Newlyweds Cheryl and Daniel Kaplan searched a year before finally closing on their first house, a spacious four-bedroom short sale, in February.
But the day they got the key, the clock started ticking.
"The homeowners association is giving us until April 1 to fix everything up," said Cheryl, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher at Miles Elementary School in North Tampa, who contacted me on Twitter a couple of weeks before closing.
"The house has been vacant for a while, so the landscaping is really neglected."
The couple's new home in Wesley Chapel's Bridgewater subdivision came with a yard tangled with vines, weeds and overgrown oaks and palms desperately in need of a firm hand. Cheryl and Daniel, a 29-year-old mortgage loan broker, had exterior repairs to make, too, and a full paint job — all on a tight budget and all by April Fool's Day.
I would crack a joke here about that deadline, but I can't. There's something touching about a young couple eager to put in hours of hard labor after long days at work in order to leave apartment life and launch their own family.
And Cheryl had an added burden. Just a few months earlier, during the couple's house hunt, she lost her dad, Donald, in a car accident. She so loved that great green-thumb guy, and they'd had big plans for working together on her first garden.
Now, missing him hurt even more.
But Cheryl didn't realize that the nice thing about gaining a family through marriage is — gaining a family. She found an unexpected new ally in her mother-in-law, Denise Cherubino, a longtime Florida gardener who lives in Apollo Beach.
Denise shared her knowledge and her muscle, digging in to help Cheryl and Daniel with the labor.
"We became closer from it," Cheryl says.
"It's an unfortunate bond," adds Denise, who understands Cheryl's pain. Denise lost her first husband, father to Daniel and his twin brother, 19 years ago.
"This gave the two of us something to do together," she says.
The new house had mangy turf, two untamed laurel oaks and a shaggy queen palm. Twisted masses of pretty but unruly flowering jasmine served as a foundation hedge. A boxwood border hovered between life and death.
"I'm going to plant red salvias by the mailbox for my dad," Cheryl told me in February. "And red pentas. He loved those."
She wanted azaleas. And two hibiscus flanking the garage door, which had a lone healthy but hirsute podocarpus on one side.
Would a manicure help the jasmine? Should she try to resurrect the boxwoods? Cheryl wasn't sure.
Two days after she and Daniel closed on the house, as the two slept on a mattress on the floor, eight smoke alarms screamed them awake at 5 a.m.
"No maintenance to call," she posted on Twitter. Sigh.
But the couple had faith and fortitude. For three days, they painted. Daniel figured out how to make the repairs. An arborist trimmed the trees. They had the sod replaced.
By early March, after numerous consultations with Denise, the three ripped out most of what remained.
"The jasmine was beautiful, but it was out of control," Denise says. "Cheryl wanted some color, but she had a small area to work with. And she had about 14 plants she wanted!"
Winnow your list to three or four plants, Denise advised. Groups of identical plants look more dramatic than a dozen different individual plants.
Take a ride through your neighborhood, see what you like and make note of what grows well here.
In the end, Cheryl replaced the jasmine with hot pink Encore azaleas, which bloom repeatedly through the year. She said goodbye to the boxwoods and hello to alternating purple and white Mexican heather. She discovered Giant Apostles' Iris and found those red pentas and salvias for her dad.
Yellow Gerbera daisies add a pop of color — Denise's suggestion to contrast with all the red and pink.
Cheryl kept the podocarpus and added a twin on the other side of the garage.
The transformation has made the homeowners association and the Kaplans happy.
Cheryl loves the living tributes to her dad and the blossoming relationship with her mother-in-law.
Daniel learned that he has a knack for gardening. "It's almost therapeutic," he says.
And Denise? She grew something she cherishes.
"Cheryl's not my daughter-in-law anymore," she says. "She's my daughter.'"
Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected] Join her and other gardeners chatting on Facebook at DigginFloridaDirt or follow her on Twitter @DigginPenny.