One of the highlights of my recent trip to France was a visit to Monet's garden at Giverny, outside of Paris. Whilst this is of course a prime tourist destination (with more than half a million visitors a year) and we encountered the inevitable rows of coaches and crowds at the garden, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there. I had pretty much expected it to be planted out in a mad riot of colour (mainly low-growing annuals) but I was thrilled to find unusual perennials and shrubs, and excellent planting combinations. The exciting colour schemes and the sheer exuberance of the plantings made me feel like I was actually walking through a Monet painting!
There has been a new head gardener, James Priest, at Giverny for the last couple of years, who has been trying to get the garden back to more like it was in Monet's day. I gather he felt that the garden had become a bit of a hotchpotch over the years since its opening to the public in 1980. Using old photographs and examining Monet's own paintings of the garden, James Priest has renewed the colour schemes of the main garden, and the visitor can really see the eye of an artist in the borders. A startling display of pink and red zonal Pelargonium near the house (pictured above) can be seen in an old photo with Monet standing in front of them, for example!
The main flower garden is set out in a grid format (although the strict formality of the layout is softened by the luxuriant summer growth at this time of year), with a group of four long, narrow borders separated by paths; the Grand Allée (pictured) with its series of rose-clad arches and thickly planted borders on either side; a group of a number of small 'paintbox' beds with more long, narrow borders running the length of this section; and some informal grassy areas planted with small trees. It is impossible to do justice to the garden in a blog, so I will just talk about some of the aspects that took my eye.
The long borders on the western side of the garden include many hot-coloured flowers in exciting combinations - Monet had chosen this area for such warm colours apparently, because the backlighting from the setting sun would make flowers of these hues really glow. The use of dark foliage as a counterpoint to these brilliant colours was effectively done. The Grand Allée alongside used mainly orange, burgundy and deep purple flowers at the time of our visit, and was a joy to behold.
On the other side of the Grand Allée, misty pinks, mauves and blues are used - colours that are enhanced by the early morning light. Plants of different are interspersed like dabs of paint - and just as in Monet's paintings, where scatterings of small strokes of white paint create an impression of light, small white flowers are woven through the plantings. The use of bi-coloured flowers with streaks of different hues also adds to the 'painterly' look of the plantings.
In contrast, the small 'paintbox' beds are planted out monochromatically as in Monet's time, and these blocks of single colours of just one type of plant looked to me almost like an artist's palette, using flowers instead of paint. They show the different tones and shades of colours: the hotter scarlet reds compared to the cooler crimson reds and the different shades of pinks, for example - a useful resource for anyone using colour in the garden. This part of the garden was apparently originally inspired by blocks of single-coloured tulips that Monet saw growing in Holland.
Every season has its signature flowers at Giverny - the irises of spring and the nasturtiums of late summer, for example. Our visit was in high summer and the flower that seemed to feature most was the daisy - in many forms and sizes, ranging from Dahlia, marguerite daisies, Zinnia, Rudbeckia to Euryops, Cosmos, Tithonia and Gaillardia. There were many annuals and biennials to be seen, but though these are planted out every year by the (20!) gardeners, they appeared quite naturalistic, as if they might have simply self-seeded from year to year. Tall annuals and biennials such as hollyhocks, sunflowers and Verbascum added to the drama of the garden, and many metal structures adorned with climbers, along with standardised roses, provideded height to the borders.
In contrast to the formal layout of the main garden, the famous water garden is a much more naturalistic area, and despite the hordes of tourists taking 'selfies' on the Japanese bridge, it still manages to retain an authentic atmosphere of serenity. It is quite a strange feeling to be standing in a garden depicted so prolifically in Monet's work. I hadn't expected that the ponds would be surrounded by quite dense plantings of Japanese and other Asiatic plants, including bamboo, maples, azaleas, weeping willows, Hydrangea, Rhododendron, Japanese water iris, peonies and many perennials. It was truly a delight.
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