School Park Preserve community garden under way

Organic project has drawn people together
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal Features Editor
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The final piece of the School Park Preserve project has turned into a community event that draws people from all walks of life in Auburn to help out.

Susan Cooley-Gilliom, founder of the Emigrant Trails Greenway Trust, was instrumental in the early development and design of the park. She died in 2003 at age 56, after a battle with breast cancer. Cooley-Gilliom and her husband, Bob Gilliom, had donated $900,000 for the park’s development, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the park held its grand opening. Cooley-Gilliom, an artist, had done years of planning for the park, the final aspect of which was a community garden that she drew the plans for while she was ill.

“She started on the park a couple of years before she passed away,” Gilliom said, “but she started to work on the design of the garden during last year, when she was in hospice care. She was continuing to paint and do her artwork, literally, in bed.”

An array of volunteers has been at work on the garden, which will ultimately see 32 raised wooden beds, measuring 4 by 12 feet each, in the upper portion of the park, behind City Hall. While the park was funded through grants, donations and federal and city funds, the garden is funded entirely by grants and donations of money and labor.

“We are hopeful to get things in the ground before the end of the school year this year, but we are dependent on the enthusiasm and the financial contributions of our community,” said Katy Fries, a special education teacher at Placer High School.

Fries and special education teacher Randi Sindt have been bringing their students to the park for more than a year, where they pull weeds, plant trees and help prepare the garden site for planting.

I think it’ll be a place where people can come and just enjoy nature and enjoy the hard work that all these great kids have put into it,” said Placer High senior Catherine Mothorn as she hoed the soil during a garden workday.

The garden project helps backfill for the cutting back of the WorkAbility program, which helps students and young adults learn life skills by working for pay.

“They need a lot of direction, but teaching them the work ethic, giving them the opportunity to be involved with the earth and the soil and the growing of things, has been integral to what we do in terms of teaching them how to be successful outside of the academics that we do,” Fries said.

There’s a lot of learning that goes on at the garden, Sindt agreed. Students with developmental disabilities are learning not only about life science through planting, weeding and pruning, but will ultimately learn how to grow and cook food from the garden. Friendships are also formed at the garden, where students of different grades and developmental abilities work side by side.

“We feel the community involvement already,” Sindt said, “and I think when other people are here it’s really going to add to the ownership.”


Happy helpers

The garden project has been chugging along thanks to donations from businesses and individuals. Gabe and Vickie Mendez of Newcastle’s Mendez Grading Company recently de-grassed the area for free, and Don Robinson Sand and Gravel has committed to planting soil. Bailey’s Apple Creek Soils will provide the decomposed granite and planting soil and the Friends of Placer High School donated the wood for four of the planter boxes.

The formation committee is also made up of volunteers, including Fries, Sindt and Gilliom, and architects Michael Kent Murphy and Maureen Murphy; Patty Schifferle; Christy Dyer; Janice Forbes; Alex Ainsworth; and Mary Rossito. Students from Placer High are also very involved in the project through their welding, agriculture and wood shop classes. Dave Chappell of PlacerGROWN, school and community garden consultant, was key in getting the students involved.

The land on which the park sits is owned by the city of Auburn, and the oak easement that covers the park is owned by the Placer Land Trust. The trust facilitates donations through its School Park Community Food Garden Fund.

Blake Willick created the trellised lower area of the garden for his Eagle Scout project. The installation of irrigation piping will also be an Eagle Scout project through the Placer Land Trust.

“It’s coming along good,” said Michael Kent Murphy, who has provided architectural designs for the project along with his daughter, Maureen. “All the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.”


Vision coming into focus

Once complete, the Susan Cooley-Gilliom School Park Garden will be an all-organic edible garden for which members will pay a fee to sponsor a planter box. They will be responsible for the food in their box, and garden volunteers will provide water and protection from animals. Four of the boxes will be managed by Placer High students.

The project doesn’t stop at the garden. An educational center for the park is planned for the future, and the garden’s lower area will feature native plants and edible food. In the demonstration garden, the public and members can learn about gardening, with topics ranging from composting to worms to seed germination.

“Outside of the fenced area, we want an area where people of the community can come in, without being members of the garden, and actually pick fruit if they want to,” Maureen Murphy said.

The gate at the entryway will be made out of antique farm implements, and organizers ask anybody willing to donate their rusty gardening supplies to call (530) 823-3379.

The goal is to have a community gathering place where organic food can be grown year-round with the beauty of School Park Preserve in the background. Fries said a problem at the park now is the destruction of the oak preserve by bicyclists, who have damaged the ground by forming new paths. The stage and amphitheater have been damaged as well.

“We would love to engage those young people in the caretaking of the space,” Fries said.

Getting young people involved is another high priority for the garden project.

“We want an edible community garden where kids have an opportunity to grow their own food, and eat it, and really lead to healthy choices in their lives,” said Patty Schifferle, Gilliom’s wife.

The next step for the garden is irrigation and trenching, and volunteers are seeking donations for irrigation supplies. Funds will be raised first for the irrigation and then for the beds and fencing. Fries said a rough cost estimate ranges from $18,000 to $20,000.

Fries became teary-eyed as she thought about Cooley-Gilliom, a fellow artist who befriended Fries when she moved to Auburn.

“She affected my life early as an artist, and as a community dweller she really had an open heart and an open mind for how to create togetherness, community building, and also with that eye toward organic and self-sustaining growing spaces.”


Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.



Get involved

Donations to the “School Park Community Food Garden Fund” can be sent to Placer Land Trust, 11661 Blocker Drive, Suite 110, Auburn, CA 95603, or call (530) 887-9222. To give your time, contact Katy Fries at or Randi Sindt at or (530) 745-5747.