Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Amid drought, Maple Rock Gardens celebrates spring

Owner Scott Paris has overseen a lot of change at his Maple Rock Gardens. Besides its showcase landscapes, the Newcastle landmark now is a full-fledged working farm, providing fresh produce for Paris’ restaurant at High Hand Nursery and Conservatory in nearby Loomis.

“The whole farm is in and growing,” Paris said of 10 acres of vegetables. “We planted a lot of lavender. We’ve added new walkways where people can explore the landscapes and get different vistas.”

We actually call one path the ‘Farm Walk’ because that’s what you see.”

Of course, there’s a lot more than veggies to see at Maple Rock Gardens, proclaimed as one of the finest private gardens in Northern California. Maple Rock opens to the public only three times a year, and today is one of those rare opportunities to see it for yourself.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, Maple Rock will host “A Celebration of Gardening.” It’s all that the name implies, with beautiful flowers, breathtaking views and some hands-on demonstrations. Food, including produce grown at Maple Rock, will be offered for sale. On a 1,000-foot G-scale track, the Maple Rock miniature railroad will be chugging through its own Lilliputian landscape.

Visitors are welcome to stroll miles of paths through Maple Rock’s imaginative gardens.

“We’ve done a lot of work to improve the Japanese garden,” Paris said. “We’ve opened it up (to views). There are more plantings and a new walk that loops back to the Farm Walk. It looks really good.”

Maple Rock hosted a sellout crowd of 1,800 patrons at last year’s celebration, and Paris is expecting similar attendance today. The garden has limited parking, so advanced registration (offered online) or tickets (available at High Hand) are required.

Since he purchased Maple Rock and its 30 acres in 2011, Paris has focused on farming the former pasture land outside the original 3 acres of landscaped gardens, created by former owners Frank and Ruby Andrews.

“We’re putting farm-to-fork to the test,” Paris said. “Right now, we’re growing broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, radishes, lots and lots of potatoes, a half-acre of onions. We planted 45 different varieties of tomatoes and 45 different melons. That way, if half of them fail, we’ll still have a lot to choose from. We’re succession planting, so we’ll have some early, some late.”

Paris expects the melons to be ready for Maple Rock’s next open garden event, “Melon Mania,” tentatively slated for late August. His gardens also will open for a vintage harvest day in October.

As a landscaper-turned-farmer, Paris has learned some hard lessons.

“It gets progressively easier,” he said. “I’ve become convinced it takes three years to learn to grow something well. The first year, it’s great. You’re always successful; everything works. The second year is just awful; you feel like a failure. Nothing works. The third year, it’s awesome. You’ve learned what you need to do to make these plants happy.

“Gardening is about patience,” he added. “Success is not inevitable. People think they have a black thumb, but no – they just stopped a step short of success. They didn’t keep going into that third year.”

Originally, Maple Rock was the site of a University of California test orchard. Paris and his team have worked on the old apple trees, the only remnant of that orchard, to bring them back into production. He’s also planted scores of peach, apricot, plum and blood orange trees.

Paris hasn’t forgotten the formal gardens. He uses them to test many of the unusual plants offered in his nursery. Despite the drought, this has been a spectacular spring.

“The drought is manageable if you apply the right information at the right time,” he observed. “People hear ‘drought’ and they panic.

“What did we learn this spring? It didn’t rain, didn’t rain, then we got some rain,” he added. “Did you notice how fresh the world looked? Nature just exploded. From trees on down, every plant just seemed to take off. That tells us we overwater.

“It doesn’t take much water to make a garden bloom,” Paris noted. “We cut way back (in overall usage), but our gardens are going wild.”

The heat wave in early May did put a tamper on some spring bloomers such as peonies and azaleas.

“Everything seemed to peak a little early,” Paris said, “but now we have a second wave (of flowers). We have tons of roses, of course, and some rhododendrons still. There are many succulents in bloom. The dahlias are coming out. We have lots of color, not just in flowers but foliage, too. Sometimes, I actually like it better. Leaves come in many colors besides green.”