As you know I am very fond of gardening. Since my very first nursery job I have been obsessed. I have stacks and stacks of gardening magazines. I also have several gardening books that I refer to on a very regular basis. However, even with all of this information surrounding me, for many years I could not tell you my gardening style. I knew of many plants that I loved and plants that I didn’t, but they never seemed to fit into one specific category. This not knowing bothered me. I would try to picture the garden of my dreams, but I didn’t know which style would suit me. I mean let’s face it, what garden isn’t beautiful? Of course around this time there were many things about myself that I had yet to identify. It’s that age when you’re trying to find your place in the world, but nothing seems to fit.
In May of 2007 I was to travel to France with the UF Horticulture Club. Honestly I was somewhat disappointed because I really wanted to visit Italy. My grandmother was Italian and the fact that I was obsessed with the book “Under the Tuscan Sun,” made me dream of strolling through the hills of Tuscany. Nevertheless, this trip turned out to be a life changing experience.
My journey to France almost didn’t happen as my passport didn’t arrive until an hour before my ride to Gainesville picked me up. When she did finally arrive with my passport I told her she was the best postal worker ever! I was excited about my trip, but another part of me was very anxious due to the long airplane ride (I’m terrified of heights) and being amongst so many strangers for 10 days. The group consisted of horticulture students from the University of Florida campus in Gainesville and those of us students from satellite campuses throughout the state. I only knew one other person from my campus and a graduate student who had come to Milton, FL where her research was being conducted for her thesis. I was very much a “loner” in college. I really didn’t have time for friends. I worked throughout my college career and attended school full-time. I tend to study better independently because I feel groups have too many distractions. Of these 18 people or so in the group, I only made friends with 2 of them. They were a married couple in their thirties who were from Columbia, South America. Ana Maria and Ernesto: the most hilarious couple I have ever met. Ana and I absolutely shared a passion for flowers. Her goal was to be a cut flower rose farmer back in Columbia.
When we first arrived in Paris all of us were exhausted from the plane and not to mention our time clocks were completely messed up. We took a long bus trip out of Paris and not one person was awake. Our tour guides were persistent in us not going back to the hotel right away, so we could get on France time. I have never been so tired, I didn’t really think anything could wake me up. Then we pulled into the parking lot of a garden that was outside the city of Paris. Immediately every single person suddenly found something worth keeping their eyes open. I was astounded at the things I saw. It was completely different from back home. Usually as I drive down Scenic Highway I can name almost every flower, bush, and tree along the way, but here I was clueless. There was fantastic sculpture scattered in the garden, eye-catching color schemes within the flower beds, 5 foot tall Foxgloves, trees pruned in an espallier form, and enormous Clematis flowers on every arbor. Then as I was walking on the cement path through the garden I saw an amazing sight…an entire field of purple Dutch Iris. It was the first of many times in France that I thought I was dreaming.
After this I saw many more gardens that were absolutely astonishing. One of them had the biggest herb garden I had ever seen. I made a point to touch every herb to experience each one of their unique smells. In the same garden I saw the largest roses I had ever beheld. Stone walls were completely covered in these rose in full bloom. Some gardens were more formal with intricate designs made from shrubbery to be seen from balconies at the Chateaus. Another one I saw had the strangest art work amidst the flowers and even a rainforest placed in the middle of the French countryside. I learned that the French were “super gardeners.” They were willing to try anything. Everywhere that a plant could fit one was placed. Homes with the smallest court yards had massive roses cascading along the walls and every single one Ana had to have a picture because they were so show stopping! Vegetables like artichokes were used as food and ornament in a Chateau garden I visited that made their own wine. There were so many wonderful things to see.
About half way through the trip I started to feel disconnected to the gardens. I thought they were spectacular, but I didn’t feel that they were something I would want at my house. In other words, none of these gardens spoke to my soul. Around this time I had become very close to my tour guide’s wife because on my first day on the bus I was nearly car sick from the elaborate French breakfast I consumed, and it was recommended that I sit at the very front where she sat. We talked about art and history. It seemed that when I visited these places it had a different effect on me than the other students because usually I had studied the history or I wanted to learn the history once I was there. I wasn’t there to simply see it, I wanted to experience it fully. She was the one that taught me important French phrases like “Check please!” She also would give me the back story on wherever we were headed to next.
On one particular day we were headed to Giverny: Claude Monet’s garden. I had told her how I was becoming somewhat burned out on all of the formal themes of the gardens we had visited. She assured me that with my personality, the next garden was something I was sure to love. I stepped off the bus with no clear view of what my gardening style was and entered Monet’s garden with a certainty that this was my gardening style. I remember walking along the gravel path to find the most beautiful garden I have ever seen. There were flowers everywhere; iris popping out of beds, gigantic roses made into trees, arches covered in clematis, peonies and tulips at every turn. I was amazed how with so many plants jammed together that there was no sense of chaos. Everything seemed to be in the right place. I remember hearing one of my professors say, “Monet invented color.” I walked around his garden by myself taking time to see everything. No one else existed to me. It was as if this place was another world. I was fortunate enough to walk upon the bridges he made famous in his watercolors and the water lilies he painted over and over. I no longer felt that Italy would have been a better place to visit.
Since my trip to France I have been interested in learning about Monet’s landscaping techniques. I recently read a book that told of his methods and they were unlike any I have read in other landscaping books. Monet was truly an artist because he didn’t focus on the form of the plants, he focused on the colors. He would choose color combinations for different seasons, flowers that would contrast with the blue sky, and even flowers whose petals were translucent in the light. He has caused me to see gardening in a whole new way; a way that speaks to my soul. Today if you ask me what my gardening style is my answer will be cottage gardening. The garden style that Monet perfected.