Creating a Monet Garden, Part 2

My whole interest in Monet's garden was piqued one day last July as I listened to an On Point program on my iPhone. Tom Ashbrooke, the host, interviewed Derek Fell, noted gardener and garden writer about a book he'd written in 2007, The Magic of Monet's Garden, His Planting, Plans and Color Harmonies. One of the aims of the program was to talk about the, then, special exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens, Monet's Garden. The exhibit featured a re-creation of the plantings of the Grand Alleé, the Japanese bridge and pond, and a facade of Monet's pink home, two of Monet's paintings not previously exhibited in the United States, as well as photographs by Elizabeth Murray (author of Monet's Passion, Ideas, Inspiration and Insights from the Painter's Garden), concerts, films and salon readings associated with the time of Monet. Because this was such an important and impressive exhibit, a free iPhone app was made available to the public, a walking tour of the exhibit, where interested parties can still experience the virtual tour. (Search for NYBG in Bloom and download active free app and peruse NYBG and Monet's exhibit.)

The comment that piqued my interest and caused me to order, through Interlibrary Loan, Derek Fell's and Elizabeth Murray's books, was that we gardeners today could create Monet gardens of our very own, even a container of flowers, by applying the same color harmonies and principles. Both of these books, though different in many respects from each other, emphasize the same thing. In her chapter on “Bringing Giverny Home”, Murray writes: “Monet's gardens teach us that in gardening we have an opportunity to work with natural elements in an artistic way, organized manner, both to create art and to cultivate an intimate relationship with and respect for our land and the natural world, especially if we garden organically and in rhythm with our local ecosystems. Our gardens can sustain, inspire, and nurture us and our communities. They are places that bring us inner peace and ignite our passions. In cultivating a garden, one cultivates oneself.

For Monet, gardening was about creating beauty and deepening his connections to nature. He experimented with color combinations, visual effects, reflections, time of day, and even the transparency of petals to achieve varied outcomes. He routinely moved plants to achieve a desired effect.”

Monet on the High Plains

Monet choose his home and garden site with care. In a valley, close to the River Ru, a tributary of the Epte River, surrounded by mountains. These environmental factors all contributed to the changing light conditions he desired, especially mist and fog.

What would Monet do if he lived on the High Plains? Is it possible to create such a garden? Maybe yes, and maybe no. We don't really know. No one with such vision and artistry has invested so much time, money, hired six full time gardeners and devoted himself (herself) to such a garden in the Texas Panhandle. But of course, no two gardens will ever be the same. Environmental and climate conditions paired with terrain and house contributed to the look and feel of Monet's garden. What is important, is how well, for any garden, the choice of plants, hardscape and ornamentation relate to the home and location.

The plant palette Monet chose were plant choices he made based on color, light, bloom time and appropriateness for his climate. Many of the plants were European natives, the same Old World plants that are near and dear to us, but melt in our heat and sun. He didn't contend with our searing sun or blow drying wind. If it hailed in Normandy, it was infrequent and not as furious as is our spring time episodes. But he did contend with flooding, as least once the water garden and a good portion of Clos Normand was covered in water when the banks of the Ru overflowed.

Monet used the latest hybrids and exotic plants from other continents, even North American natives. To give the water lily garden the exotic, Japanese inspired feel, he imported many plants from Japan and Asia.

Today, our gardens are routinely filled with plants from around the world. We have at the click of our fingertips practically any plant to fill a specific need, or desire. Even just a trip to our local big box store would net us more than enough plants to begin a Monet garden on a modest scale. (Read about one writers attempt to “be Monet” here.) Lest we become discouraged, one should remember Monet's garden was forty years in the making, with much trial and experimentation.

A Monet garden would be expensive. But it could be achieved on a smaller scale. To maintain their vigorous appearance, bulbs would need to be removed when finished, changed out yearly, and the next burst of color planted. Perennials were chosen and beds composed for blooms to progress through the seasons. The excitement Monet's garden created was partly due to its scope. One's entire landscape would need to be engaged, a daunting task for the home gardener. Did I mention Monet had trial gardens and greenhouses with plants at the ready for popping in?

Elizabeth Murray's quote above is important to keep in mind, “gardening organically and in rhythm with our local ecosystems.” Soil well amended for the plants needs will go a long way in sustaining vibrant, healthy looking plants through our summers. Monet's garden is exceptional. But in our own home landscapes, the principles and techniques can be applied to add artistry, whether in a container, a bed, border, or the entire landscape.

Paint Box Planters, High Plains Style

Monet's paint box planters were testing grounds for his perennial beds and borders composed of harmonious color combinations of plants that bloom simultaneously. With that in mind, if I were to fill these boxes, these are some of the plants I would select for our climate. However, many of the plants Monet used, such as spring blooming bulbs, poppies, daylilies, iris, cleome, clematis, roses, lilacs, hollyhocks, sunflowers, asters, dianthus, and pelargoniums (geraniums) can be grown on the High Plains too, perhaps a selection from a species more suited to our conditions.

I'll keep the original size of the paint box planter the same as Monet's, 5 feet long and 2 ½ wide, for this exercise, but if yours is different, please adjust the quantity. Monet liked a good display, so don't skimp. Each paint box planter is designed for the ephemeral, not prolonged effect; yet many of these plants are long blooming. These are just some of the many combinations that can be used. Our hardest problem is in narrowing down the choice.

Spring Blooming

Bed 1: Red and Blue

24 Red Darwin hybrid tulips. Over planted with 24 blue faced pansies or violas.

Bed 2: Yellow and Blue

36 blue hyacinth bulbs. Overplanted with 24 yellow clear faced pansies, or violas.

Bed 3: Red and Yellow

18 – 24 Yellow and red striped Rembrandt tulips. Overplanted with 24 Panola Sunburst pansies XP, large red and yellow flowered pansies

Late Spring Blooming

Bed 4: Blue with Gold and Orange

24 Wedgewood blue Dutch Iris, 24 California poppies, Eschscholzia californica.

Bed 5: Blue and Gold

18 Blue Flax, 24 California poppies

Bed 6: Blue and Yellow

24 Trevithian, mid to late blooming Daffodils, 8-12 Veronica, 'Blue Reflection', creeping speedwell (will spread to cover the entire bed in 3 years).

Bed 7: Blue and Yellow

18 Blue Larspur, 8-12 Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha or

18 Rocky Mountain Penstemon, Penstemon strictus and 24 Perky Sue, Tetraneuris argentea or scaposa

Bed 8: White, Pink and Blue

5 Whirling butterflies, Gaura lindheimeri, 5 Alpenglow geranium, Geranium sanguineum 'Alpenglow', 12 Mealy sage, Victoria blue, Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue'.

Summer Blooming

Bed 9: Red and Blue

5 Salvia greggii, 'Furmans Red' and 8-12, 24 Violet cloud Skullcap, Scutellaria x 'Violet Cloud'

Bed 10: Red, Green, Silver and Pink

5 Salvia 'Rasberry Delight' and 9 Gray creeping germander, Teucrium aroanium

Bed 11: Red, Green and Blue

6 Poppy Mallow, Callirhoe incolucrata, 6 Mexican Blue Sage, Salvia chamaedroides

Bed 12: Orange, Yellow and Purple

5 Pineleaf penstemon, Penstemon pinifolius, 5 Prairie Zinnia, Zinnia grandiflora, 5 Salvia nemerosa 'Caradonna'

Late Summer to Fall Blooming

Bed 13: Gold and Purple

5 Engelman's Daisy, Engelmannia pinnatifida, 3 purple asters or 9 Gayfeather, Liatris punctata, and 3 Scarlet globe mallow, Sphaeralcea coccinea.

Bed 14: Yellow and Pink and Purple

3 Goldenrod, Solidago speciosa rigidiuscula 'Wichita Mountains', 3 Texas Rock Rose, Pavonia lasiopetala and 3 Black Dalea, Dalea frutescens 'Sierra Negra'

Bed 15: Blue and Orange

5 Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia and 5 Flame Acanthus, Anisacanthus quadrifidus wrightii or

5 Blue catmint, Nepeta x faassenii 'Select Blue', 8 Hardy Hummingbird Trumpet, Zaushneria arizonica or Z. californica.

Bed 16: Silver, Red and Green

5 Texas Red yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora and 4 Artemisia versicolor 'Sea Foam'

Border plants suitable to the High Plains with a look similar to aubrietas are the skullcaps. Texas Pink Scullcap, Scutellaria suffrutescens is a worthy long-blooming substitute. Of course, with well drained soil, English lavender would grow well.

Monochromatic Beds

Monet used monocromatic beds, beds composed of flowers of one color, but different shades and hues. Often, he would sprinkle them with white, light yellow or in the case of a yellow bed, white and blue to enhance the composition. Of course, roses, hollyhocks, cosmos, columbines, clematis, iris, etc. come in different colors – for simplicity I omitted their repetition.

Yellow—Oenotheras, prairie zinnia, Engelmann's Daisy, paperflower, California poppies, coreopsis, Desert Bird of Paradise, Chamisa, golden current, columbine, desert marigold, chocolate flower, calylophus, Mongolian Gold clematis, Clematis fruticosa; coneflower (Ratibida), goldenrod, Perky Sue, Mahonias.

Blue – hardy blue plumbago, prairie verbena, Mexican Blue Sage, blue flax, catmint, Big Bend silverleaf, Leucophyllum minus; blue columbine, Rocky Mountain penstemon, creeping speedwells, many blue flowering salvias, native skullcap, blue mist spirea, Russian Sage, West Texas Mist flower, Eupatorium greggii.

Purple/Lavender – English and French lavendar, butterfly bush, lead plant, Amorpha canescens; black dalea, asters, gayfeather, purple Salvia greggii, Salvia pachyphylla, May Night salvia, Violet Cloud and Smoky Hills scullcap, culinary sage, Dwarf silver leaf sage, Salvia daghestanica; desert four o'clock, Plum meadow sage, Salvia nemerosa 'Plumosa'.

Pink/Rose/Coral – Crepe myrtles, hollyhocks, diathus, Gaillardias, ornamental or Lebanese oregano, Geranium sanguneum, coral bells – Heucheras, pelargoniums, Ruschia, Salvia greggii 'Pink Preference', Texas rock rose, Pavonia lasiopetala; catchfly, Silene laciniata; gray creeping germander, winecups, pink globe mallow, Sphaeralcea angustifolia; rose campion, roses and penstemon's galore, Santa Fe phlox, Autum Joy sedum, twinspur, bush morning glory, Ipomoea leptophylla.

Red – Salvia greggii 'Furman's Red, Salvia x 'Rasberry Delight', Salvia darcyi, Jupiter's Beard, Texas red yucca, Cedar sage, Salvia roemeriana; Scarlet sage, Salvia coccinea; red pincushion flower, Knautia macedonica 'Red Knight'; Bee balm, Monarda species.

Orange – Flame acanthus, Anisacanthus quadrifidius wrightii; bulbine, hardy hummingbird trumpet, the zauchnerias; Gooseberry globemallow, Sphearalcea grossulariifolia and S. ambigua; pineleaf penstemon, kniphofia.

White – Blackfoot daisy, snow in summer, yucca blooms, Greek and Serbian yarrow, common yarrow, mat daisy, common daisy, white prickly poppy, Callirhoe alcaeoides 'Logan Calhoun'; white Jupiter's beard, datura, gaura, white boquet tansy, Tanacetum niveum; white flowered bush zinnia, Zinnia acerosa; calamint, Calamintha nepeta; sweet autumn clematis.

Silver/Gray – Artemisias, shadscale, Big Bend silver sage, big leafed sage, winterfat, Greek and Serbian yarrow, snow in summer, desert marigold, rose campion, lambs ears, dwarf silver leaf sage, gray santolina, white bouquet tansy, gray creeping germander, woolly thyme.


Iris, dahlias, sunflowers, roses, cleome, lavatera, are a few of the plants Monet used to entice the eye. Our selections won't reach the same height, but can be quite alluring when matched with a good supporting cast. To Monet's eyecatchers we can add cold hardy and tropical hibiscus, desert bird of paradise, yucca in bloom, brugmansias, monardas, crepe myrtle, flame acanthus, Verbena bonariensis, bears breeches, Illinois bundleflower, silver sea holly, Eryngium giganteum; star onion, Allium christophii; castor bean, and Joe Pye Weed.

Shimmering and Height Effect

Many of the plants Monet used to create the shimmering effect are useful in the Texas Panhandle: hollyhocks, poppies, larkspur, columbines, Jupiter's Beard, tansy, and daisies. To create shimmer, look for plants with masses of tiny flowers held aloft to let the sun play on the tiny rays and petals in the breeze. I didn't find a mention of his use of Queen Anne's lace, purple fennel, Boltonia, blue flax and gaura, known as whirling butterflies. I'm sure he would have employed these extensively as they create the perfect shimmering effect.

Tall grasses in plume create a terrific shimmer as well as our native shrub, Apache Plume. The flowers of Desert Bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia gilliesii, adds not only a shimmer but a brilliance within a bed. Black dalia, Dalea frutescens, is my favorite fall blooming native shrub, however, it is not always cold hardy. But in the fall, paired with Aster, 'Lady in Black', goldenrod and Pavonia, the combination is hard to beat.

Silver lace, trumpet vine, sweet autumn clematis, Clematis paniculata are three perennial vines, as well as Virgin's Bower that add height and shimmer to the landscape. The ipomoeas, (both the tall climbing cardinal climber and cypress vines and the sweet potato vines) of which there are several colors, and hyacinth bean are steady annual vines. Climbing roses and clematis, when given proper lighting and shade, adds to the Monet look. Even standards of rose and peonies, though fleeting, will work when well cared for.

Crepe myrtles, purple smoketree, Hot Wings Tartarian maple, Acer tartaricum 'Gar Ann'; Oklahoma redbud, Cercis canadensis; desert willows, hawthrones, golden rain tree, vitex, New Mexican Locust, Robinia neomexicana, along with fruiting or ornamental fruit trees all add medium height that balance well with single story homes and provide leaf color, fruit or seed interest.

Containment and Framing

Monet perfectly matched framing and containment for his home style, culture and terrain. If we copied his elements exactly, I'm afraid it might look out of place in the Southwest. Applying his principles rather than the exact material is the take-away. Of course, river rocks and gravel pathways look good almost anywhere.

Perennial Beds and Borders for the West and Southwest

Monet was fond of the English mixed border, for that is what he composed in the perennial and mix borders. As in cottage gardens, Monet incorporated fruit trees, especially apples, both regular shaped trees and espaliered, within Clos Normand. Using many of the plants listed in my paint box planters combined with some of the Old World plants offers endless possibilities for success. We have so many more plants at our disposal today than over a hundred years previously.

Growing annuals from seed and replanting season to season kept Monet's garden fresh and vibrant. A good many of the hybrids and cultivars of zinnia, marigolds, petunias, pansies, impatiens, begonias, calibrachoas, angelonia, salvias, periwinkles, bacopa, brugmansias, coleus, portilacas, sweet potato vines, verbenas, iceplants, lantanas, etc. weren't available to him, put they are to us, even at home improvement centers.

It would be disingenuous of me to call this an English cottage garden, if nothing else, lacking the sumptuous foliage rainier climates can support and the general look we are used to seeing. Many of the plants adapted to hot and sunnier locations have smaller leaves, which certainly impacts the impression. This type of mixed border has been termed the Western Cottage Garden. Breaking down the aspects that make the English cottage garden so appealing, we have several principles to combine and adapt to our climate and water issues. The overall effect of the Western cottage garden is to create the appearance of abundance in small spaces.

  1. Create volume with herbaceous plants – perennials, grasses, vines and small woody shrubs. English cottage gardens are loaded with tallish plants four, five or more feet in height. While it is common for many perennials to grow to this height in wetter climates, the Texas Panhandle looses at least a foot due to heat and limited summer rainfall. Shorter is actually better, especially in wind exposed and country locations.

  2. English cottage gardens are so jammed pack seeing the ground is difficult. Native and adaptive perennials fill out nicely for us too. Monthly irrigation is required for xeric plants to maintain continual flowering through summer's hottest weeks, please note some may take a break. They will bounce back with a refreshing flourish as soon as temperatures moderate. More frequent water will probably be necessary, the denser one plants. And if medium water-use plants are used, perhaps in a dense planting, weekly watering is called for.

  3. Diversity is one of the keys in creating the exuberance of the English cottage garden. In studying the composition of these gardens one notes a degree of massing of plant species or varieties in groups of 3, 5, 7+ depending on size of your area. Accent your Western garden with several larger specimens, and medium mounding woody perennials in groups of threes, fives, and sevens.

  4. The garden is composed of structural and filler plants. Structural plants do exactly that. This is the part that takes a bit of thought and planning, with the filler plants tucked in here and there, providing that bit of whimsy and personalization. Ornamental grasses make ideal structural plants and are the one plant group that do especially well on the plains. Native prairie grasses such as the switchgrasses, alkali and giant sacatoon, Indian grass, little bluestem, silky threadgrass, blue grama grass and pink muhly grass plumes mingle well with the ornamental umbrels, ray and disk florets kissing in the wind. More flowers than grasses, so as not to look like a meadow, controlled.

  5. Cottage gardens are known for their abundance of roses. We are still in luck. Many of the old “found” or antique roses are quite forgiving when it comes to regular moisture. But within a medium water-use area, that is, watering every other week under average conditions, roses termed landscape roses bloom prolifically throughout the summer. These include the Meidiland roses, KnockOut© roses, Flower Carpet Roses®, and the Jackson and Perkins Simplicity® Roses, all available in the usual colors. We do loose the fragrances, however, when choosing for continuous blooms.

An Abstract Example

In the months since I began my quest for a Monet garden of my own, I have never experienced such joy, such peace and happiness. Maybe it is the shear beauty of the subject matter or the joy in imagining and anticipating. Perhaps this program and idea came to me at exactly the right moment in my gardening life. I was struggling with what to plant in a space my roses vacated, a space that had become too shady over the years to support the blooms.

Instantly the idea came to me. Perfect! Shady in the summer, sunny in the winter. What would Monet do? I will plant a water lily garden. Not a water garden or with water lilies, but my impression of Monet's impression of his water lily garden. I used the best plants available to create such a vision, the myriad colors of pansies, blended and harmonized to create the effect of blue set above the green foliage with pockets of floating lilies in pinks, reds, whites and yellows mirroring the lilies of Monet. Would this look like Monet's lily pond, of course, not. But it is the impression one sees as the light strikes and the feeling it emits through the months as they filled out. A continuous pleasure outside my breakfast window.

One really can't get it wrong. As gardeners know, gardens are always tweaked. But with such a fantasy garden, each fall I'll begin the planting again, no two years will ever the same, as different perhaps as Monet's water lily series.

Angie Hanna, July 10, 2013