heade art

"The Bulb Guy" spreads his message in the Milpitas hills

By Aliyah Mohammed
Posted: 12/31/2013 12:51:54 PM PST

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

A message written on the golden hills of Milpitas in flowers visible only when the bulbs arranged in the form of letters bloom in March or April, is a surprise the "Bulb Guy" has planned for the community.

photo 1

Richard Santoro, aka the "Bulb Guy," is a Milpitas native with a fascination and passion for planting blubs that will bloom into colorful flowers. As his gift to the community, Santoro is sharing his love for bulbs by planting 1,500 of them in 17 boxes on a hill at Whispering Hills Ranch, 80 Evans Road, to spell out a surprise message.

With the help of his 6 foot, 2 inches ex-professional soccer player accomplice, Santoro, 62, says jokingly and ranch owners Manuel and Karen Franco are trying to promote bulb gardens, which involves planting a bulb that has seeds inside the ground and watching it grow.

Santoro's work planting bulbs is something that he started doing on the side he works for Central Concrete Supply Co. in San Jose when he first saw his sister-in-law and neighbor planting bulbs in her garden in 1985.

His sister-in-law showed him how to dig a hole, drop in the bulb, kick dirt over the hole and give it a stomp, to make the onion-looking bulb transform into a beautiful flower.

More than 30 years later, Santoro continues to plant bulbs and inspire people to grow them too, and for nine days every spring, he transforms his backyard into a bulb universe that he opens to the public for free.

What started out as a garden featuring 100 bulbs in one spot and 500 in another has turned into a whole backyard-full of 7,000 bulbs that he hopes people will enjoy and be inspired by.

"I started with 50 bulbs in 1985, and then we had 1,300 in successive years and it has gotten bigger and they are brand new every year," Santoro says. "In California you are lucky if 50 bulbs come back so I put nice and fresh bulbs and I take the old ones out and put them on the periphery of the garden, I bought over 8,000 bulbs and about 1,500 are going to go in the hillside alone. I started seeing visions of a bulb garden and it obviously took time and now every piece of ground has a bulb."

Santoro purchased all the bulbs that he plants in his garden and that he is planting on the hill in Milpitas from Costco with his own money, and plants fresh bulbs in his garden every year. Santoro proudly credits the late Holly Hayes, the San Jose Mercury News' home and garden editor, for naming him "the Bulb Guy."

Never at a shortage for words, Santoro launches into the story both he and Manuel Franco came up with to tell people curious about what is going on the hill, with a resounding laugh.

"We just say that aliens contacted us," he says with a laugh. "And they said go to Milpitas and find the golden mound and they said I would know it when I saw it, and then I had to go to the store and buy wood and cut it up to build 17 boxes after going into the mountain and finding Manuel.

"I say 'I am the bulb guy,' and Manuel says, 'the aliens speak lousy Spanish,' then I am given a message that says we had to find 1,500 red tulips at Costco and I did," he says.

Although he tells a light-hearted tale, Santoro adds that carrying out his vision came with its own set of problems in the form of repelling ground squirrels and finding a place to set up the display.

"Manuel has been phenomenal because I had run into a lot of issues and both him and Karen saw my vision and have been doing everything possible to help including digging a well close to the display for water," Santoro says. "I've never done this before, so hopefully the letters will jet out and the bulbs need to perform like I planned on the grid."

"Our first thing was 'Wow that would be really cool, but how are you going to that'," says Karen Franco. "We are hoping it turns out, it's the first time we are doing something like this so we don't know how it is going to work. It is just going to be a beautiful thing for people to see, obviously it is going to add some beauty to the ranch and will be a nice conversation piece."

Manuel Franco set up a fence around the display boxes to keep his horses and animals away from the bulbs, and also helped spread 20 yards of sterile mushroom compost from Morgan Hill around the bulbs.

"This stuff is golden, nothing will grow in it unless you plant it inside it, when you are having to also fight weeds it just makes it that much harder," Santoro says.

He adds that he hopes to make bulb gardening a water cooler talking point, and that planting the bulbs is something he does for fun.

"This gardening thing is like an art, and I want people to get into it and have fun with it, it is my passion, when I get up in the morning, I don't wake up and sing 'come fly with me,' I wake up and I want to go into my garden you can't get me out of the backyard," Santoro says.

He recalls an elderly woman who drove from Emeryville to see his garden last April, and after Santoro walked her through she told him that it had been worth the drive to see the garden and would be back.

"She said this was well worth it, and I will be back next year, and she made it all worth it for me," he says.

In addition to his work in the concrete industry and bulb gardening, Santoro sings with a 20-piece big band, Millennium Sound Orchestra. He also enjoys working out, doing the sweat-inducing, extreme fitness regime called P90X.

"I am not bragging or anything, but it takes a certain individual to do this, you have to be in phenomenal shape in order to plant 7,000 bulbs working at a 30 degree angle and not standing straight," Santoro says.

image 3

December 31, 2013 Section: Front Page article