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Auburn landscaper, volunteers transform E.V. Cain slope

By: Gloria Young, Home & Garden
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By Gloria Young Home & Garden Bill Finkbeiner is best known in the community as an endurance runner. This year’s Western States will be his 50th 100-mile run. That includes 16 official completions of the Western States Endurance Run. He also did a winter crossing, ran with the horses for the Tevis Cup’s 50th anniversary and once was a pacer for another runner, and ended up completing the entire race that time, too. But Finkbeiner is also a landscaper. And, for most of his Sundays since last August, he has donated his time at E.V. Cain Middle School on a project to turn an empty slope into a life lab and sitting area. The idea for the project came from Kelly Bennett, sixth-grade teacher at E.V. Cain. “There’s a big slope that I walked by every day thinking ‘what a lot of wasted space,’” she said. “So I thought it would be great to put in a place for kids to learn science.” As plans began to jell, Bennett needed a knowledgeable person to create her vision. “The first person I thought of was Bill Finkbeiner,” she said. “I talked to him and he agreed to become involved in the project.” Finkbeiner’s interest in helping has a personal side — his son attended E.V. Cain and his daughter is in Bennett’s class. He had done some volunteering at Auburn Elementary with the life lab there. So when Bennett approached him, he had some idea of what he was in for, he said. “Initially, I envisioned some planter boxes so kids could grow vegetables as part of their science program,” Finkbeiner said. But it turned out to be much more than that. E.V. Cain alumna Earlene Eisley of Eisley Nursery created a landscaping plan for the 5,000-square-foot area that includes retaining walls, walking paths and a patio seating area. There are also ramps so the area is wheelchair accessible. Finkbeiner, who specializes in residential jobs, soon realized that his small tractor was not up to the challenge of moving a “mountain.” So he arranged for an equipment operator to bring in a bulldozer to do the terracing. Numerous local businesses have donated products and many volunteers have taken their turn hammering, digging and moving dirt. A&A Stepping Stone donated materials for the retaining walls. Robinson’s donated sand and gravel. Sierra Pipe donated several hundred dollars worth of irrigation piping. LeBilig restaurant donated materials for the planter boxes “They want to establish a relationship where we’ll grow herbs and vegetables for their restaurant and they’ll buy them from us,” Bennett said. Eisley Nursery has set up a plant registry for donations and Lowe’s and Home Depot have discounted materials for the project, she said. Local Rotary, Masons and the Kiwanis Club have also stepped up with donations. The Auburn Education Foundation has donated $6,000. Bennett estimates the entire cost of the project will be $20,000. Chris Liske, wife of Auburn State Recreation Area ranger Scott Liske, arranged for a donation of recycling receptacles and recycled plastic benches for the patio area, located on the lower level next to the playground. With seating now in place, Finkbeiner said he is gratified to see students already using the site. A small crew of volunteers helps him each week. “Most don’t have landscape or construction background,” he said. “But they can dig a trench or move soil.” He’s even had help from juveniles from the Probation Department. “They did a lot of dirt moving and it has speeded things up,” Finkbeiner said. He estimates the job will be completed within a couple of months. Shrubs need to be planted to serve as a barrier and a guardrail will be installed above the walls. There will also be a greenhouse, purchased with a grant from PG&E, Bennett said Working on a slope has its challenges. “The hillsides have such potential, but for homeowners who might be planning a similar renovation, it’s more expensive than landscaping a level area,” he said. “The retaining walls are more expensive and you can’t amend the soil very well. But it provides a great place for a water feature.” He also suggests using plants such as loropetalum that do well on slopes. Rosemary is also a good choice. “It can take the cold,” he said. “It can take the deer. It establishes a good system for erosion control. I’ve never had it fail anywhere. And you can use it for cooking.” As Bennett’s vision has taken shape, she is very appreciative to all who’ve donated to the project. And she’s very grateful for Finkbeiner’s efforts. “If it were not for him, this project wouldn’t have happened,” Bennett wrote in an e-mail.