A Dad to Remember

May 28, 2012 | By | Comments (13)


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.

Antares mum‘Antares’ mum blooming in my garden.

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 Antaresin 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.


  1. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Thanks, everybody. And thanks to our parents for cultivating our interest in gardening!

    June 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm
  2. Dee/reddirtramblings

    I love that mum. Wish I had it in my garden. I’ve never told you this, but your Passalong Plants book was the one I turned to when adding plants to the garden. I think it’s why my garden is successful. That and my aching back. I love your stories about your dad Steve.~~Dee

    June 5, 2012 at 11:55 am
  3. SusannaS

    I have roses in my back yard that belonged to my great-grandmother. When my mom’s mom passed away, there was the typical sad squabbling over who got what. I told the chattering crowd “if I can have some of granny’s plants that’s all I really need.” So I have 100-year -old roses, and sweetshrubs, and piles of hostas and cannas and bulbs. My yard is a loving memory of my family, and I cherish it. Hurrah for passalong plants!

    June 4, 2012 at 8:25 am
  4. jen in nc

    beautiful tribute grumpy. Passalong plants is one of my favorite gardening books in my library.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:12 am
  5. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    I’m happy that so many people enjoyed it.

    May 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm
  6. Jim Long

    What a wonderful tribute to your father. Now I see where you get your garden connections, it’s in your blood and your genes. What a great inspiration your father was, to you as well as the rest of us. Thanks for the story.

    May 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm
  7. Dianne

    Thanks for sharing your father with us. Good story to help our hearts.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:48 am
  8. Jean

    A fine tribute to a fine man. So that’s where your love of all things gardening came from. Glad to know you love okra too as no self respecting Southerner would not admit to not liking it.

    May 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm
  9. meghan

    Passalong plants are great. I always enjoy thinking about the people who gave me those passalongs. I didn’t know your mom was from So.Pines. I live in P’hurst. You could do a story on the planting of the traffic circle alone. A lady recently was arrested for stealing plants in the middle of the night over there. Can’t hardly blame her for trying!

    May 28, 2012 at 8:45 pm
  10. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    That’s what passalongs are all about.

    May 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm
  11. Cristine Gronner

    My family has over the years spread my grandma’s peonies over an 100 mile radius through moves and sharing, single and double blooms alike. They are a hardy bloom with three different colors among them. 🙂

    May 28, 2012 at 11:14 am
  12. Chris Tidrick

    Beautiful story, Steve. Thanks for sharing the memories.

    May 28, 2012 at 10:10 am
  13. linda

    I have your book Passalong Plants. It is one of the last books given to me by my mother. I have plants in my yard that came from her. When I look at them, I think of her.

    May 28, 2012 at 10:01 am

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