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On a roll with melons at Placer’s Maple Rock Gardens

Scott Paris is riding a winning streak. Despite the drought, his crops as well as flowers are flourishing at Maple Rock Gardens. In preparation for his summer festival, ripe melons by the hundreds are rolling in right on schedule, ready for hungry tasters. At his High Hand Nursery, he took a chance on drilling a well in the city and struck just what he needed most – water.

“Farmers are gamblers,” Paris said with a smile. “We gamble every day on nature, weather, what we grow. At High Hand, we’re making bets all the time and winning. It’s in our name and DNA. We’re lucky.”

With its four aces logo, High Hand took its name from its historic fruit packing shed in downtown Loomis. Paris transformed the aging landmark into an upscale oasis with a destination nursery, farm-to-fork restaurant and gallery of unique shops.

Paris also turned his Placer County home, Maple Rock Gardens, into a working farm to supply his restaurant with produce. The 10 acres he has planted in crops so far have been remarkably prolific with a wide assortment of fruit and vegetables.

Visitors can see, and taste, for themselves during Maple Rock’s second annual Melon Mania on Aug. 15.

“This ground lay fallow for 30 years,” Paris said. “This is only our third year of crops. Soil takes time to develop and let nature take over. We’re just place-holders for nature.”

For the one-day festival, Paris and his crew planted 53 varieties of melons, including many heirlooms and rarities. Fed by drip lines, the melons sprawl over 4 acres.

“Melons are surprisingly water-efficient,” he said. “We even had one sprout and grow in our parking lot without any irrigation. That indicates to me that watermelon is a great drought-tolerant plant.”

Theresa Thomas assists Paris on the farm. She’s in charge of the many melons, a crop she learned to love while working on a farm in Georgia.

“We cut our water back to one-quarter of what we were using on the melons,” she said. “It’s important to have enough water in their early formative stages. But too much water now just makes them taste, well, watery. If you cut back, they’re much more flavorful and sweet. This hot, dry weather is perfect for them, too.”

As he has with so many other plants, Paris is mastering the art of melon growing. He’s immersed in the history of unusual varieties such as Collective Farm Woman (a crisp Russian melon with white flesh and gold skin) and Ali Baba (a rich red watermelon with a near-white skin).

“Farming is a touch-and-feel thing,” Paris said as he lifted a robust watermelon, testing its weight and ripeness. “(Growing plants) may be botany, but farming is not a science. You plant the seeds and do your best to twist Mother Nature to your needs. It’s never an easy battle.”

This is only the second year Paris has grown melons en masse. Planted June 1, the vines started slowly before picking up momentum in July.

“My favorite crop is a successful one,” he quipped. “A month ago, I wasn’t sure we’d have any melons. Now I know we’ll have plenty.”

Paris, 50, likes to do things big. When he decided lavender would be a nice addition, he planted more than a thousand bushes. Now, the scent of lavender greets Maple Rock visitors from spring into fall. (Maple Rock hosted its first lavender festival earlier this year.)

As a lifelong nurseryman, Paris loves to experiment with plants and Maple Rock is his laboratory. He and his wife, Lisa, bought the 30-acre foothill estate in 2011. At that time, Maple Rock had already earned a reputation for its charming ornamental and Japanese gardens traversed by a model railroad.

“Maple Rock is a very special spot,” he said. “We have our own little microclimate. I’m still learning all its nuances. It tends to stay warmer; that allows us to grow things that you might not be able to (in other nearby locations).”

It also can be a hard spot to find.

“We’re actually in between Lincoln, Penryn and Newcastle,” Paris explained. “We get our mail in Loomis. If you try to find our address by GPS, you’ll get lost. Clark Tunnel is a gravel road that used to go through, but not now. We’re just in a unique spot in Placer County.”

Borrowing ideas from around the world, Paris retooled Maple Rock, rethinking green landscaped spaces into garden rooms with distinct views.

“Everything from 12 feet down is different,” he said. “The large trees remain the same, of course, but the understory is all new.”

Paris tests new hybrid plants and other finds at Maple Rock before offering them at his nursery.

“I have an eye what it should be,” he said of Maple Rock. “That’s my garden vision. I can see how all the components come together, all the colors and the textures. That’s what I like.”

This summer, Maple Rock is full of flowers, but those are secondary in Paris’ vision.

“I’m a foliage guy, not a flower guy,” he said. “Flowers are a byproduct, just one attribute of that plant. The form and beauty of the plant comes from its leaves. That’s what I look at.”

To visitors, both flowers and foliage are breathtaking. Maple Rock’s garden “rooms” are decorated with growing bouquets of unusual dahlias, hibiscuses, lilies, mums, daylilies and countless other summer bloomers. During the ongoing drought, he’s added scores of water-wise additions such as brightly colored yarrows, flowering oregano and Mexican petunias.

Maple Rock’s lawns also are still surprisingly green.

“That’s thanks to Bermuda grass,” he said with a chuckle. “People may hate it, but it only gets watered once a week and keeps going strong.”

Like other California gardeners, his emphasis lately has been saving water. Through careful conservation, he’s managed to cut back Maple Rock’s water use by 50 percent and still maintain a lush landscape.

“What you need to survive the drought is good soil, well thought-out irrigation and the right plants in the right place,” Paris said. “We managed to cut back quite a bit by squeezing out all the leaks. We made our irrigation more efficient and that helped a lot.”

He’s optimistic that drought isn’t a permanent condition for California gardeners.

“As a gardener, you have to have faith in Mother Nature,” Paris said. “The rains will come back again. Don’t panic. Don’t give up your garden. Instead, help it to survive. Amend your soil, use best practices. The No. 1 thing you can do is put plants where they can succeed; that’s what I try to do.”

Meanwhile, his nursery needs water, too, so he decided to drill a well, which needed a permit from Loomis.

“It was probably the first permit to drill a well in the city in generations,” he said. “Because of easements, we only had one little space where we could drill it. Our water bill at the nursery runs $3,000 a month, so it was worth a shot. But it cost $10,000 to drill the well; that was a big gamble.”

With the first 500 feet, it looked like a loser; little if any water percolated to the top. But the well struck a previously unknown aquifer 600 feet down, producing a reliable new source of water for High Hand.

“Like I said,” Paris noted, “we’re very lucky.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Melon Mania

Where: Maple Rock Gardens, 100 Clark Tunnel Road, Lincoln

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Aug. 15

Cost: $10, in advance or at High Hand Nursery, 3750 Taylor Road, Loomis

Information: highhandnursery.com, maplerockgardens.com

Directions: Don’t use GPS to locate Maple Rock; you’ll end up at a dead-end. From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 east to Sierra College Boulevard exit. Head north (left) on Sierra College Boulevard; travel 7 miles to Highway 193. Turn right; travel 1.5 miles. Maple Rock Gardens is at Clark Tunnel Road on the right-hand side of the highway.

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