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Bonfante Gardens: An Aquascape for Trees

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

The Camellia Garden with its dozens of different camellia varieties, is adjacent to yet another waterfall and the Lily Pond. The aeration system consists of an air compressor that provides cool airflow and continuous distribution tubing installed through the lake and pond bottoms. This continuously oxidizes much of the organic matter and nutrients.

What does Michael Bonfante love the most? Why, trees of course. What do trees love the most? Why, water of course. That's why Michael Bonfante--who truly loves trees--developed this amazing amusement park in Gilroy, California. Built around trees--as well as several unique, beautiful, and fascinating gardens--the whole thing is connected by a spectacular aquascape. What more could a tree want?

egun as a place for Michael Bonfante's employees to have family picnics, the idea began to build until it became an exquisitely designed amusement park. Bonfante combined his desire for a place for families to enjoy time together with his absolute passion for trees. That, in turn, led to an opportunity to share his love of horticulture with children. This sole horticultural theme park in California is a non-profit organization both built and paid for by Michael Bonfante who sold his family owned market chain, Nob Hill Foods to get it off the ground.

Monarch Garden is a greenhouse so large, a train and a waterfall can run through it. It stands over 60 feet tall with unusual trees, waterfalls, trees and plants inside its glass walls. On the west side are sub- tropical plants such as coffee trees and strawberry guava. The outside is an extension of that idea with plants that grow well in that region such as butleia and sages, and plants which attract hummingbirds as well as monarch butterflies.

Integrally interwoven throughout the park are self-guided tour points of interest, where information is imparted regarding the various plants and environments. Many tours of the grounds are also conducted for the general public and school children. The advancement of horticulture has been, and remains, one of his primary goals.

Designed Around Water

Landscape architect Karen Aitken-Bernosky has spent 20 years working on this project. "Bonfante Gardens wasn't just a business venture," says Michael Bonfante. "It was a labor of love." Because it was such a labor of love, his goals for the park changed and grew from year to year. Begun in the early 1980s, the park has now been open to the public for five years. Its fifth season just began, and with it came the opening of the newest water feature, Bonfante Splash Garden, featuring a fabulous spray park with structures and water play equipment designed to delight young children.

The rock design for the waterfall was primarily done by Michael Bonfante. He and two other men with a crane set all the rocks in position over one summer. This final product is a conglomeration of all the efforts of several different people and designs.

The primary concept for the master plan of all these combined water features was to have Coyote Lake as the focus of attention. The main paths run around lake, with its elaborate waterfall. From there, branch paths lead to the Lily Pond, the Camellia Garden, Claudia's Garden, the Rainbow Garden and Monarch Garden.

Paddle boats offer a different view of the gardens. They can go throughout the lake, allowing passengers to see attractions such as the new Splash Gardens, the mushroom swings, artichoke rides, topiary elephants, giraffes and deer.

There is also a lakeside amphitheater used for community organizations to hold presentations and productions.

A Waterfall Trees Could Really Love

The 30-foot high Bonfante Falls was constructed by Michael Bonfante and two friends with a crane. They set all the rocks in position over one summer. Once built, the waterfall sat for many years. When Alderman Engineering was called in, the three pumps vaults and pumps were already in place. Alderman Engineering modified them, re-sized the diameters in the impellers and built the additional falls and streams the park now features. When the opportunity came to turn the valves on and have the water come flowing out over the rocks it was a very big moment. At the western end of the lake, there are a series of additional waterfalls, while streams and ponds course through the gardens.

Each lake or pond in the park has its own gravel bed, plus bio-filtration and aeration systems, which means they don't need any maintenance or back flushing and they don't clog.

Extensive Water Features and Systems Enhance the Park

The several lakes, ponds, waterfalls and streams were also engineered by Alderman. Coyote Lake has several amusement rides and is on the same pumping system as Bonfante's majestic waterfall with 31,000 gallons per minute (GPM) of total flow. A large gravel bed biological filter and aeration/ozonation system keeps the water clear. Alderman also engineered the other ponds, waterfalls and streams.

The six pumps for the 30-foot Bonfante Falls are located in three separate pump vaults housing six separate pumps totaling, combined, 31 thousand GPM. These interrelated pumps, and discharge valves service both the lake and the streams and falls around the park that don't have their own pumping and aeration systems.

The main components and systems are made up of three important features. The gravel bed biological filter consists of a large gravel bed with a pump, mechanical system. Properly sized and designed, the gravel bed operates as a natural filter where nutrients and organic matter are digested by bacteria colonies as the water gently passes through. It also mechanically filters out particulate matter and turbidity and has a very natural appearance.

Claudia's Garden has a long stream, which appears to connect with the lake. It also has an entirely separate pumping system. Water bubbles up over a huge rock and cascades down to the stream. However, the design is actually a visual trick making it look as if the stream continues on into Coyote Lake. The plantings include Japanese maple, Incense Cedar and Dwarf Korean fir, with groundcovers such as Prostrata juniper, blue star creeper, Asian jasmine and Irish moss. Lady fern and asparagus ferns, along with blue fescue are dotted among shrubs such as Japanese aucuba, red leaf azalea and Prostrate hemlock.

"I had a dream, and now I see the reality of that dream every time I walk through this place."--Michael Bonfante

Keeping it Beautiful

The aeration systems thoroughly mix ("turn over") the lake water column. A uniform aerobic condition permits aquatic life to thrive throughout the lake. The ozone system operates in conjunction with the aeration system providing a greater degree of treatment of the lake water, giving it greater clarity. Ozone also prevents the build-up of calcium, other minerals and matter that may tend to clog the slits of the aeration tubing, thus extending the life of the tubing and decreasing maintenance. An adequate ozone system breaks down much of the organic matter and nutrients that feed algae and "cloud" the water. Ozone also directly destroys algae to some extent. The newer ozone generators are safer and more powerful, efficient and cost effective than those of the past.

With five interactive water attractions, the newly opened Splash Garden attraction is a wonderful place for cooling off and having fun. The artist's rendering shows the five different water features including the Super Squirter Station and the Aqua Playground.

Other components include skimmer box intakes to continually remove unsightly debris on the water surface and eliminate stagnation "dead spots." In addition, there are lake edge discharge "jets" to better circulate the lake water and eliminate dead spots as well.

Saving Miracle Trees

Scattered throughout the park are the world-famous "Circus Trees". The amazing grafting techniques used to propagate these trees remains a mystery that died with its creator, Axel Erlandson. Michael Bonfante rescued many of the unique trees years later.

Splashing Branches is a 12-foot replica of one of the circus trees with water-filled tipping buckets. The Tree Top Spray Ground is an 18-foot tall replica of the Basket Tree with platforms, slides and decks. The kid-activated Soakin' Fun See Saw pumps water through vertical geysers and pinhole sprays.

Now distributed throughout the park, the Circus Trees were originally slated for planting in a special garden. However, ultimately it was decided that it would be much more fun if they were distributed around the park. Children have a kind of scavenger hunt for them, filling out a card as they hunt for and find the trees.

An Aquascape for Children, Too

A new area has just opened with wonderful water features for small children. Bonfante's Splash Garden is an interactive water play area, with replicated circus trees, rides and water slides so kids can climb up to top and then slide down through a curving chute. As they play around the base, sprayed water makes them feel as if they're in a thunderstorm. There are five interactive play areas in Splash Garden, which just opened on the weekend of June 11, 2005 with water guns, splash fountains, sprinklers and water slides.

Rainbow Garden is on a separate flow and filtration system from the Coyote Lake system. A boat ride drifts along a lazy river and allowing guests to see all kinds of unique plants. Interpretive signs describe the plant material.

The Park's Mission is Education

Workshops are held for school children all during the year, but most important are the Learning Kiosks--four kiosks distributed around the park--where guests can watch videos about moving large trees, the different kinds of rocks used in waterfalls, or even a geology lesson. People can look at the plantings and then, as they walk, they can stop in these learning sheds to find out more about what they've just seen. Docents can also answer questions or people can have a guide give them a tour. In addition, there are self guided tours about the history, culture, gardens and architecture, including the Circus Trees, that people can take at their own pace with pamphlets available.

Topiary conifers grace the entry and line the stream of Claudia's Garden features.

According to Michael Bonfante, trees are delightful companions...responsive, non-confrontational and very helpful--they give you shade in the summer, then lose their leaves and let the sun warm you in the winter--but best of all, they purify our air...

What more could a person want? And what do the trees want in exchange? All the trees ask for is water. Well, at Bonfante Gardens, the trees have a truly delightful watery haven. What more could a tree want?

"I had a dream, and now I see the reality of that dream every time I walk through this place," says Michael Bonfante. And the best part of course, is that Michael and the trees are willing to share his dream and their haven with people, too.

For more information about visiting this delightful park, go to:

"Bonfante Gardens wasn't just a business venture. It was a labor of love." --Michael Bonfante

The History of the Circus Trees

This botanical adventure began in Hilmar, California in the 1920's when Axel Erlandson (in photo above at left), a farmer by trade, observed the natural grafting of two sycamores. Using intricate grafting techniques, Erlandson wove his wonders with threads of living wood. Straight tree trunks became complex and compound designs in shapes like hearts, lightning bolts, basket weaves and rings.

The photo above shows the famous "Basket Tree" at about seven years. It is actually six sycamores melded together in 42 different connections to give it a basket shape.

Erlandson spent over 40 years of his life shaping and grafting the bodies and arms of these full-sized trees. He could control the rate of growth, slowing it down or speeding it up to blend his designs to perfection. In 1945, Erlandson dug and moved a dozen or so of his trees to Scotts Valley where he continued to create more natural wonders.

The "Four Legged Giant" is among the 29 "Circus Trees" hauled over 50 miles of mountains to its new home in Gillroy.

When this son of the land died in 1964, he left a legacy of 74 spectacular trees, but with no one to care for them, they languished and began to die. In the mid-1970's, a Santa Cruz architect named Mark Primack led a valiant effort to save the trees, even risking arrest for trespassing in order to water and feed the trees. Keeping as many alive as he could, Primack's efforts finally took root when they attracted the attention of tree lover Michael Bonfante who subsequently bought the trees for a theme park he was building in Gilroy.

The "Double Spectacle" sycamore being gently loaded onto a flat bed trailer in preparation for its journey to Bonfante Gardens.

Due to Bonfante's creative vision, 29 of the remaining coiled, scalloped and spiral shaped sycamores, box elders, ash and Spanish cork trees were saved. During the winter of 1984 they were carefully hand dug and boxed, then hauled over 50 miles of mountains. More than 20 municipal, county and state agencies were involved in the permitting process. All 29 survived the ordeal and are happily situated at Bonfante Gardens Family Theme Park.

Project Details

  • Landscape Architect: Karen Aitken-Bernosky, RLA,ASLA, Aitken Associates
  • Aquascape: Alderman Engineering
  • Splash Garden Play Equipment: Funtraptions
  • Splash Garden custom structures: Interactive Play
  • Concrete Design for Splash Garden: Jerry Terry

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December 14, 2019, 8:19 am PDT

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