Growing up in Southwestern Colorado, the dramatic landscapes of snow-capped mountains, rolling prairie, and pine forests have surrounded me from day one. To me, the Colorado landscape has always had an air of challenge and inspiration, coaxing me out of my comfort zone, while also encouraging me to root down and grow. As a member of the seventh generation of a Colorado agricultural family, one of the main ways in which I continually find myself able to connect with the land is through producing my own food and sharing it with others.
My love for gardening began at a young age at my family home in the foothills of Manitou Springs, Colorado. At the beginning of summer, I would enthusiastically help my mother and father with the preparations of the garden beds, clearing out old growth to make room for new compost, and attempting to rescue earthworms from my dad’s shovel. I was given my own pumpkin patch, and it was my responsibility throughout the summers to grow different varieties, test cross-pollination, and tend to my plants so they successfully vined into the surrounding beds. In these early years, gardening offered me a way to be outside and experiment with growing food at altitude–a process that requires attention to sun exposure, water levels, temperature, and seed varieties. My patch gave me a place where I could dirty my hands, learn about, and encourage ecological growth by working in tandem with the dry, rocky landscape of my Colorado home.
Fast forward several years and my love of gardening has continued to connect me to Colorado landscapes and communities. I worked two summers beside the Animas River in Durango, picking vegetables and flowers, then spent the last year working in Steamboat Springs, feeding over 300 people through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program on a two-acre farm. In addition to these experiences working the land, my love for growing my own food took me into studying environmental and social science in college, where I continued to volunteer at farms and further investigate how food connects us to each other and to the land we live on.
When asked by Ranchlands Chef Chase Kelley if I would be willing to develop a vegetable garden on the Zapata, a million thoughts began to roar through my head: How would we water it? What plants could survive the high altitude and intense sun? Where would it go? But the first words to escape my mouth were an enthusiastic “yes!” It was a feeling of a challenge and a hope to produce fresh vegetables for people who came from all corners of the globe to experience the rugged land and ranch lifestyle that Zapata has to offer.
The garden began in late March, as the frosty days gave way to more sunshine. When growing vegetables, it’s important to maximize sun exposure, have available water, a strong soil base, and protection from animals. Thinking through all of these requirements, I settled on building the garden next to the intern bunkhouse in the old pool. In addition to the sun exposure, the pool provided infrastructure to keep out critters, as it was lined with cement and had easy access to water spigots for irrigation.
The pool was filled years ago with sandy soil that was composed of very little organic material, so I developed a soil test using a mason jar. I scooped up some soil, mixed it with water, shook vigorously for five minutes and checked it as it settled. The soil composition was over sixty percent sand, with small amounts of silt and loam and relatively little clay. From that test, I knew that I needed to add organic and moisture-retaining material to replace the clay, as well as loam to add nutrients. I carved out beds like I had done time and time before, moving soil and laying down hay, leaves, and ash so that the beds would self compost throughout the summer. The sandier soil was mixed with three inches of compost in the bed areas and then raked and aerated. Since a person can compress up to eighty percent of air in the soil by stepping on it, it was important to me to establish clear beds and avoid crushing the soil. Lastly, I built a mesh fence using materials sourced from all over the ranch to ensure that the future plants would be safe from animals.
After building the plots, the process became a bit more tricky. Gardening in Colorado at high altitudes ensures that you play with risk and reward daily. After planting all the early season crops in late May, I went to bed feeling hopeful. However, the next day I woke to heavy snow blanketing the entire ranch. Planting early gives plants a boost in a short growing season, yet you risk losing everything to frost and unpredictable cold snaps. Fortunately, the ground acted as an insulator to the seeds and as soon as I had sprouts coming up, I felt relieved.
As the season progresses, I am continuing to plant a mix of seeds, incorporating heirloom varieties of greens, herbs, and squash from the San Luis Valley. I am also experimenting with different growing practices like the Native American concept of a Three Sisters garden and companion planting, with Desi squash, Aztec corn, and Hopi beans growing together in mounds. The Three Sisters process ensures that nitrogen is fixed in the mound via the beans, the corn provides a trellis for the beans, and the squash shades out competition from weeds. Companion planting is one of the many ways that I have aimed to return nutrients to the soil and adapt planting methods to find a suitable growing environment for the plants. As the heat increases and the days are longer, the first squash blossoms are beginning to open and I am beyond excited to share my food with my coworkers and guests at the lodge.
With the plants prospering, I am able to turn over my harvest to Chase and the kitchen team and watch them create summer-themed salads, herbed butters, vegetable main dishes and side plates. The very first harvest of globe radishes resulted in a fine plate of sliced, multicolored radishes served with salted butter as an appetizer. The next week, mizuna greens became the bed to an arrangement of Colorado peaches, toasted prosciutto, dijon vinaigrette, and a raw egg yolk. On the menu for the weeks to come will be zucchini, tatsoi, mustard, sugar snap peas, and stuffed squash blossoms, showered in herbs like dill, basil, and cilantro. As the seasons continue, I am excited for the long days of summer greens and herbs, followed by squash, corn, beans, and pumpkins in the fall.
For me, the process of gardening and growing food embodies flexibility and trust as learned from the landscape. Not every plant will be successful, but with continued effort, learning, and the right resources, you can coax something tasty and beautiful from the land and share it with others. My experiences in the past with gardening and producing one’s own food have been varied; it has at times been frustrating when a plant does not produce. However, failures inform success, and I am learning more about the general environment as I go through this process. It is incredibly gratifying for me to assist a plant in growing from a tiny seed and then be able to share the fresh fruits or greens with people, knowing very well that the plants are the products of hard labor, love, and working together with the land.
By Abby Gustke, a 2021 intern at the Zapata Ranch.