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.


La Vie en Rose(s)

La Vie en Rose…. I am not a chanteuse, but I love Edith Piaf. And I am not a rosarian, but I do love roses. That doesn’t mean I’ve actually grown many roses – other than a very constrained ‘New Dawn’ (see below) and a 5-year fling with the yellow-flowered Father Hugo’s rose (Rosa xanthina) which ultimately died in the border, leaving in its wake its progenitor, the pale-pink rootstock dog rose (Rosa canina). Before I pulled it out, I popped a sprig in a vase and photographed it. Amen. Rest in peace.

Rosa canina-Dog rose


But despite steering clear of roses and their fickle needs, I’ve seen many hundreds of them in the 25 years I’ve been photographing plants, and every June I indulge a little fantasy in which I have a garden spilling with their fragrant blossoms.  It’s easy to feel that rose fever, when you find yourself wandering the paths of, say, the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, as I’ve done for their annual June Rose Festival.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden2-NYBG

It’s a hugely popular crowd event in early June, with food vendors at the entrance.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden1-NYBG

It’s in gardens like Peggy Rockefeller that you can see storied roses at the height of their beauty, like ‘New Dawn’ (Wichuraiana, 1930), below, one of the classic, low-maintenance pink climbing roses. I grow this climber myself in a 4 foot-square garden (why did I plant it there? who knows?) against the brick support of my front porch, forgetting to prune it until June, hacking it back when it threatens to trail over the cars in the driveway and generally ignoring it in its spot behind an overly-large boxwood. It has never been sprayed or fertilized, is rarely watered, and gives me sprays of cupped, light-scented, tea-type blooms over the veranda railing in early summer. When happy, it’s a massive thing, growing 10 feet (3 m) tall and 15 feet (5 m) wide – enough to cover a garage wall (And yes, since this is my second PINK blog for the month of May, I’m going to be focusing entirely on pink roses!)

Rosa 'New Dawn'-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

Below is another beauty from Peggy Rockefeller, ‘Climbing Pinkie’ (Cl. Polyantha, 1952) with masses of small pink flowers on almost thornless canes that can reach 10 x 10 feet (3 metres). It’s considered fairly disease-resistant and is an excellent re-bloomer. Because of its growing habit, many gardeners like to train this rose along the top of a fence and let the flowers cascade.

Rosa 'Climbing Pinkie'-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

Paul’s Himalayan Musk (Hybrid Musk, c. 1899) is another giant that finds ample room to show off at Peggy Rockefeller Rose garden. A Royal Horticultural Society award-winner, this rambler festooned with masses of drooping clusters of small, double, pale-pink blossoms can reach a stunning 40 feet (13 m) in height in favourable conditions.  Shade-tolerant and slightly fragrant, it flowers only once, but with such abundance it can be forgiven for taking a rest for the balance of summer.

Rosa 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

If you like landscape roses (I find them a little boring, frankly, as I don’t expect the ‘queen of flowers’ to be “landscape” anything), there are now lots of really good pink ones from which to choose, including the Drift Series from Star Roses. They had several Drifts at Peggy Rockefeller, often interplanted with giant mauve Allium cristophii. Below is ‘Pink Drift’.

Rosa 'Pink Drift'


One of my very favourite roses in the Rockefeller garden, not least for its Canadian heritage, ‘John Davis’ is a gorgeous, ultra-hardy, modern shrub rose, bred in 1977 as part of the Explorer series by the late Canadian rose-breeder extraordinare Felicitas Svejda. Her breeding program to develop shrub roses that rivalled old French roses for beauty while managing to withstand the harshness of Canadian prairie winters (many to -40F-40C) produced some 25 roses from the mid-70s, all with the names of early explorers. ‘John Davis’ is on many rose-lovers’ “favourite” list, with its masses of fragrant, clear-pink blossoms in early summer on a 7 foot (2.1 metre) tall shrub that can be trained as a climber.

Rosa 'John Davis'-Explorer Shrub Rose

Now let’s head across the border to the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, Ontario, where we find another wonderful Explorer rose.  At 10 feet (3 metres) tall and wide, ‘William Baffin’ (Explorer shrub rose, 1983) is the biggest of Felicitas Svejda’s ultra-hardy introductions (she bred it in 1974 but it was released 9 years later). Gardeners who’ve tried to corral its thorny canes aren’t in a hurry to repeat the experience but the masses of cerise-pink flowers borne in clusters in early summer are truly a magnificent sight.

Rosa 'William Baffin'-Explorer Shrub Rose

And bees, like the bumble bee below, love the exposed stamens of single or semi-double roses like ‘William Baffin’. Though roses don’t offer nectar, their pollen is an excellent source of protein for bees.

Bombus impatiens on Rosa 'William Baffin'


When I want to sniff the incredible perfume of the old garden roses, I make my way to the collection beds at the Royal Botanical Garden. There I can find most of the classics – if I’m lucky, even before they’ve been hit hard by black spot, which tends to be a common problem with many of them.   Here are a dozen of my favourites in montage form.

Old Rose Array

In case you can’t read the caption, they include:

1st row, left to right: ‘Belle de Crecy’ (Gallica, 1829), ‘Ispahan’ (Damask, 1832), ‘Henri Martin’ (Moss, 1863); ‘Variegata di Bologna’ (Bourbon, 1909).

2nd row, left to right: ‘Fantin Latour’ (Centifolia, 1900), ‘Cardinal Richelieu’ (Gallica, pre-1847), Rosa muscosa (Common Moss Rose), ‘Petite Lisette’ (1817-Alba/Damask).

3rd row, left to right: ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’ (Bourbon, 1881), Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’ (Rosa Mundi), ‘Charles de Mills’ (Gallica, year unknown), ‘Tuscany Superb’ (Gallica, 1837)

Its beautifully-shaped, neon-pink blossoms made  ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ (Bourbon, 1868) a favourite of accomplished gardeners like Vita Sackville-West, and it continues to enjoy popularity today, especially since its branches are thornless.  (Those canes tend to flop around, so it should be trellised.) Like all the Bourbons, it is intensely-perfumed and the flowers look like those of the most exquisite hybrid tea. I only wish Wave Hill Gardens in the Bronx, New York, where I photographed Zéphirine, below, could find a more felicitous background for those blossoms than orange brick.  Design hint: pink roses look best against olive green and charcoal grey.

Rosa 'Zepherine Drouhin'-Wave Hill

With its deep cerise-magenta flowers, the Apothecary rose, Rosa gallica var. officinalis, is another old rose with a very long history. About 4 feet (1.3 metres) tall and wide, extremely fragrant, reasonably disease-resistant and free-flowering in early summer, it is known historically from around 1400 when it was used by ‘officinals’ or apothecaries for medicinal use.  I often find this lovely rose in medicinal herb gardens.

Rosa gallica 'Officinalis'-Apothecary rose


Speaking of strong colour statements, ‘Dr. Huey’ (Hybrid Wichuraiana, 1914) is an interesting rose.  Seen below at  Chanticleer Garden (have you read my two-part blog on my favourite public garden?) outside Philadelphia intertwined fetchingly with a light-purple clematis, it was commonly used in the U.S. as a rootstock under budded roses, including hybrid teas and many of the David Austin English roses (in contrast to “own-root” roses).  As such, it often emerges as suckering growth – either alongside the purchased rose (quite comical, when it soars high above a yellow hybrid tea) or in its place. But that vigor below-ground does not translate to disease-resistance above-ground, since ‘Dr. Huey’ is known to suffer considerably from black spot and other diseases. Still, those dark, wine-pink flowers on long, outspread canes are a very romantic look, and if you can keep it healthy, cheeky interloper or not, it’s a beauty.

Rosa 'Dr. Huey'-Chanticleer Garden


Perhaps no rose was as popular in the 1990s in my neck of the woods than Bonica, below  In fact, it was named “the world’s favourite rose” in 1997 (but who ran the contest? hmmmm….). Bonica is what I call it, but like many plants these days, that’s just a trade name and its actual cultivar name is ‘MEIdomonac’. Bred by French rose giant Meilland, it’s a lovely thing . Because of its compact 3-4 foot (1-1.3 metre) size can be incorporated into a perennial border of pinks, blues and purples, grown on its own as a specimen, or used as a low hedge. It’s very serviceable, with lovely flowers that look like ‘old roses’.  Unlike most old roses, however, it will re-bloom throughout summer when deadheaded.

Rosa 'Bonica'-Modern Shrub Rose

At the Toronto Botanical Garden, there’s a prominent bed where two modern shrub roses grow in a pretty, all-pink confection  The David Austin English Rose Mary Rose (‘AUSmary’) is at the rear, growing to about 4 feet x 4 feet (1.3 m x 1.3 m) while the front features the sweet rose ‘The Fairy’ (Polyantha, 1932).

Rosa 'Mary Rose' & 'The Fairy'-Toronto Botanical Garden

‘The Fairy’ makes a great companion to English lavender, shown below at Toronto’s Spadina House.

Rosa 'The Fairy' & Lavandula angustifolia

It is disease-resistant and an exceptionally long bloomer, often gathering frost on its last little buds in late autumn. Aren’t those blossoms sweet?

Rosa 'The Fairy'

Speaking of Spadina House, I do love the bountiful rose display at the front of the historic home, including the old rambler ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (Wichuriaiana, 1901), below. It was the first rose released by American rose giant Jackson & Perkins, and named by breeder Alvin Miller for Charles Perkins’ granddaughter. Its brash pink might not be for everyone, but it is a party when it’s in flower in early summer, but sadly often plagued with mildew and diseases.

Rosa 'Dorothy Perkins'-Spadina House

And while I have you at Spadina House, let me show you another charming companion for early-season roses. Look at these enchanting columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) below, cozying up to the beautiful, scented, hardy rugosa hybrid rose ‘Thérèse Bugnet’.

Columbines & roses-Spadina House

Many of English rose breeder David Austin’s introductions have the look and perfume of old French roses; some even bear evocative French names. Redouté (‘AUSpale’), below, is a light-pink sport of Mary Rose (mentioned above), and the same height, with ‘fruity old rose’ fragrance.  Named for the renowned 19th century painter of old roses, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, it is meltingly beautiful and would have made a prized still life subject for the artist.

Rosa 'Redoute'

Back to Toronto Botanical Garden for another little landscape rose, this time from German rose breeder Kordes. This is cherry-pink Sweet Vigorosa (KORdatura), which looks right at home with June perennials like Veronica longifolia ‘Eveline’, left, Achillea tomentosa, right, and coreopsis in the rear.

Rosa 'Sweet Vigorosa'-Toronto Botanical Garden


Growing roses with clematis is a long tradition, especially in European gardens.  It’s best to choose a clematis that can be cut back to buds near the ground in spring, i.e. one that flowers on new growth.  For the tallest pink roses, a purple Viticella like ‘Etoile Violette’ or ‘Polish Spirit’ would be a good match. In the photo below from Deep Cove Chalet Restaurant (one of my favourite spots to dine) outside Victoria, B.C., we see mauve-pink Clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’ intertwined with a tallish shrub rose or low climbing rose.  I love that look.

Clematis 'Hagley Hybrid' with pink rose

Since we’re talking pink clematis, I’ll mention one of my favourites:  ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ (NOT Bouchard, as it’s often written). This bubblegum-pink vine would be perfect clambering through a pale-pink shrub rose – like one of the David Austins, e.g. Redouté or Queen of Sweden.

Clematis 'Comtesse de Bouchaud'

Clematis ‘Alionushka’ is a non-twining clematis (the herbaceous C. integrifolia is one parent) that needs something to support it, so it’s a very good candidate for training up into a shrub rose of about the same height.

Clematis 'Alionushka'


Since I’m a prairie girl originally (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan until the age of 6 weeks, when I left for the balmy west coast city of Victoria, B.C., dragging my parents behind me), I’m going to end my homage to pink roses with one that many gardeners consider to be vastly underused. ‘Prairie Joy’ is a product of Canada’s Morden Research Station in Manitoba, a vase-shaped, upright rose to 5-6 feet (2 metres) with   a flush of the most gorgeous pink blossoms in early summer, followed by generous repeat flowering throughout summer. Since the very thorny canes tend to swoop down, it is recommended that ‘Prairie Joy’ be trellised or tied loosely to an obelisk.

Rosa 'Prairie Joy'

And on that very pink note, we bid adieu to May and welcome in rose season.  But don’t forget to join me in early June, when we’ll be taking a promenade through PURPLE in a gorgeous Toronto garden!

The Rosy Buds of May and Beyond

Yes, it’s May, and the garden is bursting with fresh spring colour. Greens are still bright, pests haven’t yet made serious inroads, and there’s still a sense of anticipation about what the rest of the spring season holds.  And on that note, why shouldn’t it hold some pink?  (Especially since I promised you ‘pink for May’ in my 2016 New Year’s resolution!)

Light Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

The word ‘pink’ is believed to come from the Dutch phrase pinck oogen or “small eyes” and was used to describe flowers of the Dianthus genus that we know as pinks, with their small coloured eyes. Plants like this little Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) that pops up along my path at the cottage at Lake Muskoka….

Dianthus armeria-Deptford pink

….or the common grass pink (Dianthus plumarius), with its deliciously spicy clove perfume and lime-loving ways.

Dianthus plumarius-grass pink

Its use in colour terminology, i.e. ‘pink-coloured’, dates from 1680, referencing the same genus of plants, but increasingly coming to have other meanings and connotations, such as “in the pink” for health, relating to complexion and the 20th century “pink for girls and blue for boys” social construct that saw everything from maternity ward bracelets to toys and furniture divided into two camps. Interestingly, pink and blue are conjoined in Panatone’s 2016 Colour of the Year, which I blogged about a while back.

PANTONE-2016-Rose Quartz & Serenity

The use of pink plants in garden design schemes seems to have had its heyday in the 1980s, when pretty pastels and combinations of pink-lavender-purple-blue-silver were popular. That “pink for girls” look subsided considerably over the next few decades, when hot colours, dark foliage schemes and green-on-green designs came into their own. But pink-inflected borders are still lovely, and a hallmark of the June garden, when pink peonies and the complementary blues and purples of lupines, irises and other early-summer perennials create a romantic mood, as they do below at Toronto’s Spadina House.

Spadina House-Peonies & lupines

There are loads of pink-flowered perennials and I’ll tackle some of my favourites another time. But in this blog I want to talk about hardy shrubs and vines with pink flowers.  It seems reasonable to do that chronologically, so I’m starting with my favourite pink magnolia, the enchanting and exceptionally early-blooming little ‘Leonard Messel’ Loebner hybrid magnolia. A cross between white-flowered Magnolia kobus and the pink form of star magnolia Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’, it is very hardy and utterly enchanting, with its starry pink flowers.  Put lots of glory-of-the-snow (Scilla forbesii formerly Chionodoxa) under this one!

Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' (1)

‘Leonard Messel’ is best in a protected spot away from wind and weather and lovely with the first spring bulbs. However, a killing frost in early spring in colder regions (twice in 10 years in Toronto)  will turn those brave flowers brown, so caveat emptor.

Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' (2)

Japanese cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis, P. serrulata, etc.) are an iconic – if fleeting – sign of spring in many parts of the temperate world where sakura flower-watching is enjoyed. In colder regions, like Southern Ontario where I live, the choices are somewhat limited, but there is one that I love for its abundant pale-pink flowering show in late April or early May. Prunus ‘Accolade’, shown below, is a 1952 hybrid from England’s Knapp Hill Nurseries, a cross between a form of Prunus x subhirtella and the very hardy, northern Japanese hill cherry Prunus sargentii, aka ‘Sargent’s cherry’, named for its American collector Charles Sprague Sargent.  As a bonus to its flowering, it will also usually turn soft apricot-gold in autumn.

Prunus 'Accolade'

The flowers of ‘Accolade’, below, are exquisite, and arguably the tree is one of the hardiest available for northern gardeners (apart from the early Yoshino cherry, Prunus x yedoensis and the later, double-flowered and rather harsh pink Prunus serrulata ‘Kanzan’). But there’s a little hitch: if winter temperatures flirt with historic lows in the mid-to-low -20s Celsius, the flowers will often blast without opening.  Even in a mild winter without excessively low temperatures, if the mercury drops unseasonably in early spring as the buds are plumping up – as it did in Toronto this April – Japanese cherries will not flower profusely; some will not flower at all. But that’s the chance you take.

Prunus 'Accolade' closeup

An early, pink-flowered shrub to consider is Farrer’s viburnum (Viburnum farreri). I have this in my own garden and it sometimes opens in March in an unseasonably warm spring. Even better is the hybrid Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, below, which is a 1934 selection by Bodnant Nursery in Wales of their cross between V. farreri and V. grandiflorum.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

‘Dawn’ is also favoured for its early nectar by bees and overwintering butterflies like the mourning cloak.

Bombus on Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

Rhododendrons are a mainstay of the milder west coast and the warmer regions of the northeast into the Carolinas, but there are many that are perfectly hardy for us here in USDA Zone 5 (Zone 6 Canadian zones). Among the best pinks are the ultra-hardy, small-flowered rhododendrons bred by Weston Nurseries in Massachusetts. Indeed, I once had eleven of these – a combination of Rhododendron ‘Aglow’ and ‘Olga Mezitt’ – in my front garden for a spring show that brought the neighbours around to ooh and ahhh. In time, the prairie perennials I grew for my ‘second act’ in summer crowded and shaded out these spring lovelies – and in truth, they were never happy with the soil, which was essentially alkaline clay. But they’re highly recommended for people who don’t mind the somewhat brash neon colour and can’t bear the thought of cosseting the big-flowered rhododendrons to protect them from winter sunshine and resulting leaf dessication. Look how lovely ‘Olga Mezitt’ was, with its pink tulip and blue forget-me-not companions.

Rhododendron 'Olga Mezitt' in my old garden

A closeup of the beautiful flower truss of ‘Olga Mezitt’.

Rhododendron 'Olga Mezitt'

And here is ‘Aglow’ at the Montreal Botanical Garden. Spectacular, isn’t it, for a shrub that can survive -30F (-30C) unprotected without bud damage?

Rhododendron 'Aglow'-Montreal Botanical Garden

The Eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) is one of the most beautiful of the native northeast sylva. It seems like a little miracle that those pea flowers should emerge on bare wood, transforming each limb from drab winter brown to brilliant raspberry-pink. This little grouping of redbuds at the Toronto Botanical Garden includes two pinks, a white-flowered form and the weeping dwarf cultivar ‘Covey’.

Cercis canadensis-Toronto Botanical Garden

A closer look at Eastern redbud at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Cercis canadensis-Toronto Botanical Garden2

And here’s a better look at Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’ (trade name Lavender Twist – and don’t get me going on the misuse of “lavender” as a colour term), which seems like it was born to cascade over this stone wall!

Cercis canadensis 'Covey'-Toronto Botanical Garden

Moving along through spring, we have the gorgeous tree peonies and interspecific Itoh hybrid peonies. You could easily find dozens of beautiful pink tree peonies and Itoh variaeties, but it would be hard to beat Paeonia Itoh Group ‘Morning Lilac’, shown here with catmint (Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’).

Paeonia Itoh Group 'Morning Lilac'

And ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, below, is another beautiful pink Itoh peony.

Paeonia Itoh Group 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'

One of the most elegant, pink-flowered spring shrubs is Calycanthus x raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’.  This superb selection of a hybrid between Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) and the Chinese species C. chinensis was developed at the North Carolina State University arboretum headed by the late J.C. Raulston. The hybrid honours Raulson, while the selection is named for Richard Hartlage, the grad student who made the cross.

Calycanthus x raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine'

I do know that weigelas (Weigela florida) are not much in fashion these days amongst the horticultural cognoscenti, given that they were much overplanted in decades past. But they are largely problem-free, gorgeous in flower, and quite attractive to pollinators, especially bumble bees. (Incidentally, my friend Rebecca Alexander, erudite librarian at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens Center for Urban Horticulture, points out that the genus should be pronounced VYE-guh-la, since it’s named after German Botanist Christian Ehrenfried von Weigel –and certainly not wuh-JEE-lia. But imagine the looks you’d get at your local nursery as you ask for Vyeguhla!) I think they are lovely shrubs with exciting variety in their flower and leaf colours and forms, especially the beautiful variegated-leaf cultivar ‘Variegata’. Skilful pruning immediately after blooms fade helps maintain a vigorous shrub, but rejuvenation pruning may be required every few years to remove the oldest wood and keep the shrub at a reasonable height.

Weigela florida

I’ve also seen weigela grown as an unexpectedly attractive flowering hedge.

Weigela florida hedge

Mmm…. lilacs. Everyone loves lilac season, with those magnificent perfumed trusses of the deep-purple, reddish-mauve, white or soft lilac flowers that gave that hue its name. While true pink isn’t seen in the many named lilacs descending from the common lilac Syringa vulgaris, it is found in a class of late-bloomers generally called the Preston lilacs (Syringa x prestoniae). The name honours Isabella Preston, the Canadian plant breeder whose work in the 1920s and 30s with crosses of the late Syringa villosa (shown below) with Syringa reflexa resulted in so many excellent and hardy shrubs, mostly known as the Villosae Group.  Lightly-scented (of privet, rather than the typical lilac scent), they flower 10 days to 2 weeks after common lilacs.

Syringa villosa

Other breeders worked with these lilacs too, such as Dr. Frank Skinner in Roblin, Manitoba, who developed the beautiful pink-flowered ‘Hiawatha’, on the left below, in 1932. On the right is ‘Isabella’, developed in 1928 by its namesake Miss Preston.

Syringa x prestoniae 'Hiawatha' & 'Isabella'

Syringa x prestoniae ‘Miss Canada’ was introduced, appropriately, in Canada’s Centennial year 1967, by Dr. William Cumming at Manitoba’s Morden Research Centre, a cross between Syringa josiflexa ‘Redwine’ and S. x prestoniae ‘Hiawatha’, above.  What a pink beauty she is.

Syringa x prestoniae 'Miss Canada'

Syringa x prestoniae ‘Ferna Alexander’, was introduced in 1970 by Boston horticulturist John H. Alexander, who recommended appreciating these late lilacs for themselves as exceptional shrubs, rather than comparing them to the familiar common lilac and its selections. I photographed this rare beauty at the top of the Lilac Dell at the Royal Botanical Garden, Hamilton, Ontario, on June 10, 2011.  It’s named for the grandmother of current Arnold Arboretum plant breeder J.H. Alexander III, so a tip of the hat to the breeding talents of the Alexander family.

Syringa x prestoniae 'Ferna Alexander'

Here’s another beautiful pink Preston from John H. Alexander – ‘Alexander’s Aristocrat’. It seems to me that the RBG and other lilac gardens should be propagating these unusual introductions and making them available in commerce so we don’t lose them for future generations.

Syringa x prestoniae 'Alexander's Aristocrat'

Finally, while I’m immersed in pink lilacs — and I could go on and on with pink Prestons I’ve photographed:  ‘Alice Rose Foster’, ‘Danusia’, Romeo’, etc. — let me finish up with a beautiful pink, Chinese species lilac from the David Lam Asian Garden at the U.B.C. Botanical Garden in Vancouver (though hardy in cold regions as well): the spectacular Syringa sweginzowii.    If that doesn’t knock your socks off, I don’t know what will.

Syringa sweginzowii

Can you imagine the joy they must have felt at the Arnold Arboretum that day in June 1915 when beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) flowered for the very first time in North America? The seeds had been collected fourteen years earlier near Hubei China by Ernest Wilson, but there was no foretelling that this stunning pink apparition would be the result. Wilson himself was so fond of it, he said: “Among the deciduous-leaved shrubs that central and western China has given to American gardens Kolkwitzia stands in the front rank.”  I agree – and feel so lucky that my neighbour planted two beautybush shrubs along our property line, which I get to enjoy as borrowed scenery each June.

Kolkwitzia amabilis as borrowed scenery

Though the species itself tends to be a pale, almost fleshy-pink, the one below in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery has the rich colour of the selection ‘Pink Cloud’, a 1946 introduction from the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley.

Kolkwitzia amabilis-Beauty bush

My final pink-flowered favourite is Robinia x slavinii ‘Hillieri’, a pretty 1930 selection of the hybrid ‘Slavin’s locust’ developed by New York breeder Bernard Slavin, who in 1919 crossed pink-flowered Robinia kelseyi with the large, white-flowered North American native black locust, Robinia pseudocacia.

Robinia x slavinii 'Hillierii'-habit

With its wisteria-like pink flower clusters much sought out by bumble bees, it’s a lovely sight in early June, though it does bear prominent thorns.  I photographed it at Mount Pleasant Cemetery down the road from my home in Toronto, where choice plants have been grown by the arborists on staff for many decades. Sadly, it appears that this tree is not easily found in North America – a  shame, really, because it’s a good choice for a small garden.

Robinia x slavinii 'Hillierii'-closeup

I could continue indefinitely with pink woody plants for spring, including crab apples, hawthorns, deutzias and, especially, roses (tune in next time for pink clematis & roses). But it’s May, and there’s gardening to be done.

Not a Blog!

This is not a blog. I repeat: this is not a blog.  It is merely a taste of blogs to come this year. And they will be about COLOUR!  Or color (if you prefer it without extraneous British/Canadian vowels).

Flower Colour Array-ThePaintboxGarden

Yes, I thought it might be time for The Paintbox Garden to adhere to its stated theme. So each month of 2016 will be devoted to a different hue, beginning with JANUARY, which will be white as the driven (or walking) snow. White as in wonderland, appropriate to the season. White as an even paler shade of pale. And of course, white as in perfume – coming up soon.

White Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

FEBRUARY will be red, as in better — than dead, paint the town —, roses are —,  and UB-40s favourite beverage.  And the longest, boldest wave length in Isaac Newton’s spectral light arsenal. Plus, of course, swamp hibiscus.

Red Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

MARCH will be green (yes, I know, hackneyed Irish trope for St. Paddy’s). But it is the only really important colour in the garden paintbox, as all chlorophyll-lovers know.  Nevertheless, as Kermit is fond of saying, it ain’t easy being green.  My March blogs will help dispel that notion.

Green Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

But being Kermit-green is definitely easier than being chartreuse, which is half-green and half-yellow. I will squeeze some limes… and chartreuses…into my March blogs as well.

Chatreuse Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

Because it’s the cruellest month, as T.S. Eliot reminded us, APRIL will be blue. Actually, I chose blue for April because of all those lovely little azure bulbs that spring up from the snow. But there will be azure blues….

Blue Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

….and lighter sky-blues for the entire gardening season, too.

Sky-Blue Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

MAY will be pink, as in the darling buds. Think crabapples, weigelas, columbines, peonies, and phloxes and hydrangeas for later in the season. There will be lusty pinks…

Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

…and delicate, light pinks.

Light Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

I’ll skip magenta because I wrote a love letter to that neon hue in 2014.

JUNE will be purple. Riots often break out about what purple means (for the record it comes from the Greek word porphura, for little murex sea snails that bleed that dark crimson ‘purple’ dye). So let me say June will be about lilac-purple..

Lilac-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

.. through lavender-purple…

Lavender-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… into violet-purple…

Violet-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and finally rich, royal, Seagram’s Bag, Tyrian purple.

Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

JULY will be all sunshine: lots of yellow…

Yellow Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and gold.

Gold Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

AUGUST will be black(ish). And hopefully some good thunderstorms!

Black flowers & leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

SEPTEMBER will be every lovely shade of brown, as in grasses and seedheads.

Brown Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

OCTOBER will be jack-o-lanternly, clockworkly-orange.

Orange Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

And I’ll throw in peach (even though it likes to party with pink, too)…

Peach Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

…and apricot (even though it sometimes hangs out with the gold crowd)…

Apricot Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and salmon for a well-rounded fruit & fish diet.

Salmon-Orange Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

NOVEMBER will be wine or burgundy, because who doesn’t fancy a little vino in dreary November.

Wine Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

DECEMBER will be silver, as in bells, hi-ho, and Long John.

Silver Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

And that’s a promise!

Glorious September Flowers

The first week of September seems to be its very own kind of mellow.  Everything about it:  lazy cicadas droning; bees buzzing, seeking the last nectar of the season; kids heading back to school, all polished and excited; that tang of autumn in the air, even as Indian summer thunderstorms threaten the quiet morning.  And that’s just today.  In my slightly messy front garden not far from downtown Toronto, the September-blooming perennials are at their peak.

My early September garden

The mini-hedge of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Herbstfreude’) is opening its thousands of tiny pink flowers, attracting many types of nectar-seeking bees, flies and butterflies before turning that lovely russet-red that carries it into autumn.

Bee-friendly Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

There is a nicely-behaved goldenrod, Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’ that weaves its way gracefully through other flowers. (And some uninvited cousins that will have to be ejected.)

Solidago sphacelata 'Golden Fleece'

I love the magenta flower spikes of obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), In richer, moister soil, it might spread aggressively and the flower stems might grow tall and flop. But in this garden, lack of extra irrigation keeps it at a reasonable height and its spread is welcome.

Physostegia virginiana & Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

The bees love it, too, especially carpenter bees whose strong tongues can pierce the corolla to access or “rob” the sweet nectar.  Later, honey bees and bumble bees will use these pre-drilled holes to acquire their own nectar.

Carpenter bee nectar-robbing physostegia

And it looks beautiful with the ‘Golden Fleece’ goldenrod as well.

Physostegia virginiana & Solidago sphacaleta 'Golden Fleece'

The biggest perennial — and most problematic to me, for its eager spreading ways — is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, shown here against the house behind a big drift of Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, which has been generously blooming for several weeks.  This robust, naturally-occurring hybrid of Helianthus pauciflorus var. subrhomboideus and Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus,is a wonderful plant for naturalistic gardens, provided you plan ahead for placement.  At 6-feet (2m) plus, it needs to be back of border, not mid-prairie muscling out everything around it.

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' behind Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

But the bees are awfully fond of it, too. So I may move it next spring — or I may not…..

Bee on Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'