Ideas from famed artist Frida Kahlo’s garden

Everyone saw her home, Casa Azul, in the movie “Frida,” the biography of Mexico’s most famous surrealist painter. The family house is in Coyoacan, where she grew up, a suburb just south of Mexico City. Today it is Museo Frida Kahlo for those intrepid enough to brave the trip to this lovely old town. And though wandering the house and Frida’s studio is an exceptional experience, there are some great ideas outside in the garden.

The grand courtyard of Casa Azul was where Frida kept all her pets: the hairless dogs and monkeys, birds and fish. The living spaces are separated by lava-lined planting spaces that support narrow tall trees. Cooling pools, deep green canopy, lava-lined beds and her collection of pre-Columbian gods are a physical reminder of Aztec life in the Valley of Mexico. The curious garden has changed since she died in 1954, now totally shaded. Yet if you study old photographs of Frida there in the day, you’ll notice that same garden was more open and sun-filled.

This transition from full sun to eventual shade is something that happens in all landcapes with trees. They begin in sun until canopies mature, then as shade increases the sun-loving species die out and shade plants replace them.

The corner house in Coyoacan is first a colonial one, then later as studio and bedroom wing were added by Diego in a simple modern style. Newer construction uses indigenous stone, simple lines and large windows that illuminate the studio and look down over the garden. Between the studio and bedroom is the hallway to the garden door where Frida’s bed remains today. She asked that it be moved there toward the end so she could look out and see the flowers and animals.

A PAINTER’S TRANSFORMATION

The original house was not blue; we know this from childhood photos taken by her photographer father. Painting the house blue was done later, when she and Diego lived there. Today it still features that color known as “azul anil,” believed to prevent evil from entering. Since then even more colors have been added giving the space a more festive overall appeal.

CANARY YELLOW FURNITURE

Today the courtyard is used for visitors after they’ve toured the house. The traditional painted Mexican furniture is bright canary yellow, a color that is complementary to the blue so it really pops. Imagine your own garage sale finds painted like this against a blue background.

SHADE PLANTS

Few flowers bloom at Casa Azul due to the tall tree canopy that shades the garden. The space was sun-filled in Frida’s early days, when vintage photos show white hairy “old man” cactus and other sun lovers thriving there. The current gardeners have preserved the madonna lilies that grow all over Coyoacan like weeds. They also exploit impatiens, our shade garden annuals that grow large and lacy in that mild winter climate. Other plants common there are grown in pots along the many low seatwalls. Spider plants and sansevieria, both frost-tender, are common here, as well as a series of leatherleaf bergenia in terra cotta pots.

MONUMENTAL ART

Both Diego and Frida were avid collectors of pre-Columbian statuary and architectural pieces yielded from the early excavations of Aztec ruins. Much of her chunky jewelry came from actual finds in the diggings. The reverence for the history of Mexico prior to Cortez demonstrates the strong nationalistic fever of the day that drove so many of Rivera’s mural subjects.

It takes a lot of guts to paint anything azul anil because it’s such a super potent color, but once it’s there as a background, the entire space changes. It did so in that old colonial with the modern expansion, and then with color and artifact and stone, the garden evolved from a creative woman’s oasis that now can be felt by everyone willing to visit the “place of the coyotes” to experience firsthand the place she called home.

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Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com