Heather Peterson

Heather Peterson

2020 COMMUNITY HEROES - News-Times - Hillsboro

Hometown: Hillsboro

Why she is a community hero: For six years, Peterson has led an organic, pesticide-free, sustainable community garden program in which all gardeners contribute to the maintenance and health of Hillsboro's three community gardens.



Heather Peterson believes one of the most rewarding things in life is actively and consciously being part of Earth’s natural processes.

That’s one of the many reasons Peterson runs the community garden program at the City of Hillsboro.

“I really, really passionately believe that we all need to be involved to some degree with the Earth and with soil and with growing,” Peterson said. “And with other people doing that. I see it as a whole ecosystem of people and plants and all the various animals, the birds, the insects, the snakes, and little creatures. We’re all trying to work together.” Hillsboro’s three community gardens include more than 200 community gardeners who grow organic, pesticide-free food across nearly two acres of land total.

It’s a popular program — Peterson maintains a continuous waitlist of people hoping for a plot who want to learn about gardening and growing their food but don’t have enough space for gardening at home.

Although people are always excited to grow their food, you can’t have a community garden unless everyone is organized and contributes to the entire garden as a whole, Peterson says.

In her six years heading the program, Peterson has markedly increased the level of organization among gardeners and made the gardens more sustainable, according to her colleagues.

Drawing on her grandmother’s fascination with composting (Peterson grew up on a farm in Illinois), one of the first things Peterson implemented at the Sonrise Community Garden, and ultimately at all three community gardens, was a composting system.

“We’re trying to do the whole ‘cradle to grave’ process where all our waste goes into our big compost piles, and we maintain it, and then it goes back into the gardens,” Peterson said. “It’s very successful now, and they’re not easy to maintain because they take a lot of time and effort.”

Soon after Peterson became the program coordinator, she started requiring people to do community service in the garden because she knew that extensive maintenance wouldn’t happen without collective participation, and the program wouldn’t thrive.

Despite the strict (as she describes it) eight hours of required service, Peterson says she has been able to cultivate widespread, consistent buy-in from gardeners by offering service parties, encouraging groups to do their own, and organizing education events about best gardening practices.

Lori Prince, an outdoor recreation manager for Hillsboro and Peterson’s supervisor, has been working with Peterson for nine years, dating back to when Peterson was a relatively new community gardener.

“Heather’s strong leadership skills, community engagement experience, and passion for fostering connections through gardening have helped Hillsboro’s residents grow in unexpected ways,” Prince said. “Over the years, her focus on developing program operations has led to a thriving, inclusive community where everyone contributes to benefit the whole garden and shares responsibility for site maintenance. I especially appreciate her dedication to building sustainable practices that reflect the values of the gardening community.”

Peterson says the community garden program attracts an exceptional diversity of people, backgrounds, and knowledge of food production that everyone learns from. That’s always been one of her favorite aspects of the program, she said. “I have people from all over the world gardening,” Peterson said.

There are gardeners from Mexico, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, Russia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Ukraine, France, Germany, Scotland and many other countries.

“People bring all their gardening styles and their traditional foods,” Peterson said. “If you walk through the garden, it’s like a walk through the cuisines of different nations. It’s really a lot of fun.”