Monet's Giverny

It was a single red poppy in a field of wheat beside a busy parking lot that caught my attention. The solitary flower had a calming affect on me after having just spent too short a time whirling through Claude Monet’s garden. It’s a busy place, visited as it is each year by half a million art lovers and gardeners from around the world. 

Those are the two main reasons to visit — to see what inspired his art or the garden that Monet created — or both. In reality, it is hard to separate the two.  I suppose I approached it as a gardener, but as soon as I stepped into the garden, it became less about plants and more about the images before me. I felt I was strolling through a living gallery of Monet’s art.

The sight of the oh so familiar water lily pond, however, featured so often in his paintings, managed to evoke a little gardener envy. The strolling pathway meanders around it, bordered by weeping willows, Japanese maples, bamboo and irises, allowing for a constantly changing perspective of the famous lilies. I crossed over one of the most painted and photographed bridges in the world beneath a huge blanket of wisteria. When in bloom a week or two earlier, the fragrance would have been heavenly.

I skipped taking my own picture of the bridge, crowded as it was with pond viewers and left to enter the main garden. The two areas are separate, each a couple of acres in size divided by a busy road. Monet began developing the gardens after moving there in 1883, then ten years later bought the land across the road where he had the pond dug. He would only have had to dodge the occasional horse and cart, but distracted visitors can now cross safely by way of a tunnel.

The garden is described as a Clos Normand, enclosed by walls and planted much as an English cottage garden filled with annuals and perennials and roses. Oh the roses — huge and healthy, masses of them all in bloom growing over arbors and walls, competing with clematis, fighting for space on the ivy covered house and filling flower beds.

The beds are simple and not for the neatnik. They’re long and narrow and don’t meet any concept of current landscape design. They stretch down the gentle slope from the house, each one a slightly different palette from its neighbours, filled with endless clumps of plants chosen to contrast or complement in colour, texture, shape and size. It’s peak time for poppies, purple and mauve against a perfect shroud of Verbena bonariensis, just one example of Monet’s artistic skill. Monet sure knew his colours.

Due to the number of visitors the narrow inner walkways between the beds are cordoned off, which is wise. Fill them with people and it would look like a checkout line at a garden center, and it would increase maintenance work for the gardeners, all eight of them.

The head gardener is now British born James Priest who only started his job on June 1st, a couple of days after I visited the garden. He’s a 53-year-old Kew trained horticulturalist from Liverpool, but he has lived in France for 27 years. Priest has stated his intent is to ensure Monet’s concept is fully realized with a review of the original garden. 

After Monet died in 1926, the garden deteriorated and was eventually abandoned, the flower beds covered in turf and the pond soon filled with silt.  Restoration only began in the late 1970s by Gerald van der Kamp, curator of the property with head Gilbert Vahe. His retirement after 35 years tending the garden opened up an opportunity for James Priest to take over.

After only an hour or two there, I had to leave too, to return to my own garden where there are a couple of poppies waiting to bloom.

First published June 2011 Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury  
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