After 30 years with the ‘firm’, 56-year old Rémi Lecoutre was named Deputy Head Gardener at Fondation Monet on 1 April 2018. Let’s introduce you to this botanical enthusiast…
Is working the land your calling?
Yes! I originally come from a rather rural place, Aumale, which sits at the edge the Seine Maritime region and near Picardy. When I was little, I would walk my parents’ dog and try to memorise the names of plants, which at the time I thought were very complicated! Of course, I had no idea that it would one day become my profession…
Are you self-taught or were you trained in horticulture?
Two of my uncles worked in this field. One was a travelling salesman for Clause seeds. The other, who I worked with for several years, was a fruit tree arboriculturist. Back then, I was trying to find myself! One day, I decided I’d had enough of this production-driven system. I was also aware that my CV was lacking artistic and aesthetic components. So I returned to school and did a horticulture course equivalent to a Bac Pro (vocational diploma) at the Lyon-Ecully CFPPA (agricultural promotion and vocational training centre). After that, I worked in a green space/garden company servicing private individuals and local authorities. It was great training!
How did you get a job at Fondation Monet?
In 1988, my contract was ending and through the ANPE (employment centre) I heard that the Fondation was looking for seasonal workers. My application was accepted and I worked there from May to October. I immediately fell in love with this unique garden and its amazing botanic diversity! I completely agreed with Monet’s taste: flowers arranged in star shapes, monochromatic systems, use of dark/light and contrast… The next year, Head Gardener Gilbert Vahé hired me again for April to October. In 1990, I got another phone call. This time I had the nerve to say, “I want a permanent position or I’m not coming!” And that was the end… Until one day in 1991 Gilbert Vahé called me back to offer a permanent position!
You were quickly appointed to manage the eastern section of Clos Normand.
Indeed! In 1991, Gilbert Vahé decided to divide the work into sectors and delegate responsibility to the gardeners. That suited me just fine!
Gilbert Vahé retired on 1 May 2018. What did he teach you?
Gilbert guided our first steps. At the time, he was everywhere! In addition to working on botanic diversity, he kept a close eye on production. And he had legendary problem-solving abilities! It was his idea to take fish crates and make them into seedling beds. I take my hat off to him! In addition to his great curiosity, Gilbert knew how to observe and listen…
Over the years, you have come to understand this garden. How can its legacy best be cultivated?
I think it is crucial for the garden never to stagnate. Claude Monet was curious, loved new things and used his artist’s eye to harmonise colours. If he’d had even more means and lived ten years longer, I think his garden would have looked like it does today! However, our main challenge is to remain faithful to the spirit of Monet while satisfying tourists’ expectations. The visual appeal must remain constant. That’s not always easy as you need to ensure a succession of uninterrupted flowering and increase the floral diversity. And that must all be managed behind the scenes, which means finding the right suppliers. Since our appointment, Jean-Marie Avisard and I have been getting to grips with this challenge!
On that topic, what kind of duo do you form with the new Head Gardener at Fondation Monet?
We’ve gotten along well for many years. And over time we have each matured. I think that we now complement each other, with our strengths and weaknesses. People often say I have a good botanic memory… But that doesn’t make me an experienced botanist! I can’t hold a candle to some… Also, it’s not just the two of us. We have all the other gardeners behind us. Newcomers and senior gardeners: they all have their skills! We are in a good place with our team at the moment. We have just recruited two new gardeners. They have great potential and we have confidence in them!
After 30 years in the business, you know the garden like the back of your hand. What is your favourite spot ?
It depends on the season or moment… As the day ends, I love the flowerbeds at the bottom of Clos Normand. The setting sun casts its last rays of light there. That is why Claude Monet used warm colours in this spot!
You agree with Monet as a gardener. But do you also like his paintings?
When there is a Monet exhibition, I’m there! But I’m interested in more than just the impressionists. The first major exhibition I went to was a Gauguin retrospective some 30 years ago. However, I don’t paint or even draw, myself… I don’t have that talent!
Do you now feel professionally fulfilled?
I’m happy where I am! The main thing is to work in this setting. I’m not a career-oriented person. Here, you can have fun and truly reach your full potential. For a gardener, it’s a comprehensive job. Only the vegetables are missing but you can grow those at home!
What challenges must the Fondation tackle?
Continuing to improve the watering system which creates maintenance and efficiency issues for us, particularly during heat waves! And there is the organic project. For me, I do organic because I believe in it. But new regulations are compelling us to adapt in any case. Lots of old products have disappeared! Organic creates interesting challenges in terms of fungal issues: it can help us defeat diseases created by microscopic fungi like mildew for impatiens, rust for geraniums… But you have to be on the lookout for all this information, even the most far-fetched theories. For instance, they say that powdery mildew can be treated with skimmed milk. I haven’t tried it myself, but an expert told me that it does work!