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Each spring, a corner of suburbia erupts in color

A retired Fullerton teacher spends hundreds of hours every year planning, planting and tending to 3,200 tulip bulbs in his frontyard. Neighbors call the bright display 'a gift to the community.'

March 01, 2010|By Tony Barboza
  • Wayne Daniels, a.k.a. Tulip Man, spends hundreds of hours each year planning and tending his garden. Tulip bulbs don't sprout easily in Southern California, so he chills them in a refrigerator for two months before planting.
Wayne Daniels, a.k.a. Tulip Man, spends hundreds of hours each year planning… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

A Fullerton man's annual ritual -- planting 3,200 tulip bulbs in his frontyard -- comes on full display every spring, when petals of light peach and deep crimson bloom into a colorful neighborhood curiosity.

Wayne Daniels, 73, is known simply as the Tulip Man, a mild-mannered retired high school science teacher who looks forward to the annual influx of sightseers, visiting couples and tour buses carrying onlookers from retirement homes.

Each spring they arrive to gaze upon the shaded garden in front of the ranch-style home where Daniels lives by himself -- an explosion of color on a quiet suburban street of tidy, simple yards.

Like he has for 30 years, Daniels got on his hands and knees just after Thanksgiving, using a trowel to bury thousands of tulip bulbs, intermingled with 500 other bulbs such as irises, daffodils and hyacinths.

"Because of my bowling-alley-sized backyard, I plant them out in the front, and the whole neighborhood gets to enjoy them," Daniels said. "And we need more distractions to enjoy in this day and age."

The 50-plus varieties, with names such as elegant lady, daydream and white emperor, come in bright white, vibrant purple and other colors. In loosely arranged circular patches surrounded by grass, they crowd the ground under ferns, roses and ceramic statues of deer, squirrels and St. Francis.

Daniels said thousands stopped by his home on North Woods Avenue two blocks north of Chapman Avenue last year to see his tulips. Some take photos. Others just stand and admire them or ask a few questions of the caretaker.

Barbara Becka, 53, a retired secretary who lives about a quarter of a mile away, makes a point of walking by Daniels' house on her daily 4-mile route, just to see the blooms.

"His garden always puts a smile on my face," she said. "I could be just so down and out, but I can always look forward to passing by his house and seeing his big color show."

And tulip season or not, Daniels is usually out in his frontyard toiling and answering questions about the garden's progress and growth.

Tulips aren't as ubiquitous in Southern California as in other parts of the country because the climate here isn't cold enough for them to sprout up on their own each year, much less yield a crop of thousands.

To make it happen, each fall Daniels chills the bulbs for two months before planting them in the soil, 4 inches deep.

The routine started nearly 30 years ago with a modest dozen or two dozen tulips and daffodils.

But over the years, as Daniels was prodded with the encouragement of his neighbors, what started as an idle hobby became a near obsession.

Once he hit retirement, the tulips multiplied from the dozens to the hundreds to the thousands, and he had to make some adjustments.

The bulbs overflowed the crisper drawer of his refrigerator, so he bought a second refrigerator and put it in the garage, just for the bulbs.

"It's so chock-full of bulbs, I had to seal it with duct tape to make sure it didn't pop open," he said.

He took to spending hours each day clearing the tulip patches of leaves or cutting back all the brown tops of the bulbs, a chore that grew to hundreds of hours of labor and planning each year. And then there's the $700 annual price tag for the bulbs, which he buys in bulk from Costco.

Some of his neighbors help keep an eye on the flower beds to make sure they're not trampled or picked. The blooms have mostly been left alone, but there have been incursions.

A few years ago, late in the night on Valentine's Day, someone (love-struck teenagers or a kleptomaniacal Casanova, perhaps?) ransacked the plot, digging up all the red flowers.

Marjorie Kerr, a retired librarian who lives across the street, said the whole block, even those with little aptitude for gardening, thrive off his green thumb.

"It is a gift to the community," she said. "He's sort of a celebrity, and he's such a giving person."

Daniels expects even more color this year, with heavy rains helping blooms reach their peak in the coming days. So what does he get out of it?

"For me, it's just seeing the progression from a nondescript bulb that doesn't look like it could turn into anything become a beautiful flower," he said. "It's a huge transformation."

At times, he sounds like a frontyard philosopher waxing poetic on the brevity of life, seen through the lens of his tulips.

"What makes them special is that they bloom and have a relatively short life span," he says. "It's a kind of seasonal significance of how fast time passes; that another year has passed and passed so quickly."

As Daniels gets older, he doesn't know how much longer he'll be able keep up the hobby.

He doesn't plan to call it quits, though. And some passersby and admirers have offered to help with the planting and upkeep.

"They thought I might be hanging it up, so people left names and phone numbers," he said, jokingly. "But there are no hitches so far; all my joints are still working. As long as I live here I'll probably be doing this."

He keeps their names and numbers in a cookie jar, just in case.

Daniels is also having a measure of success passing on the tradition. He gave one family a few houses up a starter batch of bulbs to plant in their frontyard; now they have dozens of their own tulips.

For now, he keeps looking forward to each spring, when the tulips' closed heads begin to peek out of the green stems like tubes of lipstick.

He's happiest when they bloom sporadically in weeklong bursts over a two-month period, from February to April.

"It's too bad they don't last longer than they do," he said. "But that's just the nature of the cycle of life."


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