Senior Airman Brandon Walker, 25, never an outdoorsy guy, spent most of his time in the Air Force happily working in an office on drone intelligence. In November 2014, he had begun mustering out to study entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa the following January.
And then he fell.
Brandon plummeted seven stories. He came home to his family in Riverview with a brain injury, a wheelchair and new goals. Chief among them: going outside — whenever he wanted.
But he couldn't get out to the backyard by himself and, frankly, it wasn't worth the effort.
"We had nothing but dirt, gravel and piles of dead grass out there," says mom Shelly Bennett.
So she contacted a new, homegrown TV show, Flip My Florida Yard. Hosted by regional Emmy Award winner Chad Crawford (How to Do Florida) and sponsored by the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), it follows a familiar story line: A family gets sent off for some fun while a flurry of volunteers transforms their landscape. At the end — a dramatic reveal.
I like those shows, but I absolutely love this one. It has a really smart Florida twist.
"One of the big, 30,000-foot issues facing our industry and state is water," says Will Womack, volunteer landscape designer for Brandon's Flip and president of Tampa Bay Landscaping & Horticultural Services in Tampa. "Our industry is focused on landscapes that conserve water, and that's also one of Chad's missions."
The exciting new outdoor spaces cater as much to our delicate environment's special needs as to each recipient's. They incorporate old and new strategies for naturally low-maintenance, water-conserving landscapes, from native and Florida-adapted plants to the newest technological innovations.
At the Walker home those included sun-loving plants like foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Myersii'), red hot hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Red Hot') and Brandon's favorite, a flowering ground cover called blue daze (Evolvulus glomeratus).
I salivated over new-to-me innovations, like American Mulch & Groundcover's express pneumatic blower truck. How I'd love to walk around and blow mulch from a hose! And Hydretain, a product I'd heard of but didn't know converts humidity into irrigation.
A lot has changed for Brandon and his family since March 4, when friends and volunteers from 35 FNGLA member companies descended on Riverdale Rise for the eight-hour makeover.
They included Will, and Autumn Schwab of Dragonfly Landscapes and Water Gardens in Tampa, who did a masterful job as traffic cop; and Chris Bettinger of Oldcastle, which supplied nearly 1,000 square feet of Belgard pavers so Brandon can easily roll from house to yard, and wherever he wants to go from there. The pavers, by the way, were laid using a process that allows rainwater to percolate down to the soil.
If you'll recall, we had an incredibly hot, dry spring. With temperatures in the high 90s and no rain in May, even my rock star drought-tolerant plants screamed for mercy. Not the case at Brandon's house.
"We were brown thumbs — we never really had an interest in plants," Shelly says. "During the drought, it was pretty easy. We really only had to keep the weeds out. We've added succulents, herbs and tomato plants. We've become Home Depot monsters!"
Brandon, Shelly, mom Dayna Walker and little sister Rylee now spend lots of time in their yard. Brandon and Rylee harvest veggies for dinner, often enjoyed under the sky.
And Brandon has a personal space, a pergola that will soon be shady thanks to fast-growing Confederate jasmine vine.
"It's my favorite," he says.
The Walkers' makeover, which also includes a fire pit and jacuzzi, is worth about $40,000, says Jennifer Nelis of FNGLA, whose members have executed three other Flip episodes.
"We wanted to ensure Florida's consumers were getting the best gardening information," she says of the organization's all-in sponsorship. "The show features truly great families, and great people working to ensure their goals are met."
To that I've got to add: Shelly says Will and Autumn have made several visits to their home since March to ensure everything's just right. They didn't have to do that and they don't charge for their time. They didn't even tell me about it for this column.
The Walkers' episode aired locally on Tampa CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch.10 and should air again — watch for it and other episodes at noon Sundays. Find past episodes at flipmyfloridayard.com.
Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.