Homage to Giverny and Monet :- Impressionistic Planting and Diversity

It seems the appropriate time to write a post with this title, since it was 8 years ago, in the first week of May on a hot sunny day, that we visited the garden of artist Claude Monet at Giverny. And were bowled over.

Not by the famous water lily pool and in bloom, wisteria clad bridge, appealing though this was, but by the smaller formal part of his garden. Many of the plant and bright colour combinations were frankly not to our taste, but we’d NEVER seen such numbers of flowers planted in an intermingled massed way in any British garden we’d visited. And such extraordinary insect diversity

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Our gardening style was forever changed, and in the last few warm days of May, the sun shone in upland Carmarthenshire, though now it’s been lashed from the scene, if not memory, by a vicious Atlantic depression.SDIM0093 (2) SDIM0097 (2)

Some of our own impressionistic plantings have shone, albeit briefly, under a blue Welsh sky.SDIM0047 (2)

Within months of Monet’s death in 1926, his son grassed over many of his flower beds, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the garden and house was re-opened for visitors, who now number over half a million every 7 month opening season. As a comparison, the equally renowned Sissinghurst gardens apparently received about 150,000 visitors last year. Some of the plantings at Giverny are not necessarily identical to those in Monet’s time. Gardens evolve, change, age and die like their creators and makers, but the spirit of painting with flowers, through impressionistic intermingling planting is surely captured.  Monet recognised the transient nature of many of his displays – it’s mentioned that he walked the garden 3 times a day, and would invite guests at specific times of day to view, for example, the Iris when they were exactly at their visual peak. This is a luxury many gardeners, or visitors to a garden, can’t enjoy, but what value it has in appreciating the subtleties of flower ageing, and their sometimes dramatic change in appearance under different times of day, and angles of illumination.SDIM9982 (2)SDIM9872 (2)

I hope that readers will judge, after looking at these blog images, that our carefully chosen blog title is in fact an appropriate inspiration- based derivation, rather than simplistic copycatting. Certainly, there seems to be an element of synchronicity in the confluence of weather and flowering in the very same week that we were given such a pivotal inspirational experience at Giverny all those years ago, and which this May has fairly rewarded us for the toil leading up to some of these fleeting visual vignettes.

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Picking a few images to illustrate this post is tricky, but here goes with a brief description of the scenes which made the cut.

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Firstly, is this large new section of planting made last autumn, of later flowering Narcissus cultivars along our daffodil walk – ‘Merlin’, ‘Thalia’ and ‘Tresamble’. The ‘Merlin’, which came as a 25Kg sack, wasn’t even the bulb we thought we’d ordered – having planned for the smaller, slightly later, and less blowsy Narcissus ‘poeticus recurvus’ form. Whether we shall always have all three of these in bloom simultaneously, I don’t know. Certainly their heights will reduce, as the effects of commercial heavy fertiliser applications to bulk up the bulbs pre-sale, wears off.

This display may even turn out to be be a unique feature of this very cold, late spring. But their varying heights and subtle variations on a basically white theme are delightful, and even more so in the later afternoon, when the sun shines through those white petals, and the orange rimmed eyes really glow. I’d love to say that we planned for just this effect, but frankly I had to pinch myself when I first saw it. Choosing bulbs from images in catalogues is rarely this successful for us.SDIM9958 (2)

Secondly is a planned for ‘magic terrace’ planting of ‘Flaming Purissima’ tulips, ‘Sweetheart’ tulips in the old chimney pot, Narcissus ‘Thalia’ to the rear, and under-planting of mossy saxifrage in whites and pinks. Fosteriana tulips, of which these 2 cultivars are examples, do have a half decent chance of surviving and returning beyond year one in our very wet climate, whereas most tulips we’ve tried fail completely after a single season.SDIM9946 (2)SDIM0048 (2) In some locations in the garden, they even multiply.SDIM9887 (2)Although, for some reason in this particular area, first year mortality is a bit higher.SDIM0042 (2)

But it’s almost worthwhile adding a few more for their uplifting 3 or 4 week display, and the Thalia daffodils, being sterile and multi-headed, provide a lovely broken and long lasting white feature against rapidly expanding fresh new herbaceous foliage. And in addition I’ve just realised that N. ‘Thalia’ has the huge advantage of NOT being heliotrophic, so that its’ flower heads face most ways, and don’t just point towards the sunshine. As a consequence wherever they’re planted, you don’t just get a view of their backsides.

SDIM0041 (2)Add some blue sky, shifting mist in the valley, and glorious birdsong, and for me it erases memories of winter’s struggles.SDIM9997 (2)Next, a small area from our mossy copse. The predominant backwash is our most common olive-green cushion moss, but overlying it are plants grown from seed – scattered Labradorean violets, Cyclamen hederifolium, and snippets of rooted native white flowered wood-sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, and an exotic pink flowered American Oxalis oregana f. smalliana. All co-existing happily beneath a Camellia bush and 70 foot high Larch trees. Again a completely unplanned, but lovely mixed planting which we would be happy to encourage over wider areas. Even if we do have to wait 3 years or more to achieve this effect. SDIM0104 (2)Elsewhere in the copse, our favourite ground cover plant of the month Chrysosplenium davidianum, lights up just now with Euphorbia like yellow inflorecences, beside white flowered native wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, dark purple Labradorean violet, Viola labradorica, leaves, all beneath the burgundy unfurling leaves of an Acer dissectum atropurpureum.SDIM0005 (2)SDIM0018 (2) Another area of the mossy copse has also looked gorgeous though in a less dramatic way than last year. Species type early tulips – red/blue ‘Little Beauty’, white and pink clusiana ‘Peppermint stick’ and gold/orange ‘whittallii’, with sown Pulsatilla vulgaris and mossy saxifrage. The tulip flowers are all half the size of those from the first blooming, and probably only half the number, but somehow look much more natural, and fill a flower gap in this area between the earlier Iris reticulata and Crocus, and the later Nectaroscordum sicculum and Allium. Dryness and shade from emerging tree foliage then puts an end to the show from this area of the garden for the rest of the year.SDIM0034 (2)

A pleasing combination of a self sown Omphalodes cappadocica behind a blue tinged Anemone nemorosa. The original plants of Omphalodes ‘Cherry Ingram’ were severely knocked by the weather, and have struggled to flower at all, so perhaps the above seedling has a tougher constitution? SDIM9884 (2)

Finally, Narcissus ‘Jenny’, native primrose and Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ lighting up a shadier area of the mossy copse.

The other side of the Monet homage, the garden insect diversity, has at last been a bit more obvious with recent warmer weather, so I’ll feature some images below.

The Dark-edged Bee-fly, Bombylius major, is just one of the insects which have burst, or resurfaced, into the garden scene in the last few warm days. Since consciously deciding to shift our planting schemes and gardening ethos towards more insect friendly flowers, we’ve seen a steady rise in the numbers and diversity of insects in the garden. And wildlife more generally.
And even in this late spring, given the half chance that a bit of warmth and sunshine brings, there’s a huge variety to be seen.SDIM0090 (2)Here’s the spectacular Dark-edged Bee-fly, Bombylius major. This has become something of a favourite of mine, and yesterday morning, grabbing my pan of porridge to eat outside on the magic terrace stone seat, I managed to take my best ever photos of this amazing insect. (No, not with the porridge pan! I nipped inside for the camera).SDIM0088 (2)
Usually they’re pretty flighty, but this one repeatedly visited the Aubrieta flowers, just inches from me and my wide-angle lens. Maybe my dark blue dressing gown lulled into a sense of security? Or perhaps it was just too chilled out by the warm and glorious early morning scene to bother about being pestered by a foreign papparazzi?SDIM0078 (2)You can see that it will have a role as an inadvertent pollinator – look at the pollen encrusted tongue in the image below, just after it’s been plunged to the depth of the flower in search of nectar (and I wonder whether that might be a mite on its leg? – see later).SDIM0073 (2)I’d never seen any Bee-flies in the garden until about 5 years ago, and now I look forward to them just as much as the Tulip or Narcissus flowers.
Partly because of their extraordinary adaptation, looking quite like a bee, and moving like a hummingbird hawkmoth with darts and hovers, but with much more audible noise from the very high frequency wing beats, and possessing those perfectly adapted long legs, and long unicorn like rigid tongue. Partly, because they are so seasonal – you won’t see them after early June in most years. Partly, because of their sinister life cycle – this benign, buzzing adult, lays eggs in or near the nests of some ground nesting bumblebees, and its larvae parasitise the bee’s larvae – so a vegetarian adult develops from a carnivorous youngster.
But mainly, because they reflect the progress that we’ve managed to achieve in the garden, through careful planting of flowers and garden management. With more bumblebees visiting, an opportunity has been created for the Bee-fly. From none at all, to several in a fairly short time.
That even gives me a bit of a buzz.
Below are a few images of the many other insects around in the garden during this sunny period. Researching for my recent ‘Planting For Pollinators’ film and talk, drew my attention once more to the synergistic adaptive evolution between flowering plants and insects. There are over a quarter of a million species of the former angiosperms (which produce seed within a fruit, and many of which have nectar producing flowers). By contrast the gymnosperms (e.g. pines, and firs) which flower, but don’t produce nectar and then develop naked seed, number less than a thousand species.
There are nearly 30 million insect species. Only the arachnids (spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites) approach insects’ dominance with about 1 million species. And many of these arachnids are insect predators. To put these numbers into context, there are just 5,700 mammal species, and about 10,000 bird species.
So, the survival and development of flowering plants and insects have been historically indivisibly linked, and gardeners really should value this link more highly and reflect on its importance in sustaining all the shrinking levels of the food pyramid network above these two dominant life forms.SDIM0028 (2)Honeybees and an unknown fly species on the nectar rich Skimmia ‘Kew Green’.SDIM0016 (2)
Honeybee in Tulipa clusiana ‘Peppermint Stick’.
SDIM0053 (2) A  fleeting view of a, new to me, small wasp or bee species in a mossy saxifrage flower SDIM0001 (2) More of the strangely crooked angle-bodied flies in Tulip ‘Peppermint Stick’ Tulip.SDIM9971 (2)
Solitary small mining bee in dandelion flower, covered in pollen. What is a weed? SDIM9786 (2)
Honeybee in Pulsatilla vulgaris flower.
SDIM0062 (2)Large Red Damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, the first species of the year in the garden SDIM9996 (3) Flowering currants are recognised as being good nectar source flowers, but it’s taken me ages to get a good image of any insect on them, since the bumblebees and other bees which visit, rarely linger on the small flowers. This is a masonry bee (I think). 
SDIM9904 (2) One of at least 4 species of bumblebee seen in the garden so far this year, on Lamium maculatum, planted between our apple trees last year, to see if it would help attract bumblebees to this part of the garden at blossom time. Of course the bumbles may simply prefer the Lamium flowers and ignore the apple blossom, but the flowers brighten the scene and help suppress weeds.SDIM9974 (2)And finally.SDIM9913 (2)SDIM9877 (2)SDIM0101 (2)
Shades of yellow, red, and yellow and white from Narcissus ‘Pipit’, the first rhubarb stems of the season, and a single rain drenched Tulip ‘Sweetheart’.

2 thoughts on “Homage to Giverny and Monet :- Impressionistic Planting and Diversity

  1. Julian, as part of our experiment to see whether I can again upload a YouTube video as a comment on your blog, here is your video of the robin in the evening:

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