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Life of Rileys: An eagle view in El Dorado Hills

Jay and DeeDee Riley can relax now. From any one of eight terraces and patios, they can sit back and look over their hard work – as well as a spectacular view.

If they want a little lemon in their iced tea, they don’t have to go far. A poolside Meyer lemon tree offers plenty of fresh fruit. So do an assortment of other citrus trees and berry bushes in this hilltop edible oasis.

On a crest in El Dorado Hills, their home has a commanding view of Folsom Lake and the surrounding highlands. But a place to sit? Or plant a fruit tree? That took some back-breaking effort.

“When we bought this place in 2004, it used to just slope off,” said DeeDee Riley, a local Realtor. “There was nothing but rock and dirt. It’s still a work in progress.”

This weekend, the Rileys share their view and dramatic landscape during the annual Gardens of the Hills tour. Hosted by the Assistance League of Sierra Foothills, this event features eight private gardens scattered over El Dorado Hills and Shingle Springs.

These gardens are as diverse as the people who created them. Modeled after an Italianate villa, one 25-acre estate boasts vineyards, massive oaks and a formal rose garden studded with marble statues. Another stop visits a modern ranch house with water-wise landscaping.

At one Shingle Springs home, vine-covered pergolas lead to a lush 1.5-acre secret garden with a koi pond fed by a recirculating waterfall. Another El Dorado Hills garden spotlights a very different water feature: a swimming pool shaped like a grand piano. A 60-foot lap pool forms its “keyboard.”

A common thread runs through these gardens: living with less water. They feature low-water or sustainable assets such as drought-tolerant landscaping or edible plants. The overall impact of each garden is spectacular, but the water-saving details can be inspirational, too.

The Rileys didn’t have to look far for a reminder of California’s epic drought. They can plainly see the water level in Folsom Lake.

“It’s actually much better than it was (during the winter),” Jay Riley said. “We see it every day.”

The couple credit their mountain-biking son for discovering their home site.

“This was a pasture, and we lived down the hill,” Jay said. “Our son was riding his mountain bike up here. He said, ‘Dad, there’s a pretty good view up there.’ ”

So, Jay got out his bike and took a look. Yes, the view was magnificent, memorable – and compelling. It changed their lives.

When the property eventually was developed, the Rileys camped out in line in order to get a chance to buy their lot.

“We’re view people now,” Jay said. “When we saw all this; it’s over. It’s location.

“There’s something about being up up high,” he added. “There’s a feeling of safety, a calmness. It feels better.”

But it took considerable effort to turn that rocky crag with the knockout view into a liveable landscape and a place to feel at home.

A longtime high-tech entrepreneur, Riley jokes that he started with Intel – in 1981 – before few people heard of a personal computer. He retired from Intel 25 years later to help launch high-tech startup companies.

“I learned a great deal, including 90 percent of tech startups fail,” he said.

His garden project became a creative as well as physical outlet.

“We sat up here and contemplated what we wanted to do – for probably two years,” he said.

Although the former pasture looked uncomplicated, solid rock rested just below the soil surface. The granite could bust a shovel before the point barely made a dent.

To plant trees and shrubs, Riley used a small electric jackhammer to power through rock and carve holes for roots. He brought in a mountain of good potting soil to fill the holes. The excavated rock became part of massive retaining walls. Instead of an extreme (and bumpy) slope downhill, the 2/3-acre property now has wide stair-step terraces, each planted with its own garden space.

“The money I spent on that electric jackhammer was the best $350 I ever spent,” he said. “We have a lot of rock, and no shortage of rock uses.”

DeeDee, a former master gardener, picked out plants for the landscape while Jay got them in the ground.

“Jay did all this,” she said. “Almost everything started in 5-gallon pots,” he added.

Now, grapevines and olive trees give a Mediterranean air to the terraces. Fragrant jasmine and roses scent the breeze. Stately palms and elephant ears stand near a free-form pool befitting a tropical resort. Blueberries line a walkway. Kumquats, mandarins and Bearss limes tempt visitors to taste.

“It came out like we planned,” Jay said. “At least the way we thought it could be.”

Said DeeDee, “I love everything about it. We just sit here together and look at the views. We move around; we don’t always sit in the same place. You get different looks from different spots. That’s really really cool.”

“You watch the sun going down and lights twinkling on,” added Jay. “It’s pretty spectacular.”

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