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By Tom Spalding, Communications Coordinator

With their horticultural expertise and passion for gardening, Mary Durkin and her cadre of Marion County Master Gardeners used their green thumbs to create a captivating tapestry of greenery around the building that houses Boulevard Place Food Pantry following our renovation and expansion in 2021.

A backyard pollinator area, a vegetable garden-on-wheels, and a street-front landscape that pops with color are Durkin’s multi-dimensional landscaping vision come to life. While she didn’t live to see all elements in their full floral glory, the Pantry’s clients, supporters and neighbors will forever understand and appreciate her contributions.

In June, a commemorative plaque was placed on the exterior walls on the southwest edge of the Pantry at 4202 N. Boulevard Place, commissioned by Director Matt Hayes and the board of directors. A special dedication is set for later this summer as part of the Pantry’s annual picnic for volunteers.

“In Mary’s own words, ‘All good gifts are sent from Heaven’ and she most certainly was sent to us by heaven,” said Hayes. “Few people have contributed such a remarkably visual legacy, beautifying an industrial-use building with all-native plants, building a wonderful team of generous volunteer outdoor caretakers and delivering with a loving, expert touch.”

That touch is a reminder of the impact and the magnitude of her loss. Durkin passed away on Dec. 22, 2022, just four weeks after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. In her sudden sickness, she summoned colleagues to continue in her place. While the gardens and flower boxes contain vegetables and herbs that are in turn harvested for clients to use, the aesthetic contributions were just as vital to her.

To this day, Master Gardener volunteers continue to regularly maintain the garden and landscaping. On a recent Tuesday, volunteer Inara Grendze was seen saturating the plants along Boulevard Place as a rooster was heard crowing.

“I’m really happy about the recognition Mary is receiving and that hopefully people will see it and ask about her and what she built,” Grendze said. “That’s what was Mary’s goal—making nature more accessible to our clients and the neighborhood. I think she would be so proud to see the natives thriving and everyone coming together to make it happen.”

Mary and her spouse, Tom, were longtime Pantry supporters and volunteers when they learned from prior Pantry directors Mark Varnau and Cindy Brown about the Pantry’s renovation and expansion starting in fall 2019. The Durkins had been the driving force behind the pollinator gardens at Spirit Lake, the SHARP Garden at 46th and Illinois streets, Broad Ripple Park, and first Monarch Butterfly Way Station in Indianapolis.

The Boulevard Place Food Pantry was next.

“I knew she would do a wonderful job, and she did,” Varnau recalls. “As her son told a group of us recently, she was fierce in her advocacy when it came to what matters most.”

On the Pantry grounds, once-barren surroundings blossom into a mosaic of greenery and color, instilling a sense of serenity and joy for both volunteers and visitors alike. By thoughtfully selecting and cultivating a variety of plant species, they crafted an oasis of natural beauty to uplift the spirit and promotes a sense of tranquility. The flowers and seeds feed both birds and bees and hopefully residents, diners and shoppers in this mixed residential and retail corner in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood take notice.

Here’s a more specific timeline:

  • In spring 2021, they installed a native garden for pollinators and birds along the west (60′ x 4′) and north (45′ x 5′) sides of the building, completely financed by volunteer donations. In the first season, the Pollinator Garden successfully attracted monarchs, other butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, and native bees to the plants. Intern Master Gardeners were recruited to maintain it.
  • In summer 2021, a veg trug made its debut: a raised garden bed on wheels placed between the Pantry parking lot and neighboring Ramsey Park, meant to supply us with herbs but also for people to watch, learn, appreciate the process and the results, replicate if they can, and benefit from the presence of naturally grown food in their urban neighborhood. We demonstrate best gardening and maintenance practices.
  • In spring 2022, despite freezing temperatures volunteers removed invasive barberry bushes and burning bushes along a 9-1/2-by-21-foot strip between the sidewalk and the parking lot. That work paved the way for installation of native shrubs and now more accessible and viewable by neighborhood residents and passersby.

Being able to observe the steps of transformation of a non-descript area into a native garden should inspire others seeing native plants (all labeled) and the absence of invasive plants. In addition, an unknown but very substantial number of residents of the neighborhood, and visitors to the retail/restaurants in the neighborhood, get to see how native plants can be incorporated into an urban setting.

“The visibility of this new area to be worked on will give clients, neighbors and passersby an opportunity to learn new ideas and adapt the techniques at their own homes and gardens,” Durkin, a gold-level master gardener, said in 2020. “Our neighbors in Butler-Tarkington will always be welcome to stop, look, chat and even help.”