How Georgia O’Keeffe’s Garden Keeps Growing, Three Decades after Her Death
While traveling in rural New Mexico in the 1930s, Architectural Digest in 1981. “The garden pleased me enormously.”
O’Keeffe, who is known to have been an extremely healthy eater, had wanted a garden to grow her own produce. She’d expressed frustrations that, while living in Ghost Ranch, by the time she got home from the nearest market (either in Española or Santa Fe), her lettuces would be wilted. So, in 1945, when she purchased the Abiquiú property—a ruin that had belonged to the Catholic archdiocese of Santa Fe—she hired help to repair the buildings and turn them into a home and studio, but also to till the land and plant a garden. She’d later hire a gardener, a local named Estiben Suazo; under his supervision, it flourished. Over the next four decades (until O’Keeffe died in 1986), the garden would be a source of fresh produce and year-round preserves, but also joy and solace—and it still is today.
Indeed, the garden is one of the highlights of a visit to the Abiquiú home and studio, which has been overseen by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum since 2006, and is accessible to the public via guided tours. (Hers is among a long tradition of gardens created by artists for inspiration and enjoyment.) With its original layout and adobe irrigation ditch, the garden sits across a series of terraces over nearly an acre of land beside the house. It bears everything from lilacs and day lillies, to kale and chard, to the fruits of a small orchard of apricot, peach, pear, and apple trees. Though it’s not all the same as what grew in O’Keeffe’s time, her former gardener still has a presence: Suazo taught his grandchildren how to care for the Abiquiú garden and the grounds, which they continue to do.
“[Suazo’s] work in the garden was meticulous.…He knew exactly what Ms. O’Keeffe wanted, and what she liked or disliked,” explained Agapita Lopez, Suazo’s granddaughter who was a private aid and secretary for O’Keeffe beginning in 1974, and is now the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s director of historic properties. “But Ms. O’Keeffe herself would say that they sometimes would get into a battle when it came to planting the garden,” she added with a laugh.
“She would say he had a mind of his own, and he wanted to do things his way,” Lopez continued. “Whatever they did, they must’ve compromised, because the gardens were always lush and fertile, and yielded a lot of produce.” Harvests from the garden would become O’Keeffe’s vegetable-rich salads, soups, and other dishes. “She was, I would say, into organic gardening before it was the norm,” Lopez offered, adding that the artist was not, however, a vegetarian.
Beginning in the early 1970s, O’Keeffe began hiring Lopez’s brothers to help Suazo with the garden; later, they’d be hired full-time and taught how to care for the garden to the artist’s liking. Decades later, in 2006, when the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum took over the Abiquiú property and decided to bring the garden back to its former glory, the Lopez family was essential to the process.
“They had the knowledge,” Lopez explained, referring to her brothers Margarito, who is now the gardener, and Belarmino, who is the construction and maintenance specialist. “Of course there’s always new ways of doing things, but we also want to maintain some of the old history of how things were done when Georgia O’Keeffe was at her house, to maintain the authenticity and her aesthetic. It’s a very contemplative place.” That history includes watering the plants through the original flood irrigation system, where the area is flooded “almost like a rice paddy,” Lopez explained, so that even the deepest soil absorbs the moisture.
“Ms. O’Keeffe herself would start her vegetable garden as early as February, planting her peas,” Lopez explained, “and we follow basically the same procedure she did, but the things that are grown in the garden today may not necessarily have been around at the time that she was still here with us.” Among the crops there today are tomatoes, squash, corn, beans, kale, eggplant, berries, and herbs. But the growing season starts later, to coincide with a dynamic summer internship program—a collaboration between the museum and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden—that brings students from local high schools to the garden to help with planting and harvesting the produce. (The two institutions also teamed up with two local high schools to create a livestream of the garden online.)
This summer, a dozen students worked with Margarito to learn the ins-and-outs of organic gardening, and about O’Keeffe herself. “She didn’t like to use pesticides, and that’s exactly what the students are learning now,” Lopez offered; they’re working on natural repellents to keep critters from eating the tomatoes, squash, and zucchini. At the end of the season, the students harvest the garden and take home their share; the rest is delivered to a local food bank.
Lopez suggested that the artist’s interest in the garden traces back to her upbringing on a farm in Wisconsin, as well as the summers she spent in Lake George with her partner
“She liked seeing things grow and coming out of the ground,” Lopez explained. “She liked to bring the outdoors in.”
Inside the Abiquiú house today, various potted plants are the ones that belonged to O’Keeffe—including a geranium and an aloe plant in the kitchen, a fern in the dining room, and an iron plant in the sitting room. “Those were here when she was still alive,” Lopez reflected. “They’re part of her and part of her history. They’re as important as everything else.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.