John Muir Elementary’s Harwood Creek: A project of love

A ball left over from playtime sits in the Harwood Creek behind John Muir Elementary School. Photo: Julia Hannafin.
A ball left over from playtime sits in the Harwood Creek behind John Muir Elementary School. Photo: Julia Hannafin

By Julia Hannafin

Just behind Berkeley’s John Muir Elementary School, there is a special place tucked away: Harwood Creek. On the banks of the creek, children can be found working on art projects, participating in hands-on science experiments, writing in journals, or just playing a fun game of hide and seek. Described by parent and former creek coordinator Judy Forth as “a magical place,” the creek has been a staple of the school that’s provided joy to kids, parents and teachers for many years.

But 20 years ago, the creek was inaccessible. It was enclosed in a tiny area inside a locked gate, covered in fallen trees and garbage. The area was overrun with blackberry, ivy, and acacia trees. It was not used by the school at all.

Mandi Billinge and KIDS for the BAY stepped in with a school-wide education and restoration program and, with the help of several grants and many volunteers — including school families, the California Native Plant Society and The Nature Company — the group weeded out the invasive plants and cleaned up the area. Every child in the school planted a native plant beside the creek.


KIDS for the BAY, a nonprofit organization that develops environmental education programs for elementary schools and promotes restoration of local habitats, continued to lead restoration efforts for the next 10 years. KIDS for the Bay moved the creek’s fence to its current position to create a larger habitat around the creek, and created a butterfly garden and freshwater pond.

Native plants specialist and landscape designer Glen Schneider stepped in to continue the efforts when KIDS for the BAY took a step back in 2002. In 2001, he designed a garden for John Muir parent Karen Smith, who then brought the issue of the Harwood Creek restoration project to his attention.

A tree looms over Harwood Creek. Photo: Julia Hannafin.
A tree looms over Harwood Creek. Photo: Julia Hannafin

Smith hired Schneider to do a landscape plan for the creek designed to restore the area with local native plants. Schneider said the project “touched his heart,” and he applied his personal philosophy of gardening to the restoration. He works primarily with local and native plants; in his words, “Design and nature come together.”

He made his plan for the creek and began collecting supplies: local seeds from around Berkeley and Oakland. Plants for the creek included live oaks, wild roses and a whole mix of native plants.

The students of John Muir helped out with the restoration as they did with the KIDS efforts. Teams of two or three children each got a lesson on how to plant from Schneider, and then each planted a seed. Schneider laughed when recalling his words to the last class, kindergarteners, to plant seeds at Harwood Creek. “Be like a bird and flip those seed where ever you want!” he told them.


The major restoration work has been done, and now groups of parents meet each month at the creek for a work day to maintain the beautiful place. Schneider, along with new creek coordinator Jim Barri, a John Muir parent, organize clean-up days once a month for the creek.

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