(Adapted from my article East of the City May 2012)
I can never get enough of Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny. Nowadays, it is as famous as his paintings and the garden considered one of his most important masterpieces, attracting and enchanting over 500,000 visitors every year. Even those who are not garden-mad like me usually leave wanting to inject a little Monet in their backyard.
Deceiving First Impressions
The first time I visited the garden, I was struck by how unrestrained and casual the plantings looked, reminding me more of a traditional English country garden. But then, looks can be deceiving. Though the look may be casual, the plan is not. The “look” is achieved not by chance, but by careful planning. In the springtime when the plants are just is emerging, you can clearly see the very orderly design of the garden with everything arranged in straight lines and nothing left to chance. The magic is that by summer’s end, the lines are blurred…the plants have knitted themselves together and the garden now looks as nature intended…charming, chaotic and anything but orderly. The gardens occupy nearly 3 acres and are divided into two areas. One is a large flower garden called Le Clos Normand (The Norman garden) that is situated directly in front of the pink-bricked house. The other is the adjoining Water Garden.
Le Clos Normand is filled with over 100,000 flowering annuals and 100,000 perennials. It is divided into several sections that are dissected by a wide path called the Grand Allée that runs perpendicular to the house forming the central axis of the entire garden. In spring crocus, tulips, daffodils and snowdrops start the parade of colour. As the bulbs finish, the iris, primroses, pansies, forget-me-nots provide the next flush of colour. Then, when the crisp, spring weather gives way to summer’s warmth, the show shifts as flowers start to spill out of the beds onto the gravel paths making the orderly layout of the garden harder to decipher. The impression is one of delightful chaos. Monet didn’t plant for winter interest, so when the weather turns cold the plants take a rest and hibernates until spring reawakens the garden.
Pink roses feature prominently in summer. There are climbers scrambling over the acid green iron arches of the Grand Allée. And, dotted throughout the garden there are rose trees 2-metres high to repeat the theme. Other summer flowers include dahlias, bellflowers, clematis, annual geraniums, hollyhocks, delphiniums, nasturtiums and fuchsia. As autumn approaches rudbeckia, asters, heliopsis, sunflowers and hydrangea capture the spotlight.
In 1893, ten years after he arrived at Giverny, Monet bought a neighbouring piece of land on which to make his Water Garden. The water garden has a completely different ambiance than Le Clos Normand. Rather than the riot of colour that is the signature of Le Clos Normand, the water garden is inspired by the Japanese prints Monet collected. The hues along the banks of the pond are subdued with the more subtle shades of foliage of trees and shrubs taking in the spotlight. Open spaces around the pond were designed so that you can admire the water lilies from the water’s edge and enjoy how the sky and vegetation is reflected in the water.
Getting the Look – Choose your Elements
Monet spent many years achieving the romantic, casual style of his garden. Like any work of art he reworked and adjusted the garden over time. Getting a Monet-like garden involves, experimenting and trial and error. Try incorporating some of the following elements into your garden to create your own Monet inspired piece of paradise.
Informality – Formal clipped hedges and statuary were popular in Monet’s time, but he preferred a more casual style favoured by French peasants. Inter-planting bulbs, annuals, perennials, roses, vines, and fruit trees give the garden a relaxed appearance. He planted bulbs and annuals in the perennial borders to provide a succession of colour throughout the seasons. To encourage a natural, informal look, he grew native wildflowers and annuals that re-seed themselves freely. Poppies for example, self-seed with abandon and were left to grow wherever they landed.
The Colours – You could say that Money painted with plants using them in the same way he used his paints. He took his cues from nature, observing how the quality of light and depth of colour changed depending on the season and the time of day. The garden is organized into colour zones. Some areas feature complementary colours (for example, pinks and purples or fiery tones of yellow and red). Others are bold blocks of a single colour (these were inspired by his visits to the bulb fields of Holland). Monet’s favourite colour combinations were blue and pink, yellow and blue, red, silver, and green, and blue/purple, pink, and white. Each season to unify the garden, he chose a dominant colour, such as lavender and wove it throughout the garden.
Light and Reflection – Monet paid attention to the effect of light on colour in his garden. In the shade he often grew plants with blue flowers so that the naturally bluish cast created by shade enhanced the flowers’ blue petals. He loved combining the bright hot colours of nasturtiums, marigolds, geraniums, poppies and evening primrose because at the end of the day the sun’s longest rays intensified the warmth of the yellows, oranges and reds. The water garden is all about reflections and reflected light projecting a completely different mood than Le Clos Normand. Monet was obsessed with fluid images and designed the water garden plantings to take advantage of the reflections the plants (and the clouds in the sky) made on the mirror-smooth water of the pond. For example, he positioned tall plants close to the pond’s edge because of the elongated reflection they made on the water. The colours along the banks of pond are low key. Rather than the bold hues found in the flower garden, the water garden calls upon the leaves of the plants, trees and shrubs for its colour palette. Japanese irises (yellow and blue) are featured prominently at the water’s edge. Weeping willows, bamboo and wisteria, combined with the arched Japanese-style footbridge, hint at an Oriental mood. Water lilies, of course, inspired a whole series of Monet’s famous paintings and are a must in a Monet-inspired water garden.
Shimmer – Shimmer isn’t a word you often hear when describing a garden. But the sensation of shimmer is what sets Monet’s plantings apart. To achieve this effect, Monet sprinkled white flowers throughout the garden for the way they sparkled in the sunlight. He used grey, fleecy foliage (like lamb’s ears) that held onto moisture that shimmered. He looked for petals that were translucent and favoured two-toned flowers (like pansies), and the iridescent blooms of iris.
Repetition – Repeating elements in a garden draws your eye from one place to another to make it more interesting…a bit of insurance against boredom. Monet was a master at this concept, repeating different elements such as texture, colour and form by using many of the same plants, trees, and shrubs. He repeated architectural details such as the iron hoops of the Grand Allée and the supports for the rose trees, painting them all the same acid green colour.