Claude Monet was known as a painter who liked to work on large canvases, but his largest by far covered several acres. This canvas was Monet's estate at Giverny, outside of Paris, where, with a thumb as green as his painterly talent was prodigious, he transformed the grounds around his home into an enduring and astonishingly beautiful work of living art.
For Elizabeth Murray, a California gardener and landscape architect based in Monterey, Giverny was a place to learn not only sophisticated horticulture, but to develop an artist's eye for use of color, light, shape, density and judicious use of available materials.
So compelling were the gardens for Murray that in 1985 she signed on to work as a gardener-in-residence there--digging, pruning, mulching, tending to tiny details--for no pay. And, after several working return visits to Giverny, Murray produced a book, illustrated with her own photographs, titled "Monet's Passion: Ideas, Inspirations and Insights From the Painter's Garden" (Pomegranate Art Books, $26.95).
She recently talked about her tenure at Giverny in a lecture as part of the Decorative Arts Study Center's annual antiques and garden show in San Juan Capistrano. And, she said, many of Monet the gardener's ideas, techniques and plant materials are translatable to Southern California.
However, she warned that in order to produce the kinds of effects that make Giverny such a showplace, it's necessary to cultivate a virtue that Murray says she thinks is absent in many California gardeners: genuine patience.
"Because we can grow so many things here, we Californians want everything in bloom all the time, and we want it now," she said. "Monet lived at Giverny for 46 years, so don't think, 'Gee, my garden isn't together yet.' Good gardens are old gardens."
A true garden, she said, "has to be known through the seasons. It has to be seen in all sorts of different light and color. It's a spiritual thing."
For that reason, Murray said, gardeners, particularly in Southern California, should not be afraid to use plants that go dormant at different times of the year and should depend on plants with strong colors to stand up to the equally strong light that shines here throughout most of the year.
Murray pointed out that Monet used his gardens--one a flower garden surrounding his house, another a water garden in a marsh nearby--as giant canvases and plants (and their various changes as a result of the changing daylight) as paints. Indeed, she said, there are areas of the flower garden in which flowers are planted in such a way as to resemble specific paintbrush techniques.
"Monet planned colors coming through colors," using a kind of overlay effect similar to painting, she said. Also, in his use of variegated colors in a single bed, Monet produced an effect similar to that of flicking paint from the end of a brush onto a colored background.
Capitalizing on dormancy, he erected arched trellises over several paths in the garden and twined them with roses. When the roses went dormant, Murray said, their absence of color was compensated for by the use of bulbs. Part of that effect, Murray said, was achieved through the use of "different varieties of tulips that bloom at different times of the year."
As in his paintings, Monet held the effect of light in his garden to be paramount, and he arranged the colors of his garden to respond to the changing light, Murray said. To that end he often planted "large masses of one shade or color," a technique that can also work well in Southern California, provided the color is vivid enough not to be bleached out in the harsher Mediterranean light of the region. Murray particularly recommends a geranium/iris combination, both popular with Monet, as drought-tolerant and well-suited to this area.
Lavender found wide use at Giverny as a plant bordering the many paths and also works well here, Murray said. She recommends building paths in home gardens and erecting nearby trellises. These effects not only "lead you somewhere," they also "move living color up into the sky."
One of the more complex effects at Giverny, but one that can also be accomplished in Southern California, is the use in the garden of colors that are an extension of the colors used in the interior of the adjacent house. Monet made use of this technique, Murray said, at every opportunity: The color scheme of certain rooms with views into the garden were extended into the garden through the use of flowering plants.
Many of those plants grow in raised beds, which afford the gardener the opportunity not only to bring in good quality soil to build up the bed, but aid in drainage and add relief and extra planting space to the garden.
However, Murray said, "I think you have to be very careful combining plants from many different native places." The effect, she said, can be disorderly or lacking in harmony. She recommends growing most of the Southern California garden from seed.
Can Monet's famous water gardens be imitated here? To a small degree. To provide the reflection of light that Monet prized, Murray suggests installing a birdbath "or even a nice stone with a depression in it to catch water."
Which of Monet's plants will work best here? Quite a lot of them, Murray said, particularly bearded irises, wisteria, roses, dahlias, asters and sunflowers.
"Always the best source is your local nurseryman," she said.
The rewards of pursuing a painterly approach to gardening far outweigh the work and planning involved, Murray said. She said she worked long, hard and often tiring hours helping maintain the sprawling gardens at Giverny and gave up her job and her home in California to do it.
But, she said, "I fell in love with that garden. I got a lump in my throat from the beauty of it. I looked at it and said to myself, 'I want to know this garden.' And it was a love relationship that grew over the years."