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10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Artist Frida Kahlo

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10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Artist Frida Kahlo

June 9, 2015

Was Frida Kahlo the original modernist gardener? After nearly two decades of full-on Fridamania (during which traveling exhibits of her paintings attracted sell-out crowds, the US Postal Service put her face on a stamp, and Selma Hayek suffered a uni-brow to play the lead role in a Hollywood biopic about her colorful life), it turns out there’s still a lot to learn from the artist.

A revelatory show at the New York Botanical Garden explores new connections between Kahlo’s paintings and her iconic garden in Mexico City, with a re-creation that makes you feel as if you are visiting her at home at Casa Azúl. Here are 10 garden ideas to steal from Frida Kahlo:

1. Be Bold

Photograph by Aldar Adame via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Aldar Adame via Flickr.

Above: Casa Azúl was Frida Kahlo’s childhood home as well as the home she shared with her husband, famed muralist Diego Riviera.  In the 1940s Kahlo and Riviera transformed its drab colonial style into the brightly colored salute to Mexican culture that we know today. The garden, located in the central courtyard of the house, overflowed with bright flowers, distinctive cacti, and other native plants which were not often used in fashionable gardens in those days.

Don’t be afraid to fill your space with bright hues.  If you are lucky enough to garden in full sun you have a virtually limitless selection of plants available to you.

2. Let Art Influence Life

Photograph by Jason Tester via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Jason Tester via Flickr.

Kahlo’s work space featured a collection of bold pigments: bright, saturated colors were a signature element of her painting style. Kahlo chose flowers for her garden to reflect the colors in her paintings.

When you design a garden bed, think of the color palette; don’t be afraid to mix complementary colors or to try a bold accent color.

3. Play the Blues

Photograph by Mandy Goldberg via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Mandy Goldberg via Flickr.

Above: Kahlo painted her garden walls a vivid cobalt blue, a brilliant shade that is the perfect foil for cacti and other plants with sculptural shapes.

To experiment with the color in your own garden, paint a low retaining wall or a gate.

Above: If you’re not ready to commit to electric blue walls, try an accent–a painted planter full of bright summer flowers will brighten a balcony or patio. See how we experimented with the color in DIY: Cobalt Blue Planters.

Looking for the right shade of cobalt blue paint? We like Cobalt Flame from Behr; a sample pot is $2.94.

4. Opinionated Plants

Photograph by Katie Newburn for Gardenista.
Above: Photograph by Katie Newburn for Gardenista.

Sunflowers are blooming at the NYBG exhibit, as well as dahlias, zinnias, and marigolds. Kahlo wasn’t afraid to choose brilliantly colored blooms with strong shapes, especially if they evoked traditional Mexican life. The dahlia is the national flower of Mexico and the sunflower is thought to have been grown by indigenous people in Mexico long before the Spaniards arrived.

Zinnias were discovered in Mexico and brought to Europe in the 1500s.  The marigold is closely associated with the Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday. Plant these strong blooms in your garden and it will be festive all season long.

5. Collect Cactus

Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
Above: Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.

Kahlo and Riviera delighted in bringing indigenous cacti into their courtyard.  No doubt the statuesque shapes appealed to the two artists.  These plants come in a limitless variety of dimensions and textures, so it is easy to find a variety that will work in your space. In warm climates cacti can become strong permanent structural elements in a garden, but if you live in colder areas such as the Northeast you will most probably have to plant your cacti in pots and bring them inside in winter.  A notable exception is cold hardy opuntia, which can survive extremely cold winter weather.

6. Aqua Fresca

Photograph by Cezzie90loading=
Above: Photograph by Cezzie901 via Flickr.

During the dry season in Mexico City (which runs from October to May), it must have been very pleasant for Kahlo and Riviera to enjoy the reflecting pool and the fountain in their garden.  The so-called frog fountain with its mosaic pool was inspired by Kahlo’s nickname for Riviera: sapo-rana or toad-frog.

No matter how small your space, a water feature is a welcome enhancement.  It cools the air in the heat of summer, and the sound of even a tiny fountain can soften the racket of city life. For more ideas, see Ultimate Luxury: 10 Favorite Fountains and Water Features.

7. Go Native

Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing for Gardenista.
Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing for Gardenista.

Kahlo was a pioneer in using plants native to Mexico.  A favorite of hers was Monstera Deliciosa, also known as the Swiss Cheese Plant or the Fruit Salad Plant, a reference to the corncob-shaped fruit it produces. It is now commonly used as a houseplant.  Other natives she cultivated in her garden include the colorful Slipper Plant (Euphorbia bracteata) and Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus), named for its resemblance to a balding pate.

For more on Monstera deliciosa, see A Temporary Houseplant for Commitment-Phobes.

8. Be Calm Amid the Storm

One of Kahlo&#8
Above: One of Kahlo’s hair combs. Photograph by Verino77 via Flickr.

Kahlo’s bedroom was a serene oasis of white needlework and neutral-colored walls. For a respite from color, plant shrubs to create a protected nook and place a garden bench within.

9. Spin the Color Wheel

Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.
Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Kahlo not only grew brilliantly colored dahlias, she also frequently used them as accessories, wearing them in her hair and making bouquets of them to grace the table at one of the many dinner parties she and Riviera hosted. If you fill your beds with Kahlo’s favorite flowers, you will automatically have a cutting garden.

10. Collect Terra Cotta

At Inner Gardens in LA, owner Stephen Block put a a variegated Agave attenuata into a richly glazed Mexica terra cotta planter. For more design ideas, see Ask the Expert: An Insider&#8
Above: At Inner Gardens in LA, owner Stephen Block put a a variegated Agave attenuata into a richly glazed Mexica terra cotta planter. For more design ideas, see Ask the Expert: An Insider’s Guide to Vintage Planters.

Kahlo made liberal use of heavy terra cotta pots in her garden.  They were often placed on concrete or stone retaining walls and usually contained a single specimen plant.  This is radically different from the now fashionable practice of filling a container with many plants of different colors and textures.  A single plant in a pot looks more like a sculpture and works especially well for cacti, succulents, and other desert plants such as agave and yucca.

For more ideas about how to use succulents, cacti, and other favorite plants from Mexico, see:

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