Thanks to volunteer, Marion garden provides 600 pounds of produce to food pantries

Peg Heald, who helps manage Marion’s public garden, poses Tuesday for a portrait at Marion’s garden. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

A sign built by Peg Heald tracks how much produce the garden has grown for local food pantries. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

A tomato plant waits to be placed Tuesday in the Marion public garden. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Seedlings wait to be planted Tuesday at the Marion public garden. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

MARION – In the corner of the Marion City Hall parking lot, Peg Heald often tends to a garden that provides 600 pounds of produce to local food pantries a year.

Heald, 78, a resident of Marion since 1979, has the magic touch when it comes to growing vegetables, those who know her say. Heald plants and grows a wide variety of vegetables from spring to fall, researching new growing methods and taking care to make sure her crop is good enough for the food pantry.

The garden on the edge of the City Hall lot has been there since 2019. Before that, it began in the former vacant lot a block over that now hosts the new Marion Public Library.

The garden began as part of the city’s involvement in the Blue Zones initiative to have a thriving, healthy community. That process later became Healthy Hometown and Be Well Marion, due to the cost of implementing the Blue Zones program.

Linn County Master Gardener Phil Pfister built the beds with the Blue Zones team. Pfister is also heavily involved in the greenhouse and other gardening efforts at Lowe Park in north Marion.

But the garden has not only stuck around but thrived thanks to Heald’s ability to organize, grow and coordinate the garden, City Council member Sara Mentzer said. Mentzer is also the coordinator for well-being initiatives in the city.

“Without her, this doesn’t happen,” Mentzer said. “She is one of the originals in this whole process. She was our connection to the food pantry and understood what we had to do and how to do it to provide to the community. … She coordinates when to be at the garden, what to do, gets volunteers, designs what we’re growing and where. She’s up there all the time. She serves our community so quietly and she’s so amazing. ”

“Peg has done such an outstanding job leading that garden,” Pfister said. “It’s absolutely impressive. She’s been quite innovative in starting plants early and she’s an excellent leader. ”

Heald, now retired, still substitutes in the Linn-Mar High School kitchen a couple times a week. During her career, she taught home economics at MFL MarMac, did home day care and worked in the Linn-Mar kitchen.

She is the mother of two children and the grandmother of three.

“I like to watch things grow and watch their progress,” Heald said of her love for the garden. “And it’s nice to be able to donate to people who can’t always grow it.”

The City Hall garden has about 15 raised beds and throughout the season. Heald grows lettuce, kale, radishes, spinach, peas, carrots, beets, turnips, squash, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. This year, she’s trying collards for the first time.

“I’ve been gardening since I was a kid. I was in 4-H, but I’ve been doing this since Blue Zones came to town, ”Heald said. “Every year, it’s like sports – you try to do better.”

Heald has volunteers who help water and weed the area: Julie Lammers and Lynn Martin. She said she’s always looking for more volunteers to help out.

The produce is mostly donated to the Churches of Marion pantry, but if Heald and company have too much, they will take it to other locations, too.

In addition to the raised beds, the City Hall location has a small greenhouse. The new one was rebuilt after the old one, donated by Vernon Middle School, was blown down during the August 2020 right.

“The hope is to partner with the schools and library to offer opportunities for kids in planting,” Mentzer said. “Next week, downspouts will be attached and we can start doing water collection in our rain barrels. We may add a couple of beds too. Marion Parks and Rec added picnic tables to make it a pocket park and I have a sign coming soon too for the spot. ”

This year’s weather has added an extra challenge to all growers across the state in gardening and agriculture, but Heald isn’t worried about it affecting how much food she will be able to get to the pantry throughout the year.

“It’s just these early things,” she said. “I think we will catch up. We just got off to a late start. ”

Like Heald, Pfister also noted there are opportunities for those of all skill levels to get involved with gardening. With some time, other community members can be like Heald too, Pfister said.

“It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment, but it certainly helps to give a half-hour or an hour each week,” Pfister said. “We always provide training and we’re more than happy to help.”

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