Spring Lessons from Giverny

Perhaps it’s folly to try to draw inspiration for our own gardens from one of the most famous gardens in the world – an enchanting 5 acres whose renown comes courtesy of its beloved former gardener and owner, Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The garden he made at Giverny is a short bus ride from the town of Vernon in Normandy, which is a 45-minute train ride from Paris’s Gare St. Lazare (direction Rouen). Now home to the Fondation Claude Monet Museum (Musée Claude Monet), the house and garden are visited by some 600,000 people annually.

Giverny-Monet's House in sprigtime

When I was there a number of years ago, the Fondation allowed photographers and writers to apply in writing to visit on its closed day, Monday. I did so, and stayed in a bed & breakfast in the town of Giverny to be close enough to arrive early Monday morning and walk back to the b & b if it rained (which it did). However, they no longer close during the week and are open daily from late March through October 31st, so everyone must line up for the 9:30 am opening (except those who buy their tickets ahead, allowing them to skip the line). In the summer months, the garden is often terribly crowded and difficult to get around, but on a morning or late afternoon in April, it can be quite delightful.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Clos Normand from House

Interestingly, my photos come from a spring prior to British gardener James Priest’s tenure at Giverny, when the garden’s maintenance was still under the hand of head gardener Gilbert Vahé, who spent 34 years in the garden from 1977 (even before its reopening in 1980) to 2011. However, in 2017, with James Priest now gone, Vahé has come out of retirement to take over the reins once again, presumably to return the garden to some of its well-archived Monet-ness, i.e. “reproduction”, not “adaptation”.

Despite the fact that almost everyone who’s visited Monet’s garden has posted their photos or written a blog, and despite the fact that others think it’s just become too commercial or pretty, I believe that his garden offers some good lessons for all of us.  Let’s explore a few.

1. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF COLOUR: My first lesson: Life is short, there are no rules, and a house can be pink stucco, with green shutters and veranda. Why not? Claude Monet, himself a master colourist, retained these colours for the house he first rented, then bought, living in it from 1883-1926. They were faithfully reapplied in 1980, when the house and garden were reopened after a restoration that brought it back to life after more than twenty years of abandonment following the bombing of Normandy during the Second World War. (And, honestly, I thought about working my Photoshop magic on the green paint of the veranda, below, but that’s what more than a half-million visitors will do to the stairs, and who am I to paint Monet’s house?)

Giverny-Monet's House-spring

2. BRING THE SAME COLOUR PALETTE INTO THE GARDEN: Given that your painted shutters and veranda are colourful, it follows that it’s a very good idea to extend that colour down to painted features in the garden like benches, fences and outbuildings. Not to be ‘matchy-matchy’, but so the eye moves easily from the house architecture right into the garden. This unified approach works whether you’re dealing with taupe or teal – or kelly green.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Green bench & door-Japanese cherry

3. SPRING FOR SEASONAL BLOSSOMS FOR YOUR CONTAINERS: No, it doesn’t have to be a flowering crabapple tree and hothouse cinerarias in a ceramic Chinese pot, like Giverny, but do splurge on some pussy willows and daffodils and primulas to say farewell to winter and rejoice in spring.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-pots of cineraria-spring

4. TRY TONE-ON-TONE TULIPS: Let’s face it; this big bed would be truly boring if Giverny’s gardeners planted it with just one variety of tulip, so they don’t! They mix four cultivars, which the office could not identify for me, other than to say “four”. What that provides is a bit of pointillism that shimmers, rather than a block of colour. If you do this (and you should) make sure the tulips you choose are slightly different shades of a hue, but all the same class, whether it’s Darwin Hybrids, Triumphs or Late-Flowered tulips.

Giverny-Monet's house & pink tulip blend

And be sure to remember the importance of humble, biennial forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) when you’re designing your tulip plantings. Such an easy, beautiful way to carpet bare spring ground.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Myosotis sylvatica-Forget-me-nots under tulips

5. USE PANSIES & VIOLAS: It takes some planning to produce the beautiful combination in the photo below, where purple pansies and violas are in full flower underneath the tulips as they come into bloom. In mild regions like Normandy, pansies have no problem overwintering. But in colder parts of North America, like Toronto (USDA Zone 5-Canadian Zone 6b), pansies should be planted the previous September so they have time to establish roots before winter. That actually coincides with bulb-planting time, so you can fine-tune your colour choices and positioning of the pansies as you tuck in the bulbs. It’s a good idea to add a mulch (use a layer of shredded, damp autumn leaves) once the ground freezes, and choose the hardiest pansies and violas you can find. Try Icicle Pansies which have been bred for cold winter regions. The Delta, Bingo and Maxim series are also reportedly hardy in the north.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Clos Normand-tulips & pansies

6. FRAME A VIEW: There’s a Monet family story behind those big, old yews at the end of the 172-foot long Grande Allée, for they were once the final evergreens in a double line of conifers that hedged this path. They can be seen in one of the many paintings Monet made in his garden, Pathway in Monet’s Garden, 1900, below:

Claude Monet - Pathway In Monet's Garden At Giverny - 1900

Monet, looking for more sunshine for the flower garden he was making in front of the house, cut all the path evergreens down except this last pair, which his wife Alice Hoschedé-Monet persuaded him to spare.  Apart from the grandeur of the yews as a penultimate focal point before the house facade, look at the way the gardeners have used pink forget-me-nots edging that long path to draw your eye to the pink house, creating beauty out of geometry and symmetry.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Allee & House-Clos Normand-spring tulips (2)

7. COLOUR WITH PAINTBOXES: When Gérald Van der Kemp arrived in Giverny in 1977 to restore Monet’s abandoned house and property, there was precious little in the way of garden records.  With his American wife Florence, he had earlier established the Versailles Foundation in New York, attracting wealthy American donors to fund the restoration of the palace and gardens at Versailles. And it was  $2.5 million in further American funding that would pay for the refurbishment of Monet’s house and garden. For details on the garden in Monet’s time, Van der Kemp and gardener Gilbert Vahé sought the assistance of André De Villiers, assistant to Georges Truffaut, the French garden magazine publisher and nursery chain founder, who had visited the garden and Monet often (below).

Georges Truffaut & Claude Monet at Giverny














As well, Alice Hoschedé-Monet’s great grandson, the late artist Jean-Marie Toulgouat still lived in Giverny and was able to provide Van der Kemp with family correspondence, journals and photos. There were also photos made by Claude Monet himself and visitors, as well as letters he had written or that others had sent to him that mentioned the garden.

As to the colour beds in the Clos Normand, we must imagine Monet playing with his paints, choosing felicitous combinations in the same way he might have combined pigments on his easel — which is why these beds have been described as paintboxes. Rather than a riot of colour, they are planted in discrete hues and kept separate from each other, below.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Clos Normand-colour beds-spring

There are pinks….

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Pink spring flowers

….and mauves and lilacs….

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Mauves & Purples-Spring

…. and blues……

Giverny-Monet's Garden-blue spring flowers

…. and yellows…..

Giverny-Monet's Garden-yellow spring colour

….and reds that pair beautifully with the deep green leaves of emerging perennials…..

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Red & Yellow tulips

….and even the colour of the emerging peonies, here shown in the rings used to keep them upright in spring rains.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Peony ring

In Elizabeth Murray’s book Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration and Insights from the Painter’s Garden (1989, 2nd edition 2010), she wrote: “To increase the various atmospheric effects of the garden, Monet planted rich orange, pink, gold and bronze wallflowers and tulips together on the west side of the flower garden to emphasize the effects of the setting sun.”

Giverny-Monet's Garden-orange & yellow spring flowers

“Using blue with clear yellow was one of Monet’s favored color combinations…” wrote Elizabeth Murray, and this pretty pairing of Dutch irises with yellow wallflowers and tulips illustrates the wisdom of that choice.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Iris x hollandica & yellow flowers

But it’s in the arrangement of the solid blocks of brilliantly-coloured tulips in the Grand Allée, looking under the rose arches towards the house…..

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Allee & House-Clos Normand-spring tulips blocks

…..and to the bottom of the Clos Normand…..

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Tulip Colour Drifts-Grand Allee

….that we see the closest intimation of the paintings that Monet made in 1886 after visiting the bulb fields of Holland. Here is Tulip Fields With The Rijnsburg Windmill (1886)….

Claude Monet - Tulip Fields With The Rijnsburg Windmill - 1886

…and Tulip Fields at Sassenheim (1886).

Claude Monet -Tulip Fields at Sassenheim-1886

It’s these powerful reminders of Monet’s art that makes the garden resonate for me.

8. PLANT FLOWERING TREES:  Every garden needs trees with spring blossoms – Monet appreciated this, and painted the garden when his trees were in bloom, as in Springtime at Giverny (1886), below:

Claude Monet - Springtime at Giverny-1886

Whether ornamentals, like the many lovely Japanese cherries, including slender Prunus serrulata ‘Ama-no-gawa’, shown below in the Clos Normand……

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Clos Normand-Prunus Amanagowa-Japanese cherry

….or edible fruit trees such as pears, plums and apples – like the beautiful espaliered apple trees trained as fencing around the lawn, below, spring-flowering trees play a structural role in Monet’s garden.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Espaliered Apple trees

9. REMEMBER FRAGRANCE:  It’s a simple lesson, but one that we often forget. Scented flowers should be planted where we can appreciate their fragrance. At Giverny, that means a row of Narcissus ‘Geranum’ edging the path…..

Narcissus 'Geranium'-Giverny-Monet's Garden-perfume

….. or a tumble of hyacinths planted where we can inhale their sweet perfume on the wind….

Hyacinths-Giverny-Monet's Garden-perfume

…… or a truss of fragrant snowball viburnum (V. x carlcephalum) at nose height as we pass by.

Viburnum x carlcephalum-Giverny-Monet's Garden-perfume

10. GARDEN THEMATICALLY:  Claude Monet became passionate about Japanese arts and crafts. His large collection of woodblock prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro is still displayed on the walls of his house. And in the garden, he turned to the Japanese landscape school to inspire him in creating his famous lily pond. We see the Japanese influence especially in the presence of the bamboo…..

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Bamboo & stream


Giverny-Monet's Garden-Japanese bamboo & cherry

….. ‘Kanzan’ flowering Japanese cherry, below, and other Japanese flora in the area…..

Prunus serrulata 'Kanzan'-Giverny

…including the brilliant azaleas and Japanese maples on its shore.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Azaleas & Japanese maple

10. PLAY WITH A POND:  For many visitors, the lily pond at Giverny offers the most intimate connection to Claude Monet, given that the wisteria over the Japanese bridge (like the waterlilies, not in bloom here) is the original vine and the bridge itself……

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Japanese-footbridge

….still looks much as it did in Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge, painted in 1899.

Claude Monet - The Japanese Footbridge-1899

And, of course, there were his many paintings of the famous nymphaea or water lilies, some of which I saw in 2016 in a magnificent show called Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at London’s Royal Academy of Arts

But any pond needs context and perspective and a connection with the rest of the garden, and in this respect, Monet’s pond offers other good lessons. The edges are planted to offer foreground interest no matter where visitors stand…..

Giverny-Monet's Garden-Pond-Foreground interest

…. and the weeping willow lends an air of mystery, its long branches cascading to suggest a gauzy screen.

Giverny-Monet's Garden-lily pond & bridge-spring

Standing beside the pond, it’s easy to imagine Monet here with his easel — something made easier considering there is video footage of him painting his famous water lilies here at the pond’s edge.

As we leave the pond and Giverny, it seems appropriate to conclude with one of Monet’s masterpieces, painted exactly 100 years ago, its genius that quixotic alchemy of sunlight, reflection, water and flora which, his vision failing, he strived to perfect for the last three decades of his life.  I give you Water Lilies, 1917.


June Purple at Spadina House

There’s no better place to celebrate ‘purple’ – my featured colour for the month of June – than the lush, lupine-spangled, late-spring gardens in the ornamental potager behind Toronto’s historic Spadina House.

1-Spadina House gardens-early June

Now a city-owned museum, Spadina House was built in 1866 by Toronto’s James Austin (founder of Dominion Bank, later merged to become Toronto-Dominion Bank, then TD Bank). The property, at the time a 200-acre concession, had been settled originally in 1818 by Dr. William Baldwin, an Irish-born lawyer, doctor, schoolmaster and eventual two-term assemblyman in the town of York (later called Toronto) on land inherited by his wife Phoebe Willcocks and her sister Maria, from their father Joseph.  Sitting at the crest of the hill that leads from midtown to downtown – in historical geologic terms, it’s the escarpment overlooking the sloping shoreline of Lake Ontario’s ice-age predecessor, Lake Iroquois – Dr. Baldwin mentioned the name for his new rural home in a letter to his family in Ireland. “I have a very commodious house in the country.  I have called the place Spadina – the Indian word for Hill or Mont.”  Baldwin’s name came from his hearing of the Ojibway word ishapadenah, which meant “hill” or “rise of land” (and its correct pronunciation for the house is Spa-DEE-na, not Spa-DYE-na).   Using a width of two chains (132 feet), Dr. Baldwin also laid out Spadina Avenue itself from Queen Street north to Davenport, at the bottom of his hill.  In 1837, Lieutenant-Governor Bond Head ordered the extension of the road further south, almost to the lake

0-Spadina House

 What is Purple?

Before we head to the back garden at Spadina House, let’s look for a moment at colour . Purple is not a spectral hue, like short-wavelength indigo and violet – the “I” and “V” in our old mnemonic ROYGBIV for the red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet of the visible spectrum we see in a rainbow.

Visible spectrum

Rather “purple” is a word that people today use to describe various combinations of red and blue; it’s also sometimes used to describe colours that are really indigo or violet. It’s a muddy minefield of a colour word, its use open to broad interpretation and its misuse widespread (especially in plant catalogue descriptions!) But purple has an actual history, its etymological origins in the Greek word πορφύρα (porphura), the name given to an ancient pigment from the inky glandular secretions of a few species of spiny murex sea snails that have been harvested from the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps as early as 1500 B.C.  In her fascinating book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Victoria Finlay recounts how she visited the Lebanese city of Tyre, stayed in the Murex Hotel, and sneaked past guards to get to the ancient dye baths that gave rise to the colour Tyrian purple.  When she finally found samples of cloth dyed with the colour in the National Museum in Beirut, Finley was surprised and delighted. “Because it wasn’t purple at all: it was a lovely shade of fuchsia.”  More like the hue Pliny wrote about in the first century A.D. “Next came the Tyrian dye, which could not be purchased for a thousand denarii a pound”, and “most appreciated when it is the color of clotted blood, dark by reflected and brilliant by transmitted light.” A colour, perhaps, like this web version of Tyrian purple, below, which looks like Finley’s deep fuchsia-pink.

4-Tyrian purple

The august figure in the centre of my Tyrian purple sample is the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 (482-565). Note the “clotted blood” colour of his garments.  Justinian was responsible for building the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 537, and there is a purple connection to that ancient structure. When I visited it a few years ago, I was struck by the crimson-red pillars; they are made of the mineral porphyry, a word which also traces its roots to the Greek word for purple.

5- Porphyry-Hagia Sophia

If you were of high enough rank in the Byzantine Empire to warrant Tyrian purple robes, you were considered “born in the purple” and your honorific name very possibly reflected that fact, as with young Porphyrogenetos, below, (Latin, Porphyrogenitus, Greek Πορφυρογέννητο), son of the emperor.

4-Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos baptizes Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos

But much earlier – 500 years earlier – Roman emperors had worn Tyrian purple, including the most famous of all, Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.).  In fact, unless you had the power and wealth to wear Tyrian purple robes, you were prohibited from wearing the colour, and could be executed for daring to do so. When Caesar visited Cleopatra in 49 B.C., her sofa coverlets were recorded as having been “long steeped in Tyrian dye”.  And in the painting below by French artist Lionel Royer, “Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar” (1898), we see Caesar adorned in Tyrian purple robes.

Julius Caesar-Tyrian purple

Over the eons, I think it’s clear that  we’ve come to view “purple” as less reddish (as in clotted blood) and more blue, a kind of deep, rich violet. So let’s head to the flowery back garden at Spadina House and see if we can visually puzzle out some other “purplish” hues.

Back to Spadina House

In the large ornamental potager behind Toronto’s historic Spadina House, the “cottage garden look” is very much in evidence. Within a formal structure of four even quadrants and intersecting cinder paths are rows of vegetables, strawberries and herbs surrounded by a billowing perimeter of herbaceous perennials, including plants like Virginia bluebell, lupine, peony, iris, anthemis, Shasta daisy, veronica, tradescantia, catmint, Japanese anemones and asters, among many others. Old-fashioned annuals grown in cold frames beside Spadina’s greenhouse are planted in the borders each spring.  Behind a hedge to the north is an orchard of heritage fruit trees, and south of the house are lawns with old shade trees overlooking downtown Toronto and Spadina Road. And next door is famous (but much younger) Casa Loma.

2-Vegetable garden-Spadina House

But in early June, it’s all about lupines, irises, sweet rocket, baptisia and peonies, and there’s a decidedly PURPLE tinge to the garden.


Leaving aside Tyrian purple from ancient history, to my eye this is what purple should look like.


To see a contemporary emblem incorporating the colour purple, look no further than a U.S. military Purple Heart.

7-Miliary Purple Heart

















At Spadina House, purple is at its best in the deepest-colored flowers of the gorgeous Russell hybrid lupines. Purple lupines grow with lilac-purple chives (Allium schoeneprasum) ….

8-lupine & chives-Spadina House

…..and with mauve and white sweet rocket or dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and luscious violet-purple bearded irises….


Sometimes those purple lupine flowers have Tyrian purple markings (or what we might nowadays call fuchsia-pink) and attract the attention of bumble bees who are strong enough to force open the petals.

10-Bombus bimaculatus on lupine

Some of Spadina’s beautiful Siberian irises (Iris sibirica) are also purple.

11-Siberian iris & Hesperis matronalis

Now I’m going to move on to another ‘purplish’ colour, one that takes its name from the visible spectrum, but also gives its name to a large class of flowers, i.e. violets. In this case, I’ve added a little VIOLET poster girl to the colour swatch, our own native common blue violet Viola sororia. Notice that qualifier “blue”….. ?


Though colour terminology in flowers is very arbitrary, “violet” is also seen as purple by many, but it does have more blue than my purple swatch above. It is seen in many of Spadina’s lovely old bearded irises.  Note the difference in hue from the lupines.


Bearded irises come in a rainbow of colours, but the duo below is the classic complementary contrast of yellow-violet from the artist’s colour wheel.

14-Violet & Gold irises

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), below,  is a pretty June companion for violet-purple bearded iris.

15-Violet Bearded iris & valerian

Columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) are charming June bloomers and their colour can be violet-purple, as well as pink, white, yellow, red and much more.

17-Aquilegia vulgaris

Here with see violet columbines with a single orange poppy (Papaver rupifragum).

18-Aquilegia vulgaris & Papaver rupifragum

And here is columbine consorting nicely with yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) in front of Spadina’s greenhouse.

19-Aquilegia vulgaris & Iris pseudacorus

There is an intense colour of violet with much more blue (yet still not completely in the blue camp) that can be described as BLUE-VIOLET, below.

20-Blue Violet

At Spadina House, some of the Siberian irises have much more blue pigment in their petals and can be described as blue-violet.

21-Blue Violet-Iris sibirica

Another purplish colour that borrows its name from the world of flora is LAVENDER. Although there are a number of plants we can call ‘lavender’, the one I think of as having flowers of this colour is English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. That is the plant I’ve put in my lavender-purple swatch below. Less intense, more blue, but a sort of greyed blue.


At Spadina House, I do see English lavender in June, looking quite lovely with the miniature pink rose ‘The Fairy’.

Rosa 'The Fairy' & Lavandula angustifolia

And it’s also in the flowers of the herbaceous clematis, C. integrifolia, seen here with sweet rocket.

23-Lavender-Clematis integrifolia & Hesperis matronalis

Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) is a wonderful native northeast perennial, and though it doesn’t sit perfectly in my lavender-purple camp, being a little more intensely blue, it is quite close.  And certainly not a true blue.

24-Baptisia australis-Spadina House

Here it is with the classic white peony ‘Festiva Maxima’. Isn’t this beautiful?

25-Baptisia australia & Peony 'Festiva Maxima'

Now we move to yet another variation on blued purple that takes its name from flowers. I’m talking about LILAC. In my view, this one should look as much as possible like the flowers of common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), so that’s what you’ll find in my lilac colour swatch, below.  In art terms, this one might be described as a tint, i.e. paler in intensity.


At Spadina, some of the columbines are soft lilac.

27-Aquilegia vulgaris

And some of the bearded irises, too, like the luscious heritage iris ‘Mme. Cherault’.

28-Iris 'Mme. Cherault'

The next variation on purple moves further into the red family. Meet MAUVE, below. This color has its etymological roots in the French language, for the French word for the European wildflower common mallow (M. sylvestris) is la mauve. However, its language roots aren’t buried in ancient Greece, but in east end London in Victorian times. For it was here, in 1856, that Royal College of Chemistry student William Henry Perkin, while using coal tar in a quest to discover a synthetic alternative to malaria-curing quinine, came up with a solution with “a strangely beautiful color”. At first, according to Victoria Finley in her book, he called it Tyrian purple, but changed the name to a French flower (la mauve) “to attract buyers of high fashion”.  It was a great hit. “By 1858 every lady in London, Paris and New York who could afford it was wearing ‘mauve’, and Perkin, who had opened a dye factory with his father and brother, was set to be a rich man before he reached his twenty-first birthday.”


Mauve’s affinity to red means that people will often say “mauve-pink”, rather than mauve-purple, but there are good reasons for including it in my discussion of purples, if only to differentiate it visually from the more blue hues.  At Spadina House, we see mauve in many of the sweet rocket flowers (Hesperis matronalis).


It’s quite clear, when I contrast sweet rocket with some of the irises, that our lexicon for colour proves to be difficult and often ambiguous. Colour vision is a relationship, not an absolute, that depends on our own eyes and of course colour rendition in the medium for viewing, if not in ‘real life’, i.e. a phone or computer screen. What I see is a mauve sweet rocket flower beside a bearded iris with light violet standards and true purple splotches on the falls. But this is a tough one!

29-Bearded Iris & Hesperis matronalis

Finally, here is mauve sweet rocket with more of Spadina’s beautiful lupines.  And what colour do you think those lupines are? I will leave that one with you to ponder.

32-Hesperis matronaiis & Purple Lupines

Later in the month, I promise another look at purple — this time without quite so much colour terminology.  Happy June!

Green as in Irish, Green as in Garden

Unlike most of my Paintbox Garden ruminations on colour, this one has a slightly more whimsical, personal approach. After all, March (my scheduled green month via my New Year’s resolution), contains St. Patrick’s Day — so two birds with one blog. Green Array-Janet Davis Ask anyone in my family what my favourite colour is, and they will all know the answer: green. My bedroom walls are kiwi-green; my kitchen is celery-green; our summer cottage is stained sage-green. Even my car is forest-green. My Green Subaru Outback

My clothes (many of them, anyway) are shades of green, from bright chartreuse to olive, no matter the season. Janet Davis-Green-Summer & Winter

Perhaps my passion for green comes from having family roots on the Emerald Isle. This pile of stone and slate is all that remained of my grandfather’s childhood home and blacksmith stable in what was once Kilkinamurry, near Banbridge, County Down, in Northern Ireland. I took the photo when we visited the ‘old country’ in 2008. But look at those lovely spring-green fields!  Green as in Ireland!

Campbell House & Blacksmith Shop ruins-County Down

The old Campbell house and blacksmith shop on Glen Corner, as we found it in May 2008 on our trip around Northern Ireland.

This (below) is how it looked in 1917. My great-grandmother Ellen Ann, the gardener, and great-grandfather Patrick Campbell are there in the centre, with some of their children and grandchildren around them, the men in their blacksmith aprons.  My grandfather, also named Patrick (Paddy) Campbell and also a blacksmith, had already immigrated to Canada in 1911.

Campbell Family House & Blacksmith Shop- Glen Corner-County Down

From left, daughter Maggie (m. Cooney), granddaughter Minnie McIvor, Ellen Ann, Patrick, son James and grandson Willie (Bill) McIvor.

Yes, Paddy Campbell. Perhaps I’m drawn to green for the love of gardening I inherited from my grandfather, seen here listening to 11-year-old (bossy? eager? young gardener?) me in his vegetable patch in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when we would visit from the west coast for our summer vacations. (That’s my uncle Vic and cousin Debbie in the background).  If gardening is in the genes, I proudly claim a share of his DNA.

Janet & Paddy Campbell-Saskatoon I have green eyes, too, for what it’s worth – and I like to imagine I was born with them so I could ‘see’ the world through nature-tinted irises.  But of course, green eyes are a product of inheritance (both my parents had blue eyes, which makes mine kind of rare) and melanin pigment and light scattering, so I can’t claim any special powers there. No, I’m quite sure that my love of restful, cool green is a direct result of being so energized and happy in the green and growing world.

Green Eyes-Janet Davis But speaking of pigments, let’s talk about chlorophyll, the pigment that makes our world “green“ and enables our survival on earth through the process of photosynthesis, in which life-enabling oxygen is a waste product. Chlorophyll is in every plant, (there are two types, Chlorophyll A and B, depending on the photosystem of the plant). Though we call it the ‘green’ pigment, in fact it is because it reflects back unused green spectral light waves (sunlight provides the energy or photons needed for photosynthesis) that we perceive it as that verdant colour. In the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) below, the leaves are metabolizing chlorophyll even as they unfurl. A few weeks from now, the full complement of chlorophyll will have turned the leaves dark green.

Sugar maple-Acer saccharum-flowers & leaves In the Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) below, photosynthesis occurs from the moment in spring when those first leaves unfurl until the moment they lose their chlorophyll and expose the underlying orange and yellow pigments in autumn, before ultimately separating from the tree as falling leaves (abscission). It happens zillions of times a day in every leaf, as long as sunlight is there to power it.  That is how the tree feeds itself, and by extension us and other animals – through all the vegetable foods and plant-eating animals we eat. Gymnocladus dioicus-Kentucky Coffeetree

Once upon a time, we got along quite well understanding the science behind photosynthesis via a simple equation, like the one I made below.  The tree leaf absorbs 6 molecules of carbon dioxide via the porous stomata in the leaf surface, while drawing up 6 molecules of water from the soil.Mix them up using solar energy in the chlorophyll-rich chloroplasts in the plant tissue cells, and voila! Plant sugars are synthesized and oxygen is released. End result: the tree feeds itself and grows, and we breathe in the released oxygen. Substitute corn or lettuce or any number of edible plants, and you have the planet’s green grocery store. Add in a grass-eating cow or plankton-eating salmon (incidentally, ocean-borne phytoplankton are responsible for 50% of the world’s oxygen) and you have the photosynthesis-enabled meaty side of the diet. Photosynthesis

Perhaps it’s no surprise that photosynthesis is not really as simple as my little bare-bones equation.  If you thought it was, do yourself a favour and take 12 minutes to watch this excellent video. Then watch it again, and again, for this is the single most important process for life on earth.

BACK TO THE GARDEN….. Now that I’ve written a blog-length introduction with a lot of questionable personal asides, what is there to say about green in the garden? First, of course, it’s the quiet framework — often evergreen —  for all the splashes of colour that attract bees and butterflies (like the Painted Lady on the purple coneflower below). From a design point of view, you need that neutral background to make the colours pop, and give the eyes a rest. And from a biological point of view, each plant must photosynthesize in order to flower, fruit and set seed. Painted Lady butterfly on echinacea

Since many of the plants we think of as “foliage” accents are happier in dappled light, we often consider green designs as being a gift of cool shade, like this leafy section of the David Lam Asian Garden at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver. UBC-Botanical Garden-Creek

Or this ferny glade at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden. What a perfect little scene! Ferny Glade-Van Dusen Gardens-Vancouver

And I adore the Takata Japanese Garden at Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific. Look at all this green, with just the tiniest burgundy-red contrast. Takata Japanese Garden-Horticulture Centre of the Pacific-Victoria BC

One of my favourite places to visit in May is the shady woodland garden at Toronto’s Casa Loma. It’s full of northeastern wildflowers (trillium, Virginia bluebell, wood poppy, among others), many of them spring ephemerals, but shimmering in a rich tapestry of ostrich ferns. Casa Loma-Wildflower Garden

The Shade Garden at Montreal Botanical Garden is a spectacular part of this world-class garden, and the subject of one of my favourite blogs. I marvel at how they use just the smallest touch of colour to add sparkle to what is an overwhelmingly green eden under mature trees. Shade Garden-Montreal Botanical Garden

Even without dipping into the other colours in the paintbox, you can design some pretty cool combinations using green, as the Toronto Botanical Garden did here using hostas, ornamental grasses and hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Grandiflora’, front, and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, rear) Toronto Botanical Garden-green vignette'

Green is good for drawing lines in the garden, whether ornate, as with the parterre here at Chateau Villandry in France’s Loire Valley,  with its symbols of love and music….

Villandry-Second Salon-Ornamental Garden …or more simple, like the little Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden at New York Botanical Garden.  Some years, the green knots are filled with leafy plants like cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), below….

NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden (1) …. and other years, something more colourful, like clary sage (Salvia sclarea), here. NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden (2) You can even draw with green and enjoy the painting when the garden is covered in snow, as with the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden, below.

Boxwood Spiral-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Toronto Botanical Garden Lawns are green, it’s true, but you can even have fun with a boring green lawn by turning it into a checkerboard path like the one here at Lakewinds Bed & Breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, (I’ve blogged about Lakewinds before – have a look.) Lakewinds Bed & Breakfast-Niagara-on-the-Lake Though they sometimes seem overused in gardens, hostas are valuable for the elegant foliage statement they make. (If only gardeners would stop cutting off those bee-friendly flowers!)  Here are just a few of the thousands of cultivars that boast every possible permutation of ‘green’. Hosta Array

Green furnishings and accessories can be added to the garden with spectacular results. Look at this fabulous scene at Landcraft Environments in Mattituck, on Long Island, New York. The cushion on the chaise lounge is the icing on the foliage-green cake. Patio & Chaise-Landcraft Environments

And this elegant garden room in Toronto – once a utilitarian garage before being opened up on two walls — was paved in limestone and furnished as a cool, chintz-and-wicker outdoor retreat. Former Garage as Garden Room

In her Raleigh, North Carolina garden, garden writer Helen Yoest has this mint-green Luytens bench to sink into when she needs a rest. Isn’t it pretty?

Helen Yoest-Luytens bench Containers can be green-themed, too. I love my little Home Depot ceramic pots, below. Filled with succulents – they head out to the deck table each spring and I ignore them almost all summer. Succulents-Green Pots

Well, there are containers, and then there are containers….. How about these wonderful urns from Landcraft Environments? Gorgeous, right? (By the way, though Landcraft is a wholesale nursery and closed to the public, it does open one day this summer for the Garden Conservancy, on July 9th, 2016. Plan a trip to the Hamptons around it; you won’t be sorry!) Urns-Landcraft Environments

Let’s end this little exploration of green with a few vignettes. The first is from Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, PA, near Philadelphia, my favourite small public garden in North America. (I’ve blogged about Chanticleer before, Part 1 and Part 2). Yes, it’s a pleasure garden with a talented roster of designers at the top of their game (including Dan Benarcik, the creator of this scene). Yes, there are greenhouses in which to store all the delectable tropical plants used here. And yes, there’s a generous budget and most of us can only afford the inspiration, not necessarily the ingredients. But isn’t it wonderful, this lush, green greeting? Don’t you want to linger before opening the door?

Chanticleer House GardenBut even a small space can feature a tiny, perfect vignette, like this cool green welcome in Portland designer/writer/garden guru Lucy Hardiman’s colourful garden. A Paris bistro chair, an array of green foliage plants, a soft-green wall behind, and a funky ceramic tile in the brick paving, just to keep things interesting. Perfection. Lucy Hardiman-Green Vignette Something to think about, as we contemplate another chlorophyll-rich spring in our own gardens.   Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Gold Heart' & Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum'

Complementary Contrast: Red and Green

While my earlier February post focused on some of my favourite red flowers for the garden, I want to spend just a little time talking about a principle of colour theory that, at least in the case of red, is a textbook example of visually pleasing complementary contrast.  You remember that from art theory, right? Colours that appear opposite each other on the artist’s colour wheel are said to be “complementary contrasts” and there is a harmony about them.  While not everyone might feel that way about orange & blue, the use of lots of restful green foliage to frame brilliant red blossoms seems like an obvious design approach.

Complementary Contrasts

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s look at a few examples I’ve collected over the years.  How about these sweet red tulips popping up amidst fresh hosta foliage, at Toronto’s Casa Loma?  So much more lovely than emerging in bare spring soil.

Tulipa 'Pinocchio' & hosta leaves

And look how pretty this bright ‘Pacifica XP Really Red’ vinca (Catharanthus roseus) is when paired with the chartreuse-green groundcover creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Goldilocks’) at Missouri Botanical Garden.

Lysimachia 'Goldilocks' & Red Catharanthus

The deservedly popular perennial stonecrop Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ makes a fabulous carpet for this annual red portulaca at the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ontario.

Sedum 'Angelina' & red portulaca

How about some tropicals?  I was wowed by this juxtaposition of dumpy little red salvia (S. splendens) and Canna ‘Pretoria’ at Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C.

Salvia splendens & Canna 'Pretoria'

And I loved this combination of (very underused) Gomphrena globosa ‘Strawberry Fields’ with the taro Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’ at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina.

Gomphrena 'Strawberry Fields' & Taro

This little ensemble of red coleus and honeybush (Melianthus major) with other tropical foliage plants took my eye at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, PA many years ago.

Red coleus & Cerinthe major

Of course, you don’t have to think small when considering designing a garden using plants featuring red-and-green complementary contrast. Even a humble vegetable patch, like this one at Chateau Villandry, in France’s Loire Valley, illustrates my colour theory!

Chateau Villandry Potager

And the concept works with garden furnishings too, as you can see with the sweet little iron sculpture from Toronto’s Mark Clark, left, and the traditional torii gate leading into the Japanese Garden at Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, right.

Red Garden Art & Tori Gate

Be sure to come back in March, when I’ll explore that most important of garden hues: chlorophyll-green.

Garden Design Using White Flowers

I promised you WHITE for January, so on the heels of my White Flowers for Sweet Perfume post, here are some rather random, eclectic and highly subjective observations on effective use of white flowers in garden design.

White Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

Personally, I’m not a big fan of monochrome gardens. All-white schemes, in particular, I find a little too sedate. But there is a place for them in a garden that 1) will be enjoyed in the evening, where the white flowers will pop out of the darkness; or 2) is a shady, mostly green area that will be enlivened by white flowers; or 3) features a large colour palette, but might benefit from a little corner of tranquility.

When white flowers are used almost exclusively, there should be a balancing framework of green foliage. And for green-and-white, no garden that I’ve seen does that crisp combination more beautifully than the elegant Beryl Ivey Knot Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden. From spring through fall, the curving boxwood and yew parterres are filled with an assortment of white flowers. In spring, there’s a lovely mix of Anemone sylvestris ‘Snowdrop’, narcissus ‘Thalia’, and tall white tulips, including lily-flowered tulip ‘White Elegance’.

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Spring

Here’s a closeup of that combination.

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Anemone sylvestris & Tulipa 'White Elegance'

By June, the scene has changed and the main feature is the re-blooming white bearded iris ‘Immortality’.

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Irises

Early summer features gorgeous white sages, including white meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa ‘Snow Hill’), one year mixed with biennial white clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica ‘Alba’).

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-White Sages

Later still come the coneflowers, usually a mix of Echinacea ‘White Swan’ with the regular purple coneflowers, and combined with white perennials like obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana ‘Alba’).

TBG-Beryl Ivey-Physostegia & Echinacea-white flowers

One summer, the knot garden featured fragrant flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) combined with tall white gaura. Here is how it looked as I strolled through it.

Apart from the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden, the TBG has many other beautiful display gardens featuring white flowers. Here’s another spring bulb ensemble I loved, this one starring the shimmering lily tulip ‘White Triumphator’ paired with dark ‘Queen of Night’ and peachy ‘Menton’.

TBG-Spring Bulbs-Tulipa 'White Triumphator'

What about this little white TBG vignette, against a protected inner wall in the Westview Terrace? Fragrant Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ with Viburnum rhytidophyllum.

TBG-Viburnum & Daphne

And a little later in the season, this airy cloud of Bowman’s root (Porteranthus trifoliatus, formerly Gillenia trifoliata) is simply exquisite. What a great native plant!

TBG-Porteranthus trifoliata-Bowman's Root

I’m not fond of big blobs of white in a border – say, drifts of white phlox next to blobs of a contrasting-coloured perennial. I think it’s jarring. But I do love a subtle tracery of white etched along a border, so the eye is carried by its luminance right into the distance. The TBG’s Piet Oudolf-designed entry border features a clever repeat of white foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), one of my very favourite penstemons. In this image, the brilliance is enhanced by the pale flowers of ‘Blue Angel’ hosta in the foreground, acting as an anchor. And isn’t it great with the zingy, wine-red knautias?

TBG-Penstemon digitalis in Oudolf border

Here’s a closer look at this bee-friendly penstemon and its companions.

TBG-Penstemon digitalis-Oudolf border

I love it so much (and it’s so easy), I’ve seeded it at my own cottage on Lake Muskoka, where it hangs out with yellow Coreopsis lanceolata and white (yes I know they’re exotic invasive) oxeye daisies (Leuchanthemum vulgare).

JD-Penstemon digitalis & Oxeye daisies

Back to the TBG now. Another great plant used in several places is the prairie native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). With its spiky, spherical, cream-white flowers, it adds a very interesting effect to a border. I love it with with Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’ in the perennial border…..

TBG-Eryngium yuccifolium & Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers'

….and with Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and Astilbe tacquetii  ‘Purpurlanz’ in the Oudolf border.

TBG-Eryngium yuccifolum & Perovskia

Isn’t that blue-and-white combo gorgeous? In fact, I collect photos of that seersucker-like pairing whenever I see it done well. Here’s Russian sage with fabulous white calamint (Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta), also at the TBG. (Just wait for the bees to descend on this duo!)

TBG-Perovskia-&-Calamintha nepeta

By the by, calamint is a fabulous addition to a border and enhances almost anything it’s placed beside, including ornamental grasses, silvery cardoon leaves, and a strong vertical plant like blazing star (Liatris spicata), below.

TBG-Liatris spicata & Calamintha nepeta

And any number of lovely blue-and-white spring combinations can be dreamed up with forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), but no one does that better than Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, here topping it with a lovely creamy-white lily-flowered tulip.

Butcharts-Tulips & Forget-me-nots

There are myriad ways to marry blue and white, in fact. Below are twelve of them!

Blue and white flower combinations

Top row, left to right: white Anemone blanda with blue scilla (S. siberica); narcissus ‘Thalia’ with grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum); star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) with forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica); and bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’) with forget-me-nots.

Middle row: white ‘Festiva Maxima’ peony with false blue indigo (Baptisia australis); white blackeyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata ‘Suzy White Black Eye’) with blue Convolvulus and white Nemesia; white spider flower (Cleome hassleriana ‘Sparkler White’ with blue mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea); and blue catmint (Nepeta racemosa) with white meadowsweet (Filipendula vulgaris).

Bottom row: Liatris spicata ‘Floristan White’ with Russian sage; white swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos ‘Blue River II’ with a gorgeous blue shed door; white guara (Oenothera lindheimeri) dancing with Russian sage; and white autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex) with ‘Arendsii’ autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii).

Another really versatile white-flowered perennial at the Toronto Botanical Garden is white Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Alba’). It’s difficult to explain how superb this tall perennial is at adding an interesting shape and texture to other late-season plants. The best way is to show you. Here it is with ‘Gateway” Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) in the Oudolf border….

TBG-Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba' & Eupatorium 'Gateway'

….and with equally quixotic (and long-blooming) Knautia macedonica

TBG-Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba' & Knautia

…and finally, even as it loses its whiteness, it adds a lacy scrim to a brilliant fall ensemble of sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and goldenrod.

TBG-Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba' & Helenium

Three more quick combos from the TBG that feature white flowers. Here’s a panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata ‘Little Lamb’), below, that can look a bit top-heavy, given its short stature and those big flowers. But put a chorus line of annual Brazilian verbenas (V. bonariensis) in front of them, and they look brilliant.

TBG-Hydrangea 'Little Lamb' & Verbena bonariensis

Even though I said I didn’t like “blobs” of white in the border, you can’t get more va-voom than the big white swamp hibiscus (H. moscheutos) ‘Blue River II’. I love this pairing with goldenrod – I think I’d even love 10 of each!

TBG-Hibiscus moscheutos & Solidago

Finally, a nice way to use a white astilbe such as A. ‘Diamond’, below, is to partner it with a good variegated hosta.

TBG-Astilbe 'Diamond' with variegated hosta

Speaking of variegated leaves, that’s the easiest way to add an elegant touch of white to the garden. Here is my own little deck garden in early June, a mass of the plain, old Hosta ‘Undulata’ with Azalea ‘White Cascade’.

JD-Azalea 'WhiteCascade' & Hosta 'Undulata'

A week or so later, the hostas switch partners (!!!) and cozy up to my rambling herbaceous Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’. I love this time in the garden, before the slugs get the hostas).

JD-Clematis recta & Hosta 'Undulata'

Toronto’s Spadina House Museum & Garden uses variegated hostas in an elegant pairing with white columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) that I like very much.

Spadina-Hosta & white columbine

And while I’m on the beautiful gardens of Spadina House, here’s an attractive early summer duo: white meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium ‘Album’) with white snakeroot (Actaea racemosa).

Spadina-Actaea racemosa & Thalictrum

New York Botanical Garden’s Seasonal Border, another Piet Oudolf design, does a lovely repeat with white foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’) in late spring.

New York Botanical-Four Seasons Border-Foxgloves

I liked this quiet NYBG combination of white violets (V. cornuta) with ‘Jack Frost’ variegated Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla).

NYBG-Brunnera Jack Frost & Violets

Further into the season, this is a classic white annual combination at NYBG: white Nicotiana sylvestris with white spider flower (Cleome hassleriana).

New York Botanical-Nicotiana sylvestris & Cleome

And I was completely wowed by this soft underplanting of native foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) beneath magenta azaleas in NYBG’s fabulous Azalea Garden.

New York Botanical-Tiarella & Rhododendron

My favourite American public garden, Chanticleer,  has a sweet way of working white into its schemes. Here’s a mass planting of white astilbe lighting up the shady Bell’s Wood.

Chanticleer-Astilbe-Bell's Wood

And how wonderful is this, on Chanticleer’s Rocky Ledge? A rollicking carpet of annual white Orlaya grandiflora with red corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and ‘Caradonna’ meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa).

Chanticleer-Orlaya grandiflora-Gravel Garden

Walk down the hill from that rocky ledge and you’re in the most gorgeous series of water gardens, but if you love being “led”, this is what will catch your eye,  Once again, my favourite foxglove penstemon, P. digitalis, all along the left side of the path.

Chanticleer-Penstemon-Gravel Garden

My final combination using white flowers comes from the sensational perennial garden of Montreal Botanical Garden, better known in the city as the Jardin Botanique. Here, white Echinacea ‘Prima Donna‘ acts as a petticoat for tall orange Lilium henryi.

Montreal Botanical-Echinacea 'Primadonna White' & Lilium henryi

So that’s white for January, from me to you!  Stay tuned for February! RED, baby!