The Bulb Guy


Rich Santoro in his San Jose garden with blooming ranunculus, just one of the myriad bulb types he has planted.

A springtime visit to the spectacular Filoli gardens hooked San Jose gardener Rich Santoro on growing bulbs.

And when his sister-in-law showed him how easy it was to plant them -- "dig hole, drop bulb in hole, add water to hole, cover with dirt, do nothing" -- he knew he'd found his style of gardening. Santoro and his wife, Rizalina, moved into their brand-new home on a quarter-acre cul-de-sac lot in 1976. The yard, he says, was pretty much all grass, which made sense when they were raising three kids.
But once the kids were grown and gone, it was time to rethink the garden. And Santoro, 57, thinks big. The transformation of his entire backyard garden is the subject of the latest installment of the "Do-It-Yourself Diaries."

Who: When he's not planting bulbs, Santoro sells concrete for Central Concrete in San Jose and does a little singing on the side.

What he did: Built 13 raised wooden beds, each about 3 feet by 6 feet, to showcase some 1,500 spring-flowering bulbs. Santoro also has a vast collection of nearly 200 containers that also bloom with bulbs. He often takes his container gardens to work. "It's a real win-win situation. Everybody gets to enjoy them."

About the beds: "I made them small enough so they were manageable, weed-wise, and reachable," he says. The wood was free, thanks to some creative scavenging. "I went to local construction sites and explained to the super or foreman what I was doing, and they were more than happy to help with wood that they could no longer use but was good enough for what I was doing."

About the rocks: The Santoro property is near Penitencia Creek, so there were lots of stones to be sifted out of each bed, which Santoro dug down about eight inches. He used the rocks to line the walkways between the beds. Then, he put down weed-barrier fabric and four inches of pea gravel -- donated by his employer -- and a 50-50 mixture of native soil and free mushroom compost.

About the compost: Go to Monterey Mushroom, 642 Hale Ave., Morgan Hill, 408-779-4191, where you can pick up two tons of mushroom compost for free. Over two tons, it'll cost ya, says Santoro, who also recommends you take nose plugs, because the compost is quite fragrant.

Buying the bulbs: "Gotta keep the costs down," says Santoro, who purchased about 2,000 bulbs at Costco for about $400, but headed to Yamagami's in Cupertino to pick out some more exotic varieties.

Choosing the bulbs: There are a dozen types: anemone, crocus, ranunculus, ixia, freesia (his favorite), tulip, narcissus, hyacinth, spring snowflake, muscari, Dutch iris and daffodil. He also planted 350 gladiolas in between the spring bulbs for a summer show, along with various day lilies.

Coexisting with nature: "I put in 300 red, white and purple anemones in an 18-inch-wide strip around the lawn. The squirrels ate 270 of them," laments Santoro. That sent him to Orchard Supply to buy rolls of perforated plastic to protect his burgeoning garden from the digging rodents. Then, it was back to Costco for more bulbs. "Once the bulbs send foliage through the soil, the squirrels leave them alone," he says. The replacement bulbs planted in February are quickly catching up to the ones planted in November.

Watering: Santoro kept the existing sprinkler system, but hasn't used it. "Watering by hand is part of the whole gardening experience," he says.

Plants line the walkway to the patio.

Nearly 200 containers can barely contain the blooms

Tulips in one of the 13 beds.

How long it took: "I started the day after my daughter's wedding, June 15, 2008, and basically dropped the last bulb in the ground in early December," Santoro says. In mid-March, he planted wildflowers between the bulbs. "The idea is for the foliage of the wildflowers to cover up the unsightly dying foliage of the bulbs."

What it cost: About $900 for bulbs and other plants, replacement sod, weed barrier, squirrel protection and a few miscellaneous items.

Tip: "The tulips and some of the other bulbs get their nutrients for the next year from the previous year's foliage," says Santoro. "Novice gardeners cut the dying foliage too early, robbing the bulbs of their food source."

Benefit: Wife Rizalina calls him "Picasso."

Conundrum: Combining spring and summer gardens in the same bed. "If you water a spring bulb continuously during the summer, it will turn to mush," he says. "Do you take a chance and water the summer bed and hope that you don't kill the spring bulbs? Or do you just pull all the spring bulbs out of the ground and store them in a dry place and replant them the following autumn?"

His strategy: Split the difference. He'll leave the bulbs in the beds that have performed well this spring and see if they come up again next year. And he'll pull the bulbs that didn't do so well, store them and replant them.

On gardening: "Everyone in the world should be growing something," Santoro says. "Every day, there's a surprise in my backyard. I can't wait to get home to see what opened up next."

May 9, 2009 Section: Home & Garden Edition: Holly Hayes, Mercury News