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“A secret garden”: Hidden peonies on a farm near Pueblo became a public obsession

After COVID kept visitors away, the family-run attraction needed help. Support quickly bloomed.

Gabriella Trujillo cuts a bouquet of peonies at her family’s La Resolana Farm near Pueblo May 30, 2021. Each May for 50 years the Trujillos have sold their peonies but the COVID pandemic and family health issues have forced the family to shut down operations the past two seasons. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Just east of Pueblo, U.S. 50 stretches flat toward the plains, the glare of the sun muting the scrubby fields into dusty shades of brown and tan. It’s where the speed limit rises and you barely notice the trucking company yard, the cement plant or the wooden pallet-making company.

South of the Arkansas River, where Pueblo chile farms flourish, a handful of numbered farm roads stripe the land. The lanes have short extensions north of the river, leading to local businesses. And to La Resolana Road, tucked behind that pallet plant, between narrow 29th Lane and even narrower 29½ Lane.

Trees, bushes and weeds that have flourished in the spring rains obscure much of what lies south of the road — a few houses, a trailer, a rusted caboose, a shed. Next to the metal gate announcing the Trujillo family’s La Resolana Farm is a single peony bush, the only thing that foretells what is hidden by still more trees and bushes inside the compound.

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A footpath circles and descends slightly between a replica outhouse and a large tree, and your breath catches at the sea of peonies and irises before you. It is visible only when you are in it.

“It’s like walking into a painting,” a recent visitor to the garden said.

Indeed, it is nature’s art gallery, tended and curated by the Trujillo family for 50 years and shared with the public each Memorial Day weekend, when peony bouquets were sold to offset the water bills.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, and as it lingered this year, the farm shut down the annual bouquet sale and the family reached out to the community that loved the secret garden for help.

Help came, but the future of the farm, now about 30 acres including an acre of peony plants, is far from settled. Juan and Judy Trujillo, who bought it in 1970, now are in their 80s and family members are dealing with illnesses, including cancer and dementia. Those in the second and third generations have other jobs, although they always gathered for the blossoms.

And then there are the external concerns of drought and water rights, which are not small matters.

The farm struggles would have eventually happened, granddaughter Gabriella Trujillo said. “But the pandemic put it all in a pressure cooker. It’s something we needed to reckon with a while ago.

“It is not sustainable as it is.”

The farm

A sign outside the original homestead says the farm was established in “1880ish.”

Some details are hazy, passed along as lore rather than documented fact.

There was a dairy barn that was turned into a pottery shed by the Trujillos — Judy is an artist and taught at Pueblo Community College.

When the young couple bought the farm from the Lynch family shortly after both graduated from Colorado College, they knew there was an orchard with apple and pear trees and that peonies, a perennial plant, also grew in the orchard.

But it wasn’t until the blossoms came in their first spring that they realized the vastness of the garden, said daughter Taña Trujillo, who owns some adjacent acreage and has a house there.

It is believed the flowers were planted around 1910, perhaps brought by a bride who came west.    

The flowers became Judy Trujillo’s passion, and she would spend hours tending to the garden. Some years she sold or gave away roots to friends and visitors, providing them instructions on how to plant and care for the peonies.

She named the farm — and the street — La Resolana, in a nod to Don Quixote, the novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. It translates aptly as “glare of the sun” or “sunny gathering spot.” There also is a cultural meaning — “a local tradition of congregating in a public place where the sun reflects its warmth off a southern-facing wall in a plaza or courtyard,” according to a 2015 paper by David Floyd García of the University of Texas at Austin.

Or perhaps the warmth reflects from peony blossoms.

Gabriella Trujillo prepares a bouquet of freshly cut peonies at her family’s La Resolana Farm just east of Pueblo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Juan Trujillo, who was raised on a farm in Las Animas County, knew a bit about farming when they bought the old homestead but never intended to run a commercial farm. He had a career in human resources and served four years as the state representative for the 43rd District. Still, he also became enamored of the peonies and irises and readily points out some of the heritage varieties.

The flowers usually peak around Memorial Day, and so the family decided to share their garden by offering memorial bouquets on that weekend. They started at $3 a dozen in the 1970s and eventually rose to $10. In 2019 the price was $15, compared to about $100 for a commercial bouquet.

That was the year the internet discovered La Resolana, and the farm was overwhelmed with about 5,000 visitors, Gabriella Trujillo said. They cut more than 8,500 stems, bundling them into more than 700 bouquets to satiate the demand.

Although they mowed a viewing area along one side of the garden, many people tried to walk into the garden for photos, she said, endangering the delicate plants. Had they opened in 2020 they knew they would need crowd control systems more durable than ropes and sawhorses.

In previous years they’d had about 500 visitors.

Life changes

Other things, too, had changed. Judy Trujillo had moved to the Boston area to work on her specialty of sea glass art, although she returned to La Resolana each spring to tend the garden. Other family members pitched in as well.

“It’s a family pilgrimage each spring,” said Taña Trujillo, noting that everyone has jobs and careers.

For the past 10 to 15 years, care of the garden has dwindled. The irises took over some areas, but that was fine. They were intended to be part of the garden, along with roses. The strangling vines of the sweet peas, however, were not.

Gabriella Trujillo, left, and her grandfather Juan Trujillo look over a field peonies at their family’s La Resolana Farm just east of Pueblo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gabriella and Taña rapidly found and pulled those vines recently as they walked through the garden, not having to think twice about what they were grabbing. Taña was 2 years old when her parents bought the farm and has lived in the family compound most of her life. Gabriella lived there in early childhood and spent most of her summers there.

Judy Trujillo intended to return to La Resolana in 2020 along with her sister, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The pandemic, though, left them both stranded in Wisconsin, where her sister had been living. The plan is for them both to move to La Resolana in the coming months.

But daughter and granddaughter know that won’t be enough.

“We need to make it sustainable,” Taña said, echoing her niece’s words.  

The future

Family members want to keep the peony farm going, but the details of how that will happen have not come into focus.

Gabriella, 31, said it has always been an unspoken assumption that she and her 24-year-old cousin would someday take it over. “But this is much earlier than I anticipated something like moving back here,” she said.

The freelance illustrator was living in New Mexico when the family crises caused her to move this spring into a travel trailer on the farm so she could help.

She’s been researching various options, including getting some type of historic designation and grants to keep the peony garden going. Because they have not been able to sell flowers for two seasons, she set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money to cover water and other costs.

The fund raised more than $8,000, which has allowed her to experiment with drip irrigation systems and replace hoses. A number of people have volunteered to help, and she plans to organize a couple of work days to get the garden in better shape.

Gregory Howell, left, visits with Gabriella Trujillo at La Resolana Farm near Pueblo May 30, 2021. Howell has purchased peonies from La Resolana for years and is heading a local effort to purchase $2,000-worth of the flowers to sustain La Resolana’s business. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gregory Howell, a creative consultant and vice chairman of the Pueblo Historic Preservation Commission, has donated generously and offered to research options for obtaining historic status for the farm.

He arranged to purchase peonies for the service this week to dedicate Pueblo’s new levee and commemorate the victims of the 1921 flood.

He moved to Pueblo in 2010 and learned of the farm when a friend took him there on Memorial Day weekend in 2011. He soon became a family friend.

“This is a treasure,” Howell said as he surveyed the peonies. “There are varieties here that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

It has become a sanctuary for the small family, and they are confident they’ll find a way to keep the peonies blooming. And a way to keep sharing them with the adoring public.

“It’s a secret garden,” Gabriella said. “It always feels like a temple in here to me when it’s in bloom.

“I have never painted it. I might come out sometime soon and do that, and just be here rather than work here,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, we’ll figure it out.”

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