“It wouldn’t be Jean-Marie’s garden!”

Jean-Marie Avisard, the man with the green fingers who has worked for Fondation Monet for 30 years, will take over from Gilbert Vahé as head gardener on 1 April 2018. Enjoy this interview with a fifty-something who is as humble as he is seasoned…

Are you originally from Normandy or is this your adopted home?

I was born in Pont-Audemer, in the Eure region, and I grew up in Corneville-sur-Risle, a small town nearby. I started working as a gardener at the Tournebut Château in Aubevoye. I’ve worked on the land for as long as I can remember. It was my childhood dream!

How did you start at Fondation Monet?

I arrived here in 1988. And two years later I was hired as a seasonal worker! In the beginning, we all worked together and had no special assignment. Then when Gérald Van der Kemp wanted Gilbert Vahé to divide the garden into sectors, I was chosen to manage the water garden. I later took care of the exteriors and managed both sectors.

What did you learn from Gilbert Vahé, the former head gardener who oversaw the restoration?

When gardeners start at the Fondation, they receive theory and practical training in a standard garden. But Claude Monet’s gardens are anything but standard. In fact, they are an extremely special case! It takes years of experience to understand the spirit of this place. In addition to passing on his skills, Gilbert Vahé taught us about what makes this garden special.

Have you been thinking about this appointment for a long time?

Initially, not really. A few years ago, I wasn’t thinking about it at all! Then, when James Priest left and Gilbert Vahé came back to help with the transition, I thought “Why not!” I felt capable of bringing something to the garden as I know it very well. But when I applied, I didn’t really expect to get the position. I thought it might be too big a step. But then one thing led to another, and here we are!

What changes do you want to make?

My priority, with my assistant Rémi Lecoutre, is to reintroduce more plants and varieties. This season, you’ll see many more biennial plants, including pansies. But I don’t want to make any drastic changes. That would be the wrong approach! We’ll see over time what needs improving. For now, I will do what needs to be done and I will do it well. And I’ll think about innovations later!

How do you continue the “Monet spirit” from season to season?

I believe the garden should not stagnate. It’s an artist’s garden, with many colours, and it must look natural. I think that Claude Monet made himself a “favourites” garden. It’s not a French-style garden. When he wanted a collection or a plant like water lilies – new at that time – or irises, he planted it. I think that if Claude Monet was alive now, he’d prefer new varieties…

What would he think of his garden if he wandered through it today?

I’m sure he’d be happy to see his garden like this. But it’s best that he doesn’t come when the public are here. I don’t think he’d be very happy with that! There are tons of questions I’d love to ask him. For example, we’ve changed a lot of things in the water garden. When he lived here, there were mostly irises, rose bushes and lawns. There weren’t so many plants or flowers. Would he like what we’ve done? I’d love to ask him…

In fact, haven’t you immersed yourself in the history of the impressionist artist and his garden?

Yes… And I’ll continue to do so! Old photos and paintings help us to better understand the garden, arrange the layout and know where something was. The aim is to respect the history while working with the plants that are alive now. Because there aren’t many plants remaining from Monet’s time!

Do you have an eco-friendly mindset and support 100% organic?

Definitely 100% organic. We have already massively reduced our use of treatment products. In fact, we are using them less and less, except in the greenhouses where they are essential. In any case, the old products no longer exist. And we’ve found that when we spray for aphids, we also kill their natural enemies who eat them. As these insects reproduce quickly, that only makes the problem worse. It’s better to keep the ecosystem and boost it with organic treatment operations.

In terms of management, how are you going to restructure the team?

There is a rather high age structure so we must start to think about changes. I will restructure the team a little bit, so the older ones can train those who will take their place. Everyone must make an effort. The Fondation’s gardens are the result of team work, not of one single person. Without the team, nothing can be done. It wouldn’t be Jean-Marie’s garden!

Is the 2018 version of the garden ready?

Of course! Despite the weather and frosts which have made life a bit difficult for us. Over the past few weeks, we have tweaked the details and also prepared for the official opening: repairing low fences, cleaning the boat, gravelling the paths… We are ready!