Gardening: Giverny - It's not a bed of roses

Monet's tranquil garden was born out of conflict and hard labour. Create a gentler, English version instead, advises Anna Pavord
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The Independent Culture
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece," said the painter Claude Monet towards the end of his life. With that one sentence, he dismissed all the glimmering canvases of water-lilies, bridges, weeping willows and rivers, currently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Together with his large family, Monet moved into Giverny, his Normandy home, in 1883 and stayed until his death 43 years later. During those years he worked constantly on the once solidly respectable market garden, with its spruce, cypress and tight-clipped hedges of box. Poppies replaced the cabbages; irises and marigolds filled the onion beds. His neighbours were deeply suspicious.

When Monet bought more land on the far side of the road and started to make his famous water garden, suspicion turned to open hostility. Representations were made to the Prefect of the Eure. "Blow Art. What about our water?" asked the Givernois. Monet pulled rank and strings and got his lily pond. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and others got their pictures - part of a long series of paintings of the waterlily pond that engaged Monet in the last part of his life.

It was not all plain sailing. The first phase of the great pond project was finished by the autumn of 1893. The famous wooden bridge was built. Willows, alders, bamboos and Japanese cherries were planted, along with quantities of water lilies. Unfortunately, the unsurfaced road dividing the house from the water garden was a busy one. The constant traffic created clouds of dust that settled thickly on the waterlily pads. Even plein- air painters have their breaking-point and eventually Monet paid for the road alongside his garden to be tarred.

This is all very reassuring. Gazing at the artist's translucent canvases, it is easy to forget that the things that look most effortless usually require the most effort. The tranquil, seemingly timeless lily pond was born out of conflict and hard labour.

"It took me a long time to understand my waterlilies," Monet wrote of his water garden at Giverny. "I had planted them for the pure pleasure of it, and I grew them without thinking of painting them... And then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette. Since then I have had no other model."

His waterlilies, painted obsessively during the six years from 1903 to 1909, dominate the current exhibition. When you look at them, think of his gardeners, who worked equally obsessively to keep the pond in a condition fit to be painted. Punting out in a flat-bottomed boat, they scooped up the green algae that threatened to tarnish the pool's reflective surface; they fastidiously removed any leaves shed by the weeping willow; they rinsed debris from the waterlilies' shiny leaf-pads; they pruned and trimmed so that the plants did not spread over the surface of the water.

The garden provided constant inspiration for Monet's incomparable canvases. Should gardeners take it as an equally compelling model? Only up to a point. The paths are hideously surfaced in tarmac. An equally offensive chain-link fence marks off the far perimeter of the lily pond. The garden contains practically nothing to sustain interest between the death of the dahlias and the advent of the tulips.

The layout of the long, thin beds, ideal for a market garden, provides a series of pretty paintboxes, but not a design. The planting, made up, to a great extent, from flowering annuals and tender exotics, is labour- intensive (too much so for most amateurs, however passionate) and there is little of the structural planting that in the best-planned gardens provides a backdrop for more ephemeral foregrounds.

French garden style, fossilised in Monet's Giverney garden, is entirely different from the subdued English herbaceous style. It is more akin to the splendid, bright plantings of municipal parks: geometric flowerbeds with spring spreads of forget-me-nots punctuated by brilliant red and yellow tulips, summer groups of orange and red dahlias, with quantities of pillarbox-red pelargoniums.

So the first step to making your own English Giverny is to jettison sleepy schemes of grey, pink and mauve and dive head first into colour. Nasturtiums, gladioli, cannas, yellow and orange rudbeckias and sunflowers are the flowers we should be looking at. Pot marigolds, aquilegias, snapdragons and asters should be on your seed list this year.

Profusion - of flowers rather than foliage - is the overwhelming impression you get when you step into the garden at Giverny. For this you need sun. The cool, damp summer we had last year produced good foliage plants but was disastrous for many annual flowers. In a hot summer, pelargoniums can be set out sooner; dahlias will come into flower by July.

Spiky cactus dahlias seemed particularly favoured by Monet. When I was last there in mid-October, a dark dahlia called `Jet' was looking fabulous in the borders either side of the Grande Allee. It was partnered by the spidery blooms of annual cleome, one of the few annuals with foliage as good as its flowers. Those who still blench at the thought of a dahlia at close quarters should let themselves in gently with a variety such as the deep red `Christopher Taylor'. If you squint slightly, it looks just like a waterlily.

The Monet style depends on two main flushes, spring and summer following each other on the same patch of ground. Snowdrops, aubrietas and jonquils will do for the first part of spring, followed by a massive profusion of tulips and Iris germanica. Abandon restraint. Monet had plenty of mad parrot tulips at Giverny. `Blue Parrot' grows there still, with the brilliant red-and-white-striped cottage tulip `Sorbet'.

The irises, although flowering only for a relatively short period in May, lend strong foliage to the planting schemes that follow. The true Iris germanica is sweetly scented and has rich, purplish-blue petals with a white beard. It is early and the foliage is evergreen. Since Monet's death, many hybrids of this bearded iris have been raised, and it remains a favourite with French nurserymen, particularly those in the south of the country.

For summer choose low-growing Campanula carpatica or a tangle of creeping nasturtium to edge the front of your beds. Fill in behind with snapdragons, interplanted with dahlias. Use asters with Japanese anemones to take over later in the season. Try pelargoniums with cannas. Plant pinks with dark- blue monkshoods to take over later in the season. Use oriental poppies. Shear off the foliage when it has died and follow them with brilliant red `Bishop of Llandaff' dahlias. Shock the neighbours. Monet did.

Monet in the Twentieth Century begins today at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1V 0DS and continues until 18 April. Open Sun- Thurs (9am-6pm) and Fri-Sat (9am-10pm) Admission pounds 9. Numbers of visitors will be limited; tickets can be booked in advance through Ticketmaster (0990 344 444).

For a vivid account of the man and his garden, read `Monet's Water Lilies' by Vivian Russell (Frances Lincoln, pounds 14.99). The garden at Giverney is open 1 April-31 October (10am-6pm) every day except Monday. Take a day trip on Eurostar from London Waterloo to the Gare du Nord in Paris. Use the Metro to transfer to the Gare St Lazare, then take a train (1 hour) to Vernon. You will then find the garden a short taxi-ride away