The Monet guide to gardening

Published 1 February 2016

Love gardening? Here’s how to do it like your favourite Impressionist – from top tips to sourcing your seeds.

  • Monet the painter needs little introduction, but Monet the gardener? That’s a pioneering Modernist you perhaps haven’t met yet; a knowledgeable horticulturist who would spend vast sums of time and money creating his garden – and then divert a river to extend it. Here’s what we can learn from this impassioned avant-gardener.

  • From February 15th to 25th, lay the dahlias down to root, plant out those with shoots

    Monet's instructions to his gardener

  • Do...

    Consider it art

    In 1883, by now an established Impressionist, Claude Monet and his family moved to a house in the French village of Giverny, and began planting the garden he would later call his “most beautiful work of art.” Starting with the densely planted flower-beds of the “Clos Normand” (translating as “closed Norman” garden) at the front of the house, he looked at the shapes, colours and schedules of his plants, composing the garden in loose geometric blocks of colour that changed throughout the seasons. Like the paintings he made of it, his garden was a means of self-expression – one he worked on for over 40 years.

    Be a sponge

    Monet’s inspiration came from far beyond his own surroundings. Monet particularly reflects a trend of the time for “Japonisme”; many of his favourite plants were Japanese in origin, and he collected prints by Hiroshige – which almost certainly inspired the arched bridge he eventually built over his lily pond.

    Be ambitious

    Ten years after Monet started developing Giverny, he decided to add a water garden – which involved buying an extra plot of land, applying for planning permission and eventually diverting an the arm of the River Epte. A crazy caper, perhaps, but one that left us with some of the most famous paintings in art history. Dream big.

    Run wild

    Monet was aware of the English trend for natural, wild-looking gardens, and let his plants flow free from their borders (see “reading list”, below).

  • Critic Maurice Kahn on Giverny, 1904:

    Critic Maurice Kahn on Giverny, 1904:

    “There are no plots of grass, no baskets, no fenced flower beds – none of those arrangements that are held to be the summit of the gardener’s art and that give flowers the artificial appearance of bouquets or parlour knickknacks. Here, clumped freely together on each side of the long, straight paths, the flowering plants present themselves impetuously alive…”

  • Don't...

    …Abandon your plants

    When you go on holiday, get a flora-loving friend or family member to pop in for some garden-sitting. When Monet went away he left a detailed (quite bossy) plan for his gardener to delegate to a team of six: “Plant 300 pots of poppies, 60 pots of sweet peas, 60 pots of Agremony (white prickly poppies), 30 pots of yellow Agremony…”

    …Be a martyr

    A lesson here for all of us; had Monet created Giverny by himself, he might not have gotten around to painting the waterlilies that made it so famous. Luckily, he had eight children to deploy. “All of us worked in the garden,” he once said, describing the family’s arrival in the Seine valley village in 1883. “I dug, planted, weeded and hoed myself; in the evenings the children watered.” The family once even spent the night in the artist’s new greenhouse, to test its temperature.

    …Enrage your neighbours

    The infamous water garden actually almost didn’t happen, because the plan was opposed by a group of angry local farmers. They said Monet’s aquatic plants would poison the water and kill their cattle. Monet won them round in the end.

  • What to plant

    Some of Monet’s favourites:

    Roses

    Plant: Late winter to early spring
    Bloom: Mid spring to autumn

    Japanese Anemones

    Plant: Spring to summer
    Bloom: Summer to autumn

    Chrysanthemums

    Plant: Late spring
    Bloom: Late summer to early autumn

    Waterlilies

    Plant: Late spring to summer
    Bloom: Summer

    Dahlias

    Plant: Late spring to early summer
    Bloom: Mid summer to autumn

    Irises

    Plant: Summer
    Bloom: Late spring

  • What to read

    The Wild Garden

    Monet was an incredibly knowledgeable gardener and owned many books on the subject. He would almost certainly have been aware of this influential 1870 text by the English garden designer, William Robinson – a great believer in the wild-garden ideal of free-flowing flowers and plants.

    Country Life

    We know Monet read Country Life and its articles by Gertrude Jekyll, another journalist championing the trend for wild gardens.

  • Where to get your plants

    Monet’s suppliers

    Reading Country Life, Monet may have seen adverts for Thompson and Morgan – a Suffolk-based company specialising in exotic plant species, set up in 1885 by a botanist friend of Charles Darwin’s, and it’s possible that he sent off for packets of their bulbs and seeds. It’s thought that he bought his peonies from Blackmore and Langdon in Somerset and his water lilies from Joseph Latour-Marliac in La Bourg, France; Monet was inspired to create his lily pond after seeing a display of new, coloured waterlilies by Latour-Marliac at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

    Other gardeners

    “Can you tell me where I would be able to find seedlings of annual flowers,” Monet wrote in 1891 to his fellow artist-gardener, Gustav Caillebotte. “I saw some superb ones at the show, but is it too late to plant, especially chrysanthemums – and layias with yellow flowers, maybe you would have a few yourself, anyway, try to find out…”

    Monet also used to gather up seeds from flowers growing wild and scatter them into his flower beds, hoping to create a new hybrid flower.

  • Plant the peonies immediately in the ground if the weather permits, but do so in a way that protects the buds from frost and sun.

  • Top tips

    These are instructions Monet sent to his gardener while travelling:

    Put iron filings down

    to make the clematises and rambling roses grow. If the weather is bad make rush mats.

    Don’t let the roses grow too much

    apart from the older and more thorny varieties.

    In March seed the lawn…

    divide the nasturtiums, keep a close eye on the gloxinia and orchids in the greenhouse.

    Plant the peonies immediately in the ground

    if the weather permits, but do so in a way that protects the buds from frost and sun.

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