In the verdant walled yard behind Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, an elegant stone irrigation canal channels water under tall trees and beside flower beds. For the first time in many years, the canal also irrigated a lush and varied vegetable garden this summer. Once the major source of produce for O’Keeffe’s table and pantry, the garden has remained largely inactive since the painter’s death in 1986. This summer, eleven high school interns helped revitalize the vegetable beds.
A raised walkway cuts through the center of the vegetable garden, bisecting the long, rectangular plot. Tall sunflowers dot the garden between patches of herbs, pumpkins, beets and corn. “We’re always trying to show aspects of O’Keeffe’s life,” says Carolyn Kastner, curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which co-sponsored the summer program with the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. “To bring this garden to life is so great!”
In 1945, O’Keeffe purchased a run-down adobe house in Abiquiu and took the next four years to renovate the building. In her original renovation plans, O’Keeffe included detailed drawings for the vegetable garden. Her meticulous notes recorded the plant varieties she grew after moving in, and her bookshelves bore tomes on organic gardening and composting. This summer, under the direction of Mollie Parsons from the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens, the interns from Ojo Caliente’s Mesa Vista High School helped plant, tend and harvest a similar abundance of fruits, vegetables and herbs that O’Keeffe used to prepare her artful meals . In addition, they grew heirloom varieties of squash, corn and beans that had fed the Pueblo people who lived in the region long before O’Keeffe.
On an idyllic September evening, the interns celebrated a successful growing season with a feast for their families and program supporters. Beyond the sprawling vines of ripening squash and watermelon, rows of young carrots and robust stalks of kale, Victoria Lovato stood beside a bed of sweet corn whose tasseled stalks towered over her head. The high school junior is no stranger to agriculture—she proudly sports an enormous silver belt buckle that she won at the Rio Arriba County Fair for raising steer—but working on the O’Keeffe property was an unusual opportunity. “Instead of being like every other kid who worked a restaurant this summer, I got to work at a historical site,” she says. The interns worked in the beds as tour groups perused the grounds, and they tended the plants like O’Keeffe did. “It felt like being in a time capsule,” says Lovato.
As the summer produce ripened, the interns took the bounty to their own tables at home. Misty Suazo shared fresh peas, turnips, radishes and onions with her family, but she says their favorite garden treat was kale. Her mom and sisters enjoyed experimenting with all manner of recipes for kale chips. And beyond the immediate joy of tasting the results of her hard work, Suazo says she learned new gardening techniques to use at home next summer, like planting marigolds to deter pests.
Standing beside the buffet table, Agapita Lopez, director of the Abiquiu historic properties, pointed out the many dishes with produce grown in the garden. A colorful tray of cucumbers and sweet bell peppers greeted the guests, followed by a plate overflowing with roasted green chile, a tub of salsa with chopped jalepenos on the side, sweet corn still on the cob and—the Suazo family favorite—crispy salted kale chips. At the dessert table, a raspberry sauce made from O’Keeffe’s own recipe topped scoops of vanilla ice cream. The garden continues to produce—and to support the community. Parsons says that now, since they aren’t sending the harvest home with intern, the fall produce is being donated to a food bank.