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The man who makes Monet live on

Jane Hanks speaks to the new head gardener at the late, great artist’s wildly popular garden in Giverny, Normandy

Half a million visit Giverny in the Eure every year to see the garden created by Monet. It is unlike any other garden because it was designed like a painting, where colour is of supreme importance. To achieve the natural look of the garden, which requires thousands of plants to make it look so colourful, requires an immense amount of work from the gardening team who toil all year long, unseen for the most part by the public.

Jean-Marie Avisard is head gardener. He has worked at Giverny since 1988 and took up his new responsibilities in April this year when the previous head gardener retired. He says this garden is so special it takes years of experience to understand it: “One of my challenges in taking up this role is to put together a new team of gardeners as many are nearing retirement age. It is not the kind of garden you learn about at horticultural college. You have to know about plants but also have an artistic streak. There is a great deal of creation involved. It is a garden with its own style, neither classic French or English.”

Claude Monet lived at Giverny for over 40 years, until his death in 1926. When he first came to the house there was a one hectare garden with an apple orchard, a kitchen garden, a long alley and flowerbeds bordered with box. This area is now called the Clos Normand, and Monet immediately set to work to make it the garden of his dreams. He replaced the apple trees with cherry and apricot, got rid of the box and introduced the metallic frames which are still there. In a garden which continually evolved he planted daffodils, tulips, narcissus, iris, oriental poppies and peonies and many others.

On the left side of the garden he created rectangular beds of single colours, which resemble the paints on an artist’s palette. He would continually experiment with new plants he discovered.

The water garden with the famous lilies came later. In 1893, he bought a piece of land situated at the end of the Clos Normand and diverted water from the river Epte to create his pond, because he loved studying the play of light and reflections of cloud on water. He recreated an oriental theme by planting bamboos, maple trees, Japanese peonies, white lilies and weeping willows and then he planted the waterlilies. He did so, he said almost by chance: “I love water, but I also love flowers. That’s why, once the pond was filled with water, I thought of embellishing it with flowers. I just took a catalogue and chose at random, that’s all.”

After his death, the property fell into disrepair until Monet’s family left it to the Académie des Beaux Arts in 1966. It was not until 1977 that enough money could be gathered together to start restoration work on the house and garden.

Much of the money was given by rich American patrons and work was overseen by Gérald Van der Kemp, who had been involved in restoring Versailles.

Using archive material, paintings and memories from people who knew the garden, the plants he used were found, whole areas were cleared to be replanted and the Japanese bridge, which had rotted was identically reconstructed. In 1980, Giverny opened to the public.

Mr Avisard has a team of 11 full time gardeners plus apprentices and others who are on internship. “Monet had eight gardeners, but we need more as it has to be perfect every day for a huge number of visitors, and we have less time as our main work has to be done when the visitors are not there. This means we have to start very early in the morning.”

Next to the garden are greenhouses and polytunnels where 180,000 annuals, bi-annuals and perennials are grown from seed every year. “We do not buy plants from nurseries because we want to be sure we can get the varieties we want.”

Throughout the season there are several time consuming daily jobs: “If you want continuous colour, you must take off the dead flowers, so the plant does not produce seed heads and stop flowering, so dead heading is one of our most important jobs. This year we also had to do a great deal of watering, because of the unusually dry summer.”

The water lilies need cutting back. “Every day someone goes out in a boat to trim and tidy the lilies, so they keep on flowering and so they look as much like the paintings as possible.”

The gardens are closed to the public from November to the end of March, which gives time for the gardeners to prepare for the next season: “From November 1 onwards it is a race against time. First we take out all the annuals and dig over the soil and at the same time we dig in manure. Then we plant the bulbs. First the tulips and then the smaller ones. We plant 15,000 every year and dig them up again after they have flowered. Even though this is labour intensive, we do this to make sure that we will have strong flowers every year and to enable us to change stock and variety.”

The water lilies have all their leaves cut back and the rhizomes are left underwater in the pond. They will start to grow again once the temperature reaches 16°C. The roses and trees are pruned and the annuals are sown and other plants are potted up to be planted out later.

Since Mr Avisard took over, he has stopped using any chemical products and uses auxiliary insects to kill any unwanted pests and makes up nettle, comfrey and other natural solutions to act as fertiliser.

Giverny is a garden that is constantly changing with the seasons. In the spring there are pansies, blossom and many different bulbs. In early summer there are a multitude of poppies, irises and peonies. June is the month of the rose  and the water lilies begin to flower.

In July, there are snapdragons, begonias, geraniums and many more followed by dahlias and gladioli in August. In autumn, the Clos Normand area is covered in nasturtiums of different varieties and purple dahlias stand out. There are rudbeckias, cupheas and aster and the sages are purple and blue.

This requires planning: “We always have to be looking ahead,” says Mr Avisard. “We have to order seed many months before the plant will be in the garden.”

Mr Avisard says most visitors come in May and June, but that there is always something different to see in this most beautiful and unique garden.

Open November every day except Thursday 14.00-18.00.

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