'Bulb Guy' opens his amazing spring garden to viewing

By Joan Morris
Posted: 04/01/2013 11:40:18 AM PDT

The Bulb Guy's Garden Tour
Through: April 7, noon-5 p.m.
Where: 850 Gate view Court
(Berryessa Road exit from I-680), San Jose
Admission: Free

In 1985, Rich Santoro became fascinated watching his sister-in-law (and neighbor) planting bulbs in her garden.

Santoro, who works with concrete in his professional life, didn't do much gardening and knew nothing about bulbs, but the idea of planting something that looks like an onion and having it bloom months later seemed nothing short of miraculous.

"She told me bulb gardens were very difficult to do" Santoro says, "and she had me come over to her yard to show me."

What he learned -- dig a hole, drop in the bulb, kick dirt over the hole, give it a stomp -- changed his life.

Almost 30 years later, Santoro is known as San Jose's Bulb Guy. Each year, he transforms his backyard into the center of a bulb universe. And for nine days every spring, Santoro opens up his garden gates and welcomes the world to see his bulb-aganza.

This year, Santoro planted 5,951 bulbs in plots and pots, and the garden features some other kinds of plants, too. From now through April 7, visitors are welcome to stop by, noon to 5 p.m., for a free tour.

"I started out putting 100 here, 200 there, 500 here," Santoro says. "In 2007, I had about 2,000 square feet of grass, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to put 100 yellow tulips right in the middle?" And I did. Next year, I converted the whole yard to bulbs."

Rich Santoro, known as The Bulb Guy, shows a daffodil bulb in his backyard in San Jose on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. Each year, he plants more than 6,000 bulbs of various kinds. At the time of these photographs, the blooms were at about 30 percent, with full bloom about two weeks away. The average bulb flower lasts three to four weeks. (Dan Honda/Staff)

In addition to tulips, paper whites, hyacinth, muscari, daffodils, anemone, ranunculus, California and pink Shirley poppies, asylum and blue Salvia greggi, another of Santoro's cultivated talents is on display -- storytelling.

Santoro fervently denies being a gardener. To be a gardener, he says, you need to know about plants. He couldn't grow vegetables to save his life, his says. All he knows are bulbs. But being a guy with the gift of gab -- that's a title he owns.

He takes off work to greet his guests, and even though about 400 people came through the garden last year, he tries to talk to all of them and share his stories.

One of his favorites is about Conrad the Tulip. The short version -- Santoro will tell you the longer version if you ask -- is that in 2011, a tulip popped up where it hadn't been planted, in the middle of a pathway. This actually happens to Santoro quite a bit as he tends to spread the bulb love around.

Santoro had no idea what kind of tulip it was, so he waited anxiously for the misplaced bulb to show it's bloom.

About the same time, a class of gifted students from Kennedy Elementary School in San Jose came for a tour. Santoro shared information about the bulbs, showed them around the colorful beds and pointed out the errant tulip, now almost ready to bloom. He told them to be careful walking on the path.

Rich Santoro, known as The Bulb Guy, tends to one of his beds full of tulips in his backyard in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. Santoro annually plants over 6,000 bulbs of various kinds. At the time of these photographs, the blooms were at about 30% with full bloom about 2 weeks away. The average bulb flower can last up to 3-4 weeks. (Dan Honda/Staff)

One of the students, a third grader named Conrad, was fascinated by the lone bulb and asked all sorts of questions. He even asked the bulb's name, and Santoro told him it was George.

The students were great, Santoro says. They were respectful and interested in all of the flowers, but two hours into the visit, Conrad came up to Santoro. He held something cradled in cupped hands and he was near tears.

"Someone killed George," Conrad moaned, and held out his hands to show the cleanly snapped head of the tulip.

"I thanked Conrad for bringing me my most precious tulip and assured him that George would come back next year even stronger."

In January the next year, George began peeking through the gravel. When Conrad and his class came for another visit, Santoro had a surprise for the boy. George, who had bloomed canary yellow, had been renamed Conrad.

The stories are as important as the flowers, Santoro says, because they make the plants personal; not just things of beauty, but objects of lore.

In each of the beds are small plaques that bear names of people who influenced or inspired Santoro. One of those has the name of Holly Hayes, the late Mercury News Home and Garden editor. Hayes had written about Santoro's garden a few years ago, and Santoro credits her with giving him the nickname the Bulb Guy.

As he walks with visitors through the garden, he tells stories about the people. He also shares jokes, many related to bulbs, and occasionally breaks into song, favoring Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darrin.

He wants people to enjoy his spring bulb garden and become inspired.

"My agenda is to promote bulb gardens," Santoro says. "I want people to see what they can do, get some ideas and then go home and do it."

This year's garden is almost exactly what Santoro envisioned when he decided to devote his entire backyard to bulbs. But he's loved every version of his garden and has been amazed at what nature does with his plans. Many of his favorite successes were his biggest goofs, and his greatest lessons come from trial and error.

One year he planted 300 tulip bulbs not realizing the plot was full of Shirley poppy seeds. When the poppies bloomed, they overshadowed the tulips. Now he has planted the poppies behind the tulips so both plants show at their best.

Another time he planted 1,200 anemone and an unseasonal heat wave cooked all but 50. He raked the hillside, unknowingly spreading thousands of calendula seed that had dropped on one side. When they bloomed, it was stunning and he has named it "Calendula Hill."

"Whatever blooms, well that's God's work," Santoro says. "But it's all good. It's all good."

April 1, 2013 Section: Home Design: Joan Morris, Mercury News