Michael Bonfante sold his family's grocery business three years ago and used the profits to create a horticulturally inspired theme park in Gilroy, Calif., that opens late this May.
Michael Bonfante thinks he will never see anything lovely as a tree. Unless,of course, it has been planted in the wrong place, as was the case last fall, when Bonfante dropped by to see an oak and a holly tree that had been planted in Bonfante Gardens, a horticulturally based theme park slated to open in late May in Gilroy, Calif. He wanted the 7,000-pound holly tree moved six feet and the 20,000-pound oak tree removed completely. And these weren't the first big trees that Bonfante had asked his crews to move. "Yeah," says Bonfante, 59, laughing, "I've been known to move a few things."
He's been known to move so many things that, out of consideration for a surely exasperated staff, he has created a rule to avoid these situations in the future. "Any rock you can't lift by yourself, I have to be there when you put it in place," Bonfante says. "And any tree you can't lift by yourself, I have to be there when you plant it."
Bonfante's concern for the placement of every tree in his theme park comes as little surprise to those who know him. It was the trees that drove him to create the park. The former president of the Nob Hill Foods grocery chain, Bonfante has been passionate about oaks, redwoods, and pines for more than two decades. He has collected them. He has grown them. And now he has spent $100 million, mostly of his own fortune, creating Bonfante Gardens to share his love of them.
Tucked into the western hills of Gilroy, Bonfante Gardens is a theme park where trees are the main focus. With 28 acres of rides and attractions designed to draw the preteen and family crowd, Bonfante Gardens has all the trappings of an amusement park. But the attractions are incorporated into gardens and are shaded by 10,000 to 15,000 trees.
Bonfante's delight in trees is evident everywhere in the park, including its five theme gardens: the Monarch Garden (a greenhouse filled with lush tropical and subtropical plants), the Rainbow Garden (annual color), the Pinnacles (edible landscaping), the Camellia Garden (shade plants), and Claudia's Garden, where Bonfante's passion for trees is most apparent. Named for Bonfante's wife, Claudia's Garden is devoted to conifers, such as spruce, pines, and cedars, many of them not your garden variety. A prostrate form of sequoia, for example, grows along the ground, rather than up from it.
The park's most celebrated denizens are the circus trees. Acquired by Bonfante in 1984, the collection of 25 trees was created by the late Axel Erlandson of Scotts Valley, Calif., using intricate grafting techniques. The trees—one of which has a basket weave for a trunk—are so extraordinary that they regularly appeared in Life magazine and Ripley's Believe It or Not! in the 1940s and '50s.
By planting unusual trees in the park, Bonfante is trying to get people interested in trees. "You walk in and say, 'Wow! It's trees! Aren't they amazing?' " says Katy Moss Warner, an adviser to Bonfante and the former director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Florida's Walt Disney World. And, once you say that, Bonfante gets to the root of the matter. Bonfante Gardens is replete with informational kiosks and educational guided garden tours.
We don't ever want kids to think this is a museum or anarboretum,though," Bonfante says, "because those are the last two places they want to go." With Bonfante Gardens's 40 rides and attractions, that shouldn't be a problem. The park boasts a family roller coaster, a 1927 Illions Supreme Carousel, and a rock maze that changes daily. Rising above it all is the Monarch Garden, a tropical plant-filled greenhouse so large that a train, a monorail, and a stream all run through it. Across from the Monarch Garden is the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine Coaster. And not far from that, there's South County Backroads, a miniature car ride in which guests can tour the 1920s or the '50s, depending on where they get on.
Though Bonfante employs architects, landscape architects, and gardeners to help refine and execute his ideas for the gardens, "the vision is 100 percent Michael," says Jerry Tracey, the park's senior director of horticulture and maintenance. Bonfante's vision has gained the attention of some of the most prominent people in landscaping. "He has excellent taste and has done an outstanding job of landscaping," says Bill Evans, an adviser to Bonfante and the original landscape architect for Disneyland when it opened 45 years ago. Warner calls Bonfante "one of the most ingenious garden makers of our time."
He's also one of the more unlikely ones. Before the trees, Bonfante wasn't even a gardener. The trees, or "the passion," as Bonfante refers to it, are the result of a business deal 25 years ago. Bonfante had joined his father, Mario "Mike" Bonfante, and his uncle John in the family grocery business, Nob Hill Foods. When Bonfante's uncle left the business, Michael was given the chance to buy him out by way of a deal in which the younger man would pay a pittance up front, then a larger chunk five years later. To raise the money, Bonfante decided to grow and sell big trees. "Over the course of time, the interest grew from economic, to sincere, to a passion for trees," Bonfante says. "I received such satisfaction from growing the trees and being out amongst them that I came to the conclusion it was a shame I had to wait 36 years before I learned how trees affect our lives, both aesthetically and economically."
Bonfante didn't want anyone else to wait as long as he did. "He has a tremendous interest in communicating how magical trees are," Warner says. The question was, how to do it? By the mid-1970s, Bonfante had used the trees from his nursery to create a park, on the Bonfante Gardens site, for Nob Hill employees. Every time he tried to take the park public, though, his number crunchers told him it wouldn't work. "Finally, we learned the only way a garden could be naturally beautiful and still economically viable," Bonfante says, "was to add rides."
Though Bonfante had set his heart on a theme park, Nob Hill Foods always competed for his time. When his father died in a plane crash in 1977, Bonfante took over the grocery business, expanding it from nine stores in '77 to 27 in '97. When the economy turned sour in the early '90s, Bonfante funneled all his resources, including himself, back into the business. By 1997, with the park project in full swing again, Bonfante realized he physically couldn't do both jobs and had to make a choice. He chose the trees. Bonfante sold Nob Hill Foods to Raley's in 1998 for an estimated $300 million, placing the proceeds in a community charity, ensuring that all the profits would be channeled back into the park and into local beautification projects. "Because it's not for profit," says Thomas Eltzroth, the director of San Luis Obispo's Leaning Pine Arboretum, "you know that the guy is really genuine in what he's trying to do."
Not only genuine, but ecstatically happy. For the last three years, Bonfante has worked seven days a week to bring his vision to fruition. He has designed landscapes. He has planted trees. And asked them to be moved. "It's not a job and it's not work to him," says Bonfante's sister Lynda Trelut. "I don't think he has ever been happier."
Photography by Paul Bousquet
This article was first published in March 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.