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The Good Seed: Gardening Like Monet

Lynn Coulter
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New York Botanical Garden


Surprisingly, Claude Monet, the artist widely credited for founding the French Impressionistic movement in the 1870s and 1880s, didn’t think his luminous, richly-colored paintings represented his best work.

“Monet called his garden his ‘most wonderful work of art,'” Karen Daubmann tells me, with delight in her voice. Daubmann directs the exhibits and seasonal displays at the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx, and she loves introducing visitors to historical figures they don’t normally think of as gardeners.

Monet's palette

“We’ve done exhibits on (Charles) Darwin,” she says, “And Emily Dickinson, who was known as a gardener in her lifetime, but not as a poet. When we thought about who to feature next, Monet kept springing to mind.” This May, NYBG unveiled its recreation of Monet’s famous lily pond and gardens from his home in Giverny. The record-breaking attendance has been “fantastic,” Daubmann says. Visitors can stroll through multiple venues in the Garden, stopping to catch concerts and poetry readings, view rarely-seen paintings, and enjoy other activities that explore the artist’s work. The exhibit closes on October 21st, 2012.

The Monet exhibition has been carefully planned to change with the seasons. While it opened with delphiniums, foxgloves, calendulas, tulips, iris, and other spring flowers, the plants are rotated and replaced when they begin to fade. “We’ve grown several different palettes of plants,” Daubmann says, “So we can do spring, summer, and fall displays, and we have some plants that blur the seasonal boundaries, in case we need to change them quickly.”

New York Botanical Garden

For summer, geraniums were added to the exhibit, along with sweet-smelling stock, roses, hollyhocks, agapanthus, sunflowers, and fragrant lilies. The fall palette will open with gladiolus, still more sunflowers and roses, and then move into dahlias, asters, mums, plumes of feathery grasses, sage, goldenrod, and meadow rue.

Daubmann says one of her favorites parts of the exhibit is the artist’s lily pond, recreated in the pools in the Conservatory courtyard. Monet fell in love with water lilies when he glimpsed them at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, when they were largely unknown and considered exotic.

Wooden boxes called “paint-box beds” stand near the pools, packed with Cactus zinnias, lantanas, sweet potato vines, salvia, hyacinth beans, and other flowers in bold, intense colors. “Monet showed so many different ways to put color together,” Daubmann says. “He used one of everything he could get his hands on, and he was very forward-thinking, always wondering, ‘What wonderful combinations can I do next year?'”

Daubmann admits that the exhibit features plants that don’t always bloom at the same time in nature. “Some came out of the greenhouse, so we had a magical combination not available to the average gardener.” Since some of the cultivars Monet grew are no longer available, the NYBG has also substituted common cultivars that are similar to his originals. “The forms are quite different. Some of the plants visitors will see now are short and compact. Back then, Monet’s plants were more natural.”

Still, it’s possible to pattern your own garden after Monet’s, finding inspiration in the way he combined colors, textures, heights, and forms. The trick is to aim for a rich, opulent look that doesn’t feel tightly structured. “His gardens emerged through his feelings and vision,” Daubmann says, “rather than through following rules. The beauty of Monet’s garden is that he was always trying to push his boundaries, constantly thinking of next year, and what he could do better. Keep your eyes open, and be inspired by gardens everywhere you look.”

Gardening Like Monet: How To Grow An Artistic Garden

  • Plant masses of flowers in bold and/or contrasting colors. “A lot of people are afraid of orange and red,” Daubmann says, “but with purple and blue, you can have a balanced palette. If you feel timid, try (color combinations) in a pot or small area behind your house, rather than your main garden.”
  • Let tall plants soar above and all around shorter flowers. Monet was fond of mullein, a common weed that produces spires of yellow flowers that can reach 7 feet tall. He grew mullein near his iris and clematis in Giverny.
  • Allow some plants to spill out of beds and borders, for a soft, informal feel.

New York Botanical Garden

  • Grow trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses around a pond or other water feature, to capture their reflections in the still surface.
  • For a Japanese-inspired water garden, plant willows, bamboo, tree peonies, and wisteria. (See our tips for a water garden.)
  • Go for a dreamy look. The Monet exhibit is “a well-manicured, artful disarray,” says Daubmann.” We worked to make it look like we didn’t work. Home gardeners could throw out seeds and let the plants get tangled and intertwined, so the garden has a kind of wildness about it.”
  • Imitate Monet’s “shimmer,” a stippling effect he achieved by growing small, white flowers here and there in the garden. Daubmann recommends white gomphrena, baby’s breath, dwarf white zinnias, and white trailing lantana.

Looking for plants to grow for a Monet-inspired garden? Check out our plant database to search by bloom color, name, or other options.

Images courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

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