Darnell Sanders certainly knows his turf.

As a former Ohio State Buckeye and Browns tight end, Sanders got up close and personal with a wide variety of stadium grasses.

But since leaving the NFL some 15 years ago, the Warrensville Heights native has branched out. He is the driving force behind N.F.L. (Nature's Finest Landscaping) Landscape, Design and Construction, based in Richfield.

"I picked the letters before I picked the name of the company," he said with a laugh.

Standing over 6 feet tall, with a 300-pound frame, he admits he would have never predicted that his life after football would include fussing over whether the hyacinth in his showcase garden will bloom in time for visitors to the Great Big Home + Garden Show, which opens this weekend at the I-X Center in Cleveland. The show runs through Feb. 10.

"This career kind of picked me," he said. "I do get attached to these plants."

While still wearing the brown and orange uniform, he began dabbling in real estate. He and his partners would take on existing rental properties and spruce them up, inside and out.

It was his attention to detail to create better curb appeal that led to a growing number of side jobs for his crew, and planted a seed for the business.

"Fifteen years later, and my phone is still ringing," he said.

He's not the only former NFLer to answer that call. Fellow standout Buckeye and retired NFL player Eddie George also has dabbled in landscape architecture and design.

Sanders said his Summit County-based business does jobs from small to large, not unlike the custom 20-by-20, rough-cut cedar pergola his crew built for the company's showcase garden — one of 13 for visitors to explore at the show.

The theme of the gardens this year is fairy tales, but Sanders said he likes to avoid over-the-top theming.

"I try to build something people can see in their backyard," he said.

If you can picture a gingerbread house covered in candy and classic conversation hearts in your backyard or backwoods, then Copley Township's Landscape Design's Hansel and Gretel-inspired garden is a delicious choice.

Kenneth Kushmider said the planning for his showcase garden began months ago, and then it took about 40 hours to figure out everything from the woodsman's house to the transition to candy-inspired woods where the evil witch resides.

It takes another 80 hours in prep work and anywhere from 400 to 500 hours to transform the space inside the I-X Center into the fairy tale scene.

Kushmider said his favorite part of the design is the ending scene, where Hansel and Gretel now run the "Gingerbread, Beer and Wine House" using the skills and recipes they picked up along the way.

A stone's throw from there is the Akron-based Brothers Grimm Landscape and Design garden that looks like something out of Architectural Digest, with inviting space to sip wine while enjoying the pool, floating bridge and a vanishing waterfall.

There are more than 600 exhibitors, from the usual roofers and basement waterproofers to the unusual — such as the Lorain County business that creates giant metal palm trees, and an enchanted talking tree in the Petitti Gardens display.

There are two full-size houses to explore, and the super cool VAULT space by Medina County-based Architectural Justice that features interior design elements by local artists using natural materials.

The so-called Modernized Millennial Home by Valley View builder Blossom Homes is already sold, and will be taken apart and reassembled in Fairview Park.

Builder Brian Bickerton said the foundation for the home is being readied, and the proud new homeowners should be in by July.

Construction of the four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, 1,881-square-foot home began inside the I-X Center on Dec. 10. Care was taken so it can be easily taken apart and transported, piece by piece, to its new location.

About the only thing that can't be salvaged will be the carpet since "about a hundred thousand people" will have walked across it over the course of the show.

"It is like Legos," he said. "It will be disassembled and put back together."

 

Craig Webb, whose biggest fear in life is the project list after his wife attends the show, can be reached at cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com.