Thank You For The Kale

Setting the green scene

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a controlled setting using a nutrient solution instead of dirt. This type of growing is efficient and clean, but can present as overly scientific and clinical. The rich, dark Driftless region soil is conspicuously absent, and along with it the worms, bugs, birds, gophers, and rabbits. The warmth and vibrant greenery negate the initial sterility of the white flood tables. Zack is quiet and deliberate as he harvests, weighs, packages, and delivers his ultra-fresh produce to Chef Ben, who cooks a few feet down the sidewalk at the Union Market. The folks at the market consistently use everything he delivers; that’s all the affirmation Zack needs. They especially love it when Zack includes sturdy and nutritious kale—it lends an incomparable crunch and structure to the wraps; taste for yourself! After the produce delivery, Zack will then clean and ready the hydroponic system and prepare seedlings for the next grow.

Zachary (Zack) Gaugush has worked throughout the Driftless region in various plant-related capacities for 20 years. He’s done all the outside work, from orchards and field agriculture to forestry and prairies, community gardens and urban food forests, and compost and vermiculture. He talks about his career and craft with ease and delight, entirely fitting the part, as if he was born wearing plaid and sporting a full beard.

In 2019, when Western needed a grower for their recently upgraded greenhouse, Zack moved fast at the chance to gain new skills and knowledge to augment his already vast plant and agriculture familiarity. Program designers set Western’s fundamental greenhouse grower expectations, and Zack was excited about taking production to a new and exciting level. Western’s Horticulture Education Center (HEC), also referred to as the greenhouse, is a warm and bustling place with local partnerships extending roots into the community and school system. Zack settled into the space and got to work researching, planning, and doing!

Horticulture and hydroponics

Horticulture is very different from agriculture and presents unique challenges but undeniable opportunities. The apparent limitations of hydroponic container growing are dwarfed by the freedom they afford the grower to control and manipulate all growing cycle elements to experiment with different techniques, conditions, and mediums. One of the first projects Zack undertook was hydroponic system research. He selected and installed two hydroponic growing systems: one perfect for delicate herbs like cilantro, spring greens and leaf lettuce, and another that uses flood tables for tomatoes, zucchini, kale, basil, and other sturdier vegetables.

Greenery around campus

In addition to growing vegetables, greens, and herbs for student consumption at the Union Market, Zack maintains the Green Wall—an impressive two-story display made of 3,900 individually potted plants thriving on the third floor of the Integrated Technologies Center (ITC). Zack redesigned the living display using a variety of indoor plants consisting of vibrant colors and stunning foliage contrasts. He typically has anywhere from 100 to 1,000 four-inch pots ready to sub in at any time; the wall is eternally fresh and healthy looking, a spectacle of living joy to behold.

Zack also grows plants for David Lien’s Landscape Horticulture program: the students learn to care for,  landscape, and experiment with them. Most of the decorative greenery around campus are grown and cared for by Zack. The obvious standouts are the lush, full fig plants around campus. When you spot one, a student is usually studying near it—something science fully supports as beneficial.* It’s of particular interest that the fig plants thriving in the greenhouse will produce fruit in the coming months, thanks to Zack’s expert care and attentive guidance.

Last, and not even close to least, he maintains the Green Roof—an outdoor patio off ITC’s second floor. Currently, the green roof has a variety of sedum succulents flourishing as attractive no-mow ground cover. The desert-loving plants thrive in pea gravel, and together provide a perfect biosystem for cycling rainwater for collection and use in the building’s plumbing system. This summer, look for an exciting new Green Roof polish as Zack puts together another natural marvel! The well-planned colors, textural variety, contrasting heights, and intoxicating herbal aromas are guaranteed to please!

Western is a great home away from home for Zack. His work is invaluable and makes the campus a better place for employees, a more beautiful place for students, and a more resilient community.