Tag Archive: gardening

The garden paradox, part I


By Matilda Browne (1869 – 1947) (Peonies) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From outside the garden world, we don’t think of gardeners as inscrutable, enigmatic, dark.  We see them as gentle, methodical souls that nurture nature and animals: artistic, ethereal people imbued with magical knowledge of flora and soil.


You might take a gardening class or two, read books, sign up for plant and seed catalogues. It’s different if you get drawn into gardening.  You tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole and find yourself in a magical land for sometimes unexpected reasons. And you find yourself in some puzzling company.


Claude Monet was anything but a mild-mannered person. He led an unconventional life at home and in his pioneering art. Autoportet Claude Monet, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You can trespass on the tribute to the loftiest of gardeners, now a ghostly presence in parlors and paths. Claude Monet, the father of Impressionist art, shaped a farmhouse and rough ground into a work of art in Giverny, France.  Monet’s last residence is nestled in the Normandy region, where he would have painted and tended garden through the worst of the 1918 influenza pandemic and World War I.



Modification of Smithsonian map, (November_stay_2018update)

Monet purchased the farmhouse and a hectare of land in 1890, about 20 years after he first became interested in gardening. He had been devastated by the loss of his wife, Camille, who had died a decade before, and he had entered an unconventional communal living relationship with the Hoschedè family.  He would eventually marry Alice Hoschedè when her husband Ernest died and become father to her six children. Blanche Hoschedè accompanied Monet on painting trips, married Monet’s son, and cared for the house until her death in 1941.


When Claude Monet moved in with his extended family, he set about creating studio spaces and transforming the garden.


Monet and hired hands labored for years to create a scene shimmering with color in the Clos Normand. Monet laid out a plan for beds, trellises, and paths. Hundreds of bags filled with compost and mulch arrived to enrich the chalky ground. Sacks of seeds spread across beds transformed into carefully designed color clusters throughout the seasons. Tulips, all the rage at the time, dominated during my visit in April.

Monet005Monet purchased land across the road and created an engineered pond that artists and architects marvel at today.  He worked with the local authorities on permission to divert a tributary of the Epte River, and then excavated a pond to hold it.  Over the years, he created a bamboo-filled island, winding paths, and installed a bridge, and spread cultivated water lilies across the surface.  Monet described the ethereal result in paintings still beloved today.

Monet003Monet’s artistic efforts extended to the house, where vibrantly colored rooms housed collections of Japanese prints, Monet’s art, and art by friends of his.  The shimmering yellow dining room hosted his extended family for meals. The Blue Salon housed his cherished Japanese prints, inspiration for his own art.

The man who shaped this place would not be remembered as gentle and uncomplicated. No polite, meek person pioneers a new art form in defiance of rigid tradition.  Monet was described as moody, prone to rages when his art did not meet his standards or vision.

1024px-Claude_Monet_-_Water_Lilies_and_Japanese_BridgeThe garden became a place where he could exorcise bad moods and dispel dark clouds.  While he endured dark moods and raging self-doubt, the family would tiptoe around the house and eat silently. When Monet returned to garden work, everyone knew the dark period would lift.

In the end, Monet’s home and studio became a place where he could retreat from the chaos and terror of the world outside.  He died in 1926, leaving the home to his family.  Blanche stayed in the home, which then went to Michel Monet.  Michel left the home and gardens to the Acadèmie des Beaux Arts in 1966.


Ultimately, the panchromatic home and garden fell to neglect and rough grass until Gèrald Van der Kemp, famed for restoring Versailles, became involved.  Van der Kemp returned from retirement at the invitation of the Acadèmie des Beaux Arts, raised the funds and delved through photographs, letters, and accounts to recreate a version of the original home and garden. Hugues Gall, Director of the Fondation Claude-Monet, has carried on this work since 2008.


Image from Google Earth, gardens in upper half and pond in lower half.  Funding helped build a tunnel beneath the road to access the pond area.

Over 600,000 people a year visit these gardens, some wearing finery hoping for a lovely portrait among the seasonally changing palette.  They move quietly through the house, speaking in hushed tones about the Rouen tiles in the kitchen, and the vibrant colors and character of each room. They pose for photos on the restored bridge over the pond with its quintessential waterlilies.


61QH3ktR7eL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_How many of those people mistakenly see the ghostly gardener as a gentle, quiet man is not clear. The Acadèmie in its literature makes it clear that this garden is a work of art created by the hands of a haunted man who lived through historic times.

Monet exemplifies the gardener as an artist hand-making a sanctuary to salve a tortured soul.  He would not be the only gardener of this kind. Many of us manufacture a natural space as respite from the hard-edged man-made world of towns and cities, and the hard-eyed look of overworked people around us every day. That profusion of color and texture can be a flowering chapel in times of grief.

In our personal gardens, we are not always nurturing nature, but sometimes, ourselves.


The wild kingdom

TowheeWeb(Video below) A coworker recently discovered that her very tall bamboo was very invasive. When she recently bought the house, she was told it was that non-invasive kind. Right. It had sent roots under a shed and around the sewer pipe.  It was coming up everywhere. Eradicating it would mean digging deep down to remove every bit of root.

“Or I could move,” she said. “And get away from it.”

She won’t be the first to express that sentiment.  Nor the last.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, everything grows- with a vengeance.  If you amend your soil, give plants some summer water, then voila, they grow bigger than the plant list says and take over the earth. If blackberry or ivy is on your property, you can’t turn your back without fearing a coup.


Even the house is habitat to a Pacific slope flycatcher.

I’ve been planting for 17 years. I buy bareroot plants at the annual Conservation District sale. Then there are plants that I propagate.  My neighbor gives me plants. Plants volunteer on their own, too.

For years, I felt like I had to save every seed, every live stake, and plant it somewhere. There weren’t enough barriers to keep out my neighbor’s cows.  There weren’t enough plants for nesting.


Goatsbeard, salal and bleeding heart in bloom.  There is a path in there somewhere.

Then the balance started to tip.  I had starts coming up everywhere.  Plants needed dividing.  I started noticing hawthorns and cherry trees growing wild along the roadway.

The volunteer red dogwood reached 20 feet into the air, and 30 feet across. A volunteer willow erupted into an exploding green fountain.  Cherry branches drooped over the gate, dark red leaves shading the entry. Pacific ninebark branches drooped low over the driveway. The weeping cedar in front of the house grabs me as I try to clean the roof.  Oceanspray sprouts in the gravel path, and wood sorrel carpets the garden along with some groundcover the previous owner planted. The rose that beavers mowed down last year springs back as a lush hedge.

I started to be grateful when something died, or the squirrels or rabbits ate it.The giant cherry trees my predecessor planted tipped over.  Oh, darn. The Italian prune plum that grew to 20 feet in two years blew down. Oh, darn. I even gave away hundreds of plants the last couple years to get rid of pots and thin things.

This winter, we got 4 feet of rain between October and March.  The spring wore on, cool and wet. When I came home from a trip to the Montana prairie after two weeks of nice weather, the contrast between the dry, open prairie and my jungle was overwhelming. I felt like I was entering a tight leafy tunnel as I drove through the gate.

CoyoteTwitterWildlife thrives in this florid abundance. American goldfinches show up at the feeders in flocks, and disappear into thickets to hidden nests.  A robin angrily attacks its reflection in one window after another for weeks. Squirrels race after each other up and down trees. A tangle of garter snakes unwinds from the crack between the concrete pad and barn floor. A red-tail hawk hunts from owl perches and weasels roam the fence rails in search of eggs and small birds.


I won’t complain or move, because I signed up for this. And wielding a loppers beats checking the latest news in this historic crazy time. Dragging cuttings into slash piles and digging out weeds wears me down so that I sleep at night. Diligent effort opens corridors and paths, and gives shrubs and trees a fresh start.

As I work, kingfishers rattle warnings on the river where they have burrows, robin parents escort a fledgling out to forage, bald eagles trill at a youngster testing its wings, hawks soar over the field. A towhee takes a stand on top of a cedar and a Pacific slope flycatcher sneaks insects to nestlings tucked on top of the breaker box.


You know your habitat is complete when the vultures show up.

I could move, maybe to an apartment in the city, tidy and spare, with no yard work.  I could join a gym and work out without getting sunburned, scratched by thorns or scalded by nettle. Or I could just stay here for awhile, where everything is simpler.