At his church garden, Dad tends irises, my mother’s favorite flowers.
Every year, America takes a special day, Memorial Day, to honor the fallen heroes who made this country great. In that vein, Grumpy would like to take this opportunity to remember the biggest hero in his life.
The man in the photo above is my Dad — Edward J. Bender Sr. If he were with us today, he’d be 94. Although he was never grumpy, it is safe to say that without his influence, compassion, and indefatigable enthusiasm, the Grumpy Gardener would never have happened.
Dad was a gardener. He loved working with plants — all kinds of plants. One of my earliest memories was picking dwarf ‘Golden Bantam’ corn from a teeny vegetable plot in our back yard about the size of a card table. We harvested about 8 ears a year. We had to rush them to the boiling water to keep them from turning to starch, but there was something about growing corn in the back yard that was just so cool.
Later on, the county started providing public land for “victory gardens.” For $10 or so, a family could rent a decent-sized plot to grow its own vegetable garden. There were just two catches. First, there was no water, so we had to take about 20 one-gallon milk jugs filled with water to the garden every time we went. When they ran out, we drove to a nearby pond and refilled them. Second, the moment plants started coming up, rabbits would show up for their nightly meal. So we needed a fence. Dad built a fence about three feet high with wooden posts and wire. It even had a latched gate. We’d put it up in spring and then in fall, take it down, roll it up, put it in the trunk of our Rambler station wagon (truly one of the worst cars ever made, but whatcha gonna do?), and take it home.
We grew all the requisite veggies — corn, peppers, squash, Swiss chard, carrots, beets, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, onions, beans, and kale. We also grew one really strange veggie that made everyone look at us like we were from Mars — ‘Clemson Spineless’ okra. No one in Baltimore County, Maryland had ever seen it. But my mother was from Southern Pines, North Carolina and she fixed truly fine fried okra. I never could get enough.
So much work went into that garden. Every fall, Dad would bag up all the leaves that fell in our yard and spread them on the vegetable garden to improve the clay soil. Every winter, Dad drew up a new planting plan. When the time came, he ordered seeds. Everything was grown from seeds. Who does that anymore? Oh, he also insisted that a vegetable garden must have flowers, so he’d ring the garden with marigolds, just to make sure the other families recognized who the real gardeners were.
His passion for gardening didn’t stop with vegetables. He loved trees, shrubs, and flowers too. Early in my teen years, a new church was built nearby our house that we would go to on Sundays. Dad became the church’s unofficial gardener. We transplanted dozens of trees from the woods to decorate the grounds — dogwoods, beeches, maples, black gums, sweet gums, and tulip poplars. When Dad retired, he added a rose garden and extensive flower gardens. He tended them every day. I can’t think of a better way to retire.
In my book, Passalong Plants (Dad’s photo comes from that), I chronicled the stories of wonderful, old-fashioned plants that connect generations of family and friends by being passed along from gardener to gardener. Whenever you see a plant you received, you remember when you got it and the person who gave it to you. Here is one I got from my Dad.
It’s an old-fashioned mum that’s been in Dad’s family for generations. It’s a tall, lanky, almost vining mum that forms ever-expanding clumps. The small, deep-red flowers with yellow centers open in late fall. Since nobody knows the true name, I named this mum ‘Antares‘ in honor of the giant red star in the constellation Scorpio. Every time it blooms, I remember the person who set me on the path I still walk today.
Here’s looking at you, Dad.