Steve Bender has done the unthinkable: written a garden guide that's a real page turner. Courtesy Steve Bender

Steve Bender trumpets his "The Grumpy Gardener" as the second-greatest book ever written. OK, you might think, at least he’s not claiming No. 1. Still, a gardening book – especially one with “grumpy” in the title – as No. 2? Seriously?

Well, not really. But knowing a little about Bender’s tongue-in-cheek persona helps explain why his claim could have a kernel of truth.

Bender is the garden editor of Southern Living Magazine, that iconic publication of Southern lifestyle, culture, and charm. In those pages, he’s so laid back and genteel that you’d expect him to be wearing a seersucker suit and sipping a glass of sweet tea. But it's a different story in his blog The Grumpy Gardener, which attracts 8 million unique visitors a month. There, Bender morphs into an irritable and irascible (and witty) alter ego.

It’s the blogger that stands out in his newest book, "The Grumpy Gardener: An A to Z Guide from the Galaxy’s Most Irritable Green Thumb" (Hardcover $25.99). In it, Bender has done the almost impossible: He has written a garden guide that is a real page-turner.

Each chapter contains short stories, sidebars, questions and answers, and tips about growing plants, using tools, or solving problems in your garden, yard, or landscaping. Some of these are cleverly offered as Grumpy’s “excellent advice.” Take his answer to this question about soil, for example:

Q. We’re moving from the Northeast to South Carolina, and people say we’ll have “gumbo” soil. What will I need to add to allow me to grow flowers?

A. In the garden, “gumbo” isn’t an okra-based soup with added crawfish. It’s blackish soil composed of very fine silt that becomes gummy when wet. Because it drains poorly, many plants turn up their noses at it. The best solution is to mix organic matter such as chopped leaves, ground bark, and composted manure before planting. Season with peat moss to taste.

In a phone call with Treehugger, we asked Bender how he developed his love of gardening, about his writing style, how he became known as the Grumpy Gardener, and why he is convinced his book is the best gardening book ever. He got a good chuckle out of our attempt to phrase at least some of the questions in his own humorous style.

Treehugger: What led you to a love of gardening?

Steve Bender: I got started in gardening with my Dad. When I was growing up he was always very much into gardening at home. He also had a big flower garden at the church we attended. I got to learn all the names of things. I just had a natural curiosity about plants, and that’s really where it started. I still have some of the plants from his garden in my garden now.

Geum 'Alabama Slammer'
Bender grew up in Maryland but moved to Alabama, where he might see this flower: Geum 'Alabama Slammer.'. Wiert nieuman/Shutterstock

You grew up in Lutherville, Maryland. Your bio says you were “exiled to Alabama in 1983 for reasons that remain secret to this day.” Would you finally break your silence and let us in on that secret?

We should not talk about those! I wasn’t really ... OK ... I guess I did grow up in Baltimore County. So, basically, that’s where I’m from. But I’ve been living for more than 30 years down here in Birmingham, and I think that qualifies me for citizenship in Alabama. I had never been to Alabama before taking the job with Southern Living.

Everything was kind of new to me. I had a lot of surprises about what the place would be like and what the climate would be like. Almost all my assumptions were wrong! But I would say they’ve all been pleasant surprises. I really do like living here. I like it as a place to garden.

One of the really great things if you live in the South – I’m in Zone 8A and, basically, gardening is a year-round activity – you can have something in bloom every month of the year. It’s not like if you live in Montana and September arrives and you have to board up the house and go inside for the next five months and wait for the snow to melt. Here, you really can be outside every week of the year.

Longtime Southerners have a saying about the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee: Yankees come to the South (below the Mason Dixon line) and then go home. The damn Yankees stay. You’ve stayed, so you must be enjoying your exile.

I would say, first of all, that Southern Living defines the South as you do – anything below the Mason Dixon Line. So, technically, I wasn’t a Yankee. And, also, I was born in North Carolina. But we only lived there for two years before moving to Maryland. I do have some credibility here!

But it’s funny. We don’t mind people moving down here, and they are going to do it anyway because of the climate and stuff like that. But I can always tell when somebody has just moved into the neighborhood and they’re not from here because they bring all their northern plants with them. And they are going to die!

They are planting all these blue spruces, paper birches, dwarf conifers, lilacs, and stuff like that. I just want to go up to them and say, ‘You’re from Wisconsin, aren’t you?’ So, that’s what my role really is for a lot of these people who move down here. They don’t know what’s going to grow. They get really disappointed when their lilacs don’t bloom down here. What I do is I just try to help the average gardener who just wants to have a nice yard.

I have my Grumpy Gardener blog and my page in Southern Living where people can email me any gardening question they have. I email them back and answer them. You don’t have to live in the South to ask me questions. I get lots of questions from the West Coast, from Ohio, Minnesota, everywhere. I do my best to give them an answer.

You say you love fried okra so much you often choose a dinner wine based on whether it goes well with this Southern staple. Would that be red or white?

I think if you’re just going to have okra, it’s probably better to use white wine. I probably, personally, would go with maybe a St. Francis Chardonnay or something like that. But, it also depends on whether the okra is just a side dish. Because, obviously, if you’re going to have red or white meat that’s going to affect your choice. I also think a good Zinfandel, maybe something like a Cline Zinfandel would be very welcome.

Those are a couple of wines you could look at. But, really, it’s just as important to get good, nice fresh okra. That is a Southern staple! If you haven’t had fried okra, then you really haven’t partaken of the Southern experience.

For the unfortunate souls who aren’t regular readers of Southern Living, what’s the back story on how you became known as the Grumpy Gardener?

When you are writing for the magazine, in which you have a very broad audience and everything is being edited by four or five people before it gets on the pages, one of the goals is don’t offend people. They [editors] were very concerned about me getting people angry.

But why do a blog called The Grumpy Gardener that’s going to sound just like something that’s going to be in Southern Living? There’s no point. What I do [in the blog] is when people ask me a question or my opinion of a plant I tell them exactly what I think. I give them the unvarnished truth.

Now, sometimes they don’t like that. That doesn’t agree with them. Sometimes they don’t want to hear the truth about something. But I’m going to tell you anyway because I want you to be successful. And if you are doing something that is honestly killing your plant, I’m going to tell you to stop doing that! If you don’t want to take my advice, then just go ahead and kill the thing.

That’s really where Grumpy comes from. I don’t mince words too much when I’m writing The Grumpy Gardener. I tell you exactly what I think.

There are two goals I have when I do a book like this. No. 1, I want to give practical information that solves everyday problems. But I also want to make it fun. I think sometimes people take gardening a little bit too seriously. It should be fun.

If you’re not having fun doing it, you need to find another hobby. Everybody kills plants. I tell people to give yourself a break. Maybe it wasn’t something you did wrong. Maybe it was just a stupid plant, and the plant deserved to die. If something dies in your yard, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It might even be something you wished would die! Maybe you had something in your yard that you were really tired of, something you had for years and now if it dies you can plant something more interesting. If you kill a plant, think of it as an opportunity, not a catastrophe.

You’ve called "The Grumpy Gardener" the second greatest book ever written. What sets your book apart from other gardening books?

A couple of things. No. 1, it’s not a long book. It’s not something you need a forklift to bring into the house. It’s not an encyclopedia. Two, it’s composed of a wide range of topics covered in a rather quick way in nice bite-sized chunks. It’s something that you can pick up, spend a couple of minutes with and read about a plant or some kind of gardening issue, and then put it down and come back to it.

It’s not heavy reading. It’s fun reading. It has actual questions and answers that were sent in from readers, and the answers to their questions are exactly as they appeared [in the magazine or blog].

It’s geared towards my own garden experience and the experience of my readers. I don’t put myself above them. If I make a mistake in the garden, I’m always going to tell the readers about it. That’s how you learn.

I’m writing this for the average gardener who doesn’t have a horticultural degree, who maybe only works in the yard on the weekends and they want to know how to solve a problem. Maybe they have problems with armadillos or problems with squirrels. Maybe all their tomatoes are turning black. Maybe all the leaves in their garden are turning black! Maybe they have weeds coming up, and they want to know how to control them.

Very practical everyday garden problems – that’s what we address in a really fun way with the answers geared to an amount of grumpiness.

The Grumpy Gardener insists Rangoon creeper belongs under Q in his new "A to Z" book, no matter what taxonomists say.
The Grumpy Gardener insists Rangoon creeper belongs under Q in his new "A to Z" book, no matter what taxonomists say. Teerapong Tanpanit/Shutterstock

The chapters in the book are based on the alphabet. Each letter, or chapter, includes numerous tips on growing a variety of plants, dealing with different critters, or other aspects of gardening. Did you use a formula on how many items to include in each chapter?

The formula was to create the A to Z guide. I looked at all my past writing, and I had a lot of new stuff, too. But we had to have topics for each letter. There are a lot of plants and topics that start with some letters, like the letter A, C, and the letter M. But for some letters, it’s really difficult to find something to write about. I mean, the letter Q is really hard. The letters U, X, Y, and Z. There are not too many plants I’ve written about that start with some of these letters.

I guess a good example of this is the letter Q. I was thinking, 'Where I have I written about a plant that starts with the letter Q?' I was wracking my brain. And then I thought, wait a minute. I did a story about a plant called Rangoon creeper. It’s a really cool plant. It has really pretty flowers and everything. The botanical name is Quisqualis, which, when translated from Latin means "who?" and "what?" That’s because of the plant transitions from being a shrub to a vine. What makes it cool is that the flowers start out white, fade to pink, and finally end up red. It’s easy to grow. I think it’s just something my readers wanted to know about.

(Note to Treehugger readers: Unfortunately for Grumpy, after wracking his brain and finally coming up with Quisqualis (actually Quisqualis indica) for this chapter, he discovered that taxonomists, who he has long regarded as the evildoers of the plant world, had reclassified Quisqualis indica as Combretum indica. Because he says that taxonomists tend to toast his aster anyway, and because he said he figured they made this move just to ruin his book, he’s sticking with the original name.)

Did you write the book for Southern gardeners or does it have a broader appeal?

I wrote it for broader appeal. What I found out once I started doing the blog and started fielding questions was that a lot of my readers are outside the South. I was getting questions from all over the country. So, I decided that for this book, I’m not going to just tell you where in the South a plant will grow. I’m going to tell you where in the country it will grow.

You can use my years of growing this plant and you can apply it to wherever you happen to live. I tell you the growing zones, what kind of soil a plant needs, what kind of water, and all sorts of stuff. But it’s not just for the South. It’s a book that I think has good information about growing things all over the country.

I’ve had people buying it and reviewing it and posting about it on social media from all over – from the Midwest, West, Northeast, the West Coast. I live in the South, but my audience is, I think, pretty much the entire country.

What will people who faithfully follow you in Southern Living find new in the book that they haven’t already read in the magazine?

I would say probably about a third is the stuff that I wrote just for this book. The remainder is a compilation of my blog posts that appeared on my Grumpy Gardener blog and selected stories that came out of Southern Living. One thing, though: When you write something and it’s eight years later, sometimes the information changes. So, every one of those things had to be checked out to make sure I was giving all the latest information and not something that we now know may not be true.

Your bio also says that your “mission is to make gardening uplifting, accessible, and inspirational to all.” Would you share a favorite success story?

I guess probably one of the things that I’m identified with is a book that I did back in the 1990s called "Passalong Plants." I did that with a friend of mine from Mississippi named Felder Rushing who co-wrote it. It was all about plants people have collected from friends and family members who handed them down and passed them along from person to person to person through generations.

I think of it as a way to not only get really cool plants for your garden but also to have something to remember that person by when you walk past it in the garden and see it blooming. A lot of the plants I have in my yard – daylilies and mums, things like pearl bush, and even my gardenia, all sorts of different plants – they all came from friends or people I met or people who have sent me things. I have a mum in bloom in now, a really late-blooming dark red mum, that came from my father’s family. He got it from relatives and grew it. I dug up a division and brought it back with me on the plane, and now I’ve got it growing. My father passed away some years ago, but now, every time I see that mum growing and blooming, I think of him.

That’s the kind of thing that I think really resonates with a lot of people as far as making gardening a rewarding thing. You can share plants and every plant comes with a different story. When you see that plant in the garden, remember the person who gave it to you and when you got it.

Ripe tomatoes hanging on a plant
Growing tomatoes is fine, but eating them raw? The Grumpy Gardener is not a fan. gresei / Shutterstock

On the flip side, what brings out the grumpiness in Grumpy, besides beets – which are at the top, or close to it, of your “I won’t eat ‘em” list?

That’s one of those things. I’ll tell you another thing, I also don’t like raw tomatoes. I’ll eat ‘em if they are cooked. When people hear about that, they think there is something wrong with me. That I’m some genetic mutation.

Actually, there are quite a number of us. We’re kind of a shadow society. You’re not allowed to talk about it. We find out about each other in different ways. We’ll watch someone eat and see that person scrape a tomato off a sandwich and say, ‘Wow, you must be one, too!’ You’d be surprised how many people out there don’t like raw tomatoes, but they can never tell anybody. Once you say that, people think you’re crazy! Here, eat this tomato!

Every time you’re at a restaurant you can’t order anything hardly without them putting a tomato on it. And, they don’t even ask you! It’s like, whoever thought of ‘I’d like a hot chocolate ... with a tomato? Yeah, Sure!’ I mean, ‘I’ll have a vanilla shake. With a tomato?’ I DON’T WANT A TOMATO! Leave off the tomato.

I mean, that’s one thing. Another thing is, I have continuing wars with critters. I hate squirrels. I’m sorry if this is going to offend people who believe in the ethical treatment of squirrels. But I hate squirrels.

They eat everything in my garden. They steal fruit off my fruit trees. They get into my attic in the winter and have babies up there. So, I have no use for them whatsoever. There are other things like that. A lot of people, I find, they feel exactly the same way as I do, but they don’t have the freedom to express it in public.

I was out for a walk in my neighborhood when I heard a whoooooosh go by. It was early in the morning, and it was a great horned owl. It plucked a squirrel right off the ground. I was jumping up and down and cheering! I often encourage people to think about what can we do with squirrels. I say, ‘Well they’re a good protein source! They’re sustainable. There’s no shortage of squirrels. They’re free-range.’ So, we could cook up some squirrel recipes ... and now you’re going to ask me what wine goes well with squirrels! I would go with maybe a Shiraz or a really bland Malbec.

You know the real reason I hate squirrels is that they would make a nest in the attic. They do that right over my bed just so that I could hear them every night. So, I get up there in the attic to chase them out. I’m walking along, and I slip off the rafter and my foot goes straight through the ceiling. I’m looking down, and my TV set is buried under a mountain of pink insulation. At that point, my rage was just off the charts.

What’s next for the Grumpy Gardener? Your fans must be wondering how in the world you’re going to top “the second-greatest book ever written.”

You really can’t do any better than the second-greatest book. You can’t ever write the greatest book, right? That’s a great question, and it puts a lot of pressure on me, actually. Maybe I’ll be lucky and no one will buy this book, and they’ll never ask me to write another one!

It’s always a big thing when you write a book. It’s like, how do you top that? When I did the "Passalong" book back in 1994, the Garden Writers Association named it the best garden book for that year. After that, the publisher was after me to write another "Passalong" book. I never did because I was afraid I couldn’t make it better. It’s kind of like a sequel.

There are very few movie sequels that ever matched the original. "The Godfather" sequels were all good. "Aliens," the sequel to "Alien," was even better. But most sequels are terrible.

I still write for Southern Living. I have at least two articles every month. I’m still doing the blog. I still have a Grumpy Facebook page where anybody can post questions (the page has more than 24,000 followers). So, we’ll see. Right now, I’m in the middle of this book tour. So, I’ve got stuff on my plate every day. Frankly, I haven’t had a moment to sit down and say, ‘OK, what’s the next project?’ Maybe I’ll do a book about whiskey. I think I would enjoy that! Gardening with whiskey!

What else would you like your followers to know about the book?

It belongs on every bookshelf in America! What I want people to know is that the way that you really become successful in the garden is not by reading books, frankly. They are a good complement. But there’s no substitute for digging in the dirt. Go out and do it and get the experience. You are going to learn more about trying and maybe failing and trying again than you will ever learn by reading the book. Reading the book might make your work easier. So, go ahead and read the book for information, but realize you need to get out and just try. Start small. Maybe plant up a planter with some flowers. And when you’re successful with that, try new plants in the garden.

Learn from your mistakes. Everybody makes them. But, once you start off with a small success you’ll want to learn more. Then you can go to the garden center and you’re not intimidated. You can come back home and get in the garden and feel really good about yourself and the world because surrounding yourself with really beautiful plants and being out in nature is the best stress reliever you can possibly find. That’s my message, even though it’s not necessarily a grumpy message. Gardening is fun, and it’s good for you.