Growing a living canvas
The list of 1,001 gardens to see before you die includes the Giverney garden of Claude Monet and it is one for the bucket list, writes Alice Spenser-Higgs
THE French impressionist Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny is famous for many reasons — the water lilies he painted, the wisteria covered bridge and the Grande Alleé with its carpet of nasturtiums.
Visiting the garden in autumn meant missing out on the water garden’s spring show but the abundance of autumn flowers made up for it. It is the measure of a great garden that in every season there is something to see, and Monet’s late summer into autumn garden is no exception.
The wall surrounding the garden gave only the slightest hints of what was behind: tips of greenery, and overhanging trees. Even the visitor’s entrance blocked any sight of the garden until one stepped through the gate and there it was — an Alice through the looking glass experience.
The first impression was of dazzling yellow rudbeckia reaching for the sky, airy cosmos and luxuriant dahlias with flowers the size of dinner plates and mauve asters on steroids.
The garden and house, which took almost 10 years to restore and was opened to the public in 1980, faithfully recreates Monet’s layout and choice of plants.
Monet did not like organised or controlled gardens, but wanted plants to grow freely and naturally. The gardeners that look after the gardens today remain faithful to his original vision by mixing common flowers planted together according to colour.
This is most evident in the series of overflowing borders on either side of the Grande Alleé. Gravel paths separate the borders and, being autumn, the perennials were at their best. The effect was one of bold, almost overwhelming colour in the foreground that softened to smoky purple and ethereal blue into the distance.
Besides the rudbeckia, there were tall-growing sunflowers, purple asters, dahlias and golden rod with lower growing daisies, dwarf campanula, bedding dahlias, pelargoniums, fuchsia, salvias, snapdragons and zinnias massed around them.
It was like being in an impressionist painting, with new vistas opening up with every step.
The Grande Alleé, which is one of the famous features, doesn’t disappoint. The series of arches runs almost the full length of the garden, framing the view from whichever side you view it.
Pale blue morning glory creepers twine up and around the green steel arches, with yellow and orange nasturtiums tumbling across the gravel at the bottom.
Closest to the house are beds of white and postbox-red geraniums that stop you in your tracks, especially as they are backed by the salmon pink and green trimmed house. It should clash, and it does, but somehow gets away with it.
Underneath its wild profusion, the garden layout is symmetrical and ordered.
The Grande Alleé forms the main axis with the same number of borders on either side and beyond them a cool breathing space; two small meadows shaded by trees planted up with bulbs.
The second part of the garden, which is now separated by a road that runs through it, is the Japanese-inspired water garden. It is accessed via a bamboo forest and in contrast to the exuberance of the flower garden is green, serene and cool.
Neither the wisteria nor the water lilies was flowering but one can still imagine Monet launching his boat into the lily pond and spending hours spellbound by the changing light on the water.
What makes this garden such an inspiration is that it is an original vision and the passion with which Monet created it continues to communicate itself to visitors. That is what a great garden is all about — a passion for plants and an artist’s eye for colour, texture, proportion and form.
Giverny is 78km outside Paris and is reachable by train but it is easier to book a half-day tour or a full day combined with a visit to Versailles.
Book through the Paris Tourist Office, 25 rue des Pyramides, or via the internet on http.//giverny.org/gardens or www.parisinfo.com. Tours cost from €58 per person.
Right: A painter’s palette — a view of the borders in the Monet garden. Far right: A rich tapestry of colour — the Grande Alleé with nasturtiums offset by flowering perennial borders.