ZEPHYRHILLS — Seven years ago, Adah Weitzel and her husband, Garron, bought a 1940s cottage on a couple of acres off a dirt road not far from Zephyrhills High School.
The property was in foreclosure, the house uninhabitable. But for Adah, a native Floridian whose grandmother settled in Broward County in 1916, the place was an Eden-in-the-rough.
"I'm very interested in the old, natural Florida — it was a wonderful paradise," says Adah, a Pasco County master gardener who admires the red orb-shaped bloom on a blood lily or the soft, velvety leaf on spiral-crepe ginger the way some people admire art.
Wednesday, a small brigade of fellow master gardeners volunteered alongside Adah in the gardens the Weitzels have since painstakingly planted on the property, readying the 1,000 Florida-friendly plants she will donate to the seventh annual Pasco Master Gardeners Plant Sale on Saturday.
The popular event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Pasco County Fairgrounds, 36702 State Road 52 in Dade City, is a labor of love for Adah and her fellow master gardeners.
"I've had a good life and I want to give back," Adah said simply of her gift to the sale.
As the day grew hot, the group gathered around a table covered in a red-checked cloth for a farmhouse-style lunch of ham sandwiches, deviled eggs, homemade potato salad and chocolate chip cookies.
It was hard not to notice the labor the Weitzels — at an age many people are planning peaceful retirement — put into creating something from nothing. For nine months, the couple commuted from Broward County, where Adah spent two decades as a real-estate broker, slowly clearing the yard and refurbishing the 1,000-square-foot house down to its original heart pine floors.
"I like this kind of a challenge. I'd rather make something my own," explained, Adah, 64, of her decision to buy a house and land so neglected: "We brought in large Dumpsters and filled them with car parts and junk."
Much of the work was overseen by Garron, 72, a professional carpenter and handyman. The job required taking down walls, re-covering the front porch, adding siding, new cabinetry, a laundry room and tin roof. He built a two-car garage and perfectly matched the old heart pine floors with new wood where the old ones were too dilapidated.
Inside, Adah painted the walls "opera-house red" and liberally used cabbage-rose slipcovers and antique furnishings — including a wooden rocker Garron's father was rocked in as a baby — to complete the look. The cottage is charming both inside and out. The exterior is painted the palest of pale greens and a pretty, organic kitchen garden brimming with herbs flanks the back door.
The rest of the work was devoted to the creation of the home's beautiful — if not show house-worthy — gardens completely devoted to Florida-friendly plants.
"I'm the planner and the designer and Garron somehow makes it come true for me," says Adah, who learned to love Florida gardening from her mother and grandmother (her grandmother helped write one of the first South Florida wildflower guides).
Garron built Adah a garden shed, complete with a screened area for potting, a greenhouse that doubles as a shade house and propagation center that Adah affectionately calls the "PC" with a covered work area. Around the PC, she grows everything from garden staples to the slightly exotic: wild coffee, chenille plants, ginger, salvia, silver maples and sycamores.
"One thing about a garden is that it's ongoing, there's always something new," explained Mary Towle, a Pasco master gardener and volunteer who was working in the Weitzels' garden Wednesday.
There's also a 400-linear-foot vegetable garden, as well as numerous stone-edged beds and ponds and visual focal points like a stone Buddha and antique chair — mostly flea market and roadside finds. The couple also installed micro irrigation beds and planted more than 200 varieties of butterfly plants, which attract a kaleidoscope of black eastern swallowtails, giant tiger swallowtails, yellow and white cloud, monarch and zebra butterflies.
For all its beauty, Garron says the upkeep is demanding.
"The weeds grow faster than the plants, but we enjoy it," he says.
Wednesday, the master gardeners worked in the PC readying plants for the sale that, although a major fundraiser, is also meant to teach.
The event is a treasure trove for anyone wanting to buy new plants, but it's also a place to learn. Each plant comes with vital information and instructions. Master gardeners will give advice on a variety of gardening topics, and the public is invited to tour the master gardeners' lovely "Demonstration Gardens" located on site.
Says Adah: "I love to get up in the morning, come out to the garden and have my coffee. Some days it's so hot and there's oh-so-much work to do that I feel like I'm just turning around in circles. But we have fun. A garden is like a companion — it talks to you sometimes and it always needs you."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.