Benjamin Senkus Sr., 80, machinist, urban gardener

April 06, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Benjamin F. Senkus Sr., an urban gardener whose Southwest Baltimore minifarm near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum kept his family and friends supplied with fresh vegetables, died Sunday of heart failure at Genesis Eldercare in Catonsville. He was 80.

A 30-year Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. specialist machinist who retired in 1985, Mr. Senkus began gardening in 1987.

For nearly 13 years, seven days a week for six hours and often longer during growing season, Mr. Senkus tilled, pulled weeds, spread fertilizer and whispered encouragement to the fragile plants he had carefully nurtured from seeds.

A muscular man of average height who sported a gray crew cut, Mr. Senkus began his daily routine with a walk from the South Gilmor Street rowhouse where he had lived since 1964 to his garden plot at the end of Cole Street. He expanded from one plot in 1987 to six and affectionately called his garden "The Yard."

Known as the B&O Market Garden, adjacent to the former site of the B&O Mount Clare Shops, the garden plots are part of a nationwide urban gardening program supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There Mr. Senkus tended every square inch, which he planted with rows of Big Boy tomatoes (one year he had 110 plants), potatoes, corn, lettuce, peas, string beans, watermelons, lima beans, cucumbers and cantaloupes.

He also meticulously maintained his favorite herbs, which he used in cooking, such as thyme, oregano, dill, coriander, basil and parsley, along with horseradish roots.

What he didn't give to family and neighbors ended up in his upright freezer, which he jammed with frozen vegetables and homemade tomato sauce.

"He made his own horseradish that was so hot that your eyes teared," said Larry Schultz of Eldersburg, a son-in-law, laughing.

"As a gardener, he has no peer," he said.

"He didn't give unwanted advice but he would offer a point or two," said fellow gardener Nora D. Radzius, a resident of nearby Union Square.

Family members said Mr. Senkus was a veritable walking Farmer's Almanac full of such gardening hints as planting coriander and basil to attract bees, and using soapy water to dispatch spider mites from plant leaves.

From the Concord grapes that he grew on vines behind his home, he made jelly and wine. He also made bread-and-butter pickles.

"Anyone who came to the house -- and it made no difference if it were family or the BG&E meter reader -- left there with a jar of his pickles," said his daughter, Michele C. Schultz.

Mr. Senkus, who enjoyed baking cakes and bread, also enjoyed presiding over Lucullan Sunday dinners that featured his special Dutch-oven-cooked fried chicken or roast beef with steaming bowls of his vegetables.

Born to Lithuanian immigrant parents, Mr. Senkus was raised in the 1300 block of W. Lombard St., and graduated in 1939 from City College. During World War II, he served with the Army in Brazil and was discharged at war's end.

He was married to the former Catherine Milesky, who died in 1995.

He was a member of the Lithuanian Athletic Club for more than 50 years and enjoyed attending events at Lithuanian Hall Association Inc. on Hollins Street.

He was a communicant of St. Martin Roman Catholic Church, 31 N. Fulton Ave., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Senkus is survived by six sons, Benjamin F. Senkus Jr. and Gary P. Senkus, both of Baltimore, Gregory B. Senkus of Relay, David B. Senkus of Elkridge, Michael P. Senkus of Glen Burnie and Mark E. Senkus of Morrell Park; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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