Monet’s Garden at Melliodora

An invitation to be a “pop up speaker” at the NGV’s Monet’s Garden Exhibition gave me an opportunity to address this vexed role of aesthetics in  permaculture, in a very special context.  I was speaking in the largest exhibition space surrounded by Monet’s magnificent water lillies. This post splices my speaking notes with a selection of photos from Melliodora that illustrate the points of the talk. I began my talk by saying “I feel like the devils advocate invited into the Vatican of aesthetics”

Monet’s Garden: a Permacutlure  perspective

In the late 1970’s, Bill Mollison popularised permaculture as mulching out lawns and roses to grow food as a injunction to make the transformation from irresponsible consumer of luxuries to responsible producer of basic needs. Permaculture was about growing useful plants in contrast the “useless plants” of ornamental horticulture. Monet was not a target of Mollisonian scorn, but I suppose he could have been, based on the following evidence;

  • In the formal garden, Monet planted flowering bulbs and roses and eventually moved the vegetable production to another site in the village of Giverny.
  • With the expanded water garden he converted a perfectly good medieval fish pond  into an extravagant ornamental landscape.
  • In his affluent success he had a bevy of gardeners keeping it all perfect as a subject for his paintings.

On the other hand Monet has a few points in his favour, from a permaculture perspective

  • He was associated with anarchist thinking,  one of the influences on permaculture
  • Monet did the “back to the land” thing long before my fellow hippies in the 1970’s who enthusiastically embraced permaculture
  • He kept the fruit trees and underplanted them with bulbs just like we have at Melliodora (pic of orchard on the left) but he didn’t seem to see a place for animals in the system (pic geese in orchard)
  • Monet was influenced by Japanese design, so am I as a source of ecological design  (pic of Tea house and bamboo)
  • He most famous subjects,  the water lilies were often framed by willow trees which gave vertical contrast to the horizontal water scapes.  (Pic of Monet water garden)  I have a soft spot for the water garden as a  diverse and abundant managed human ecology.

Bulbs planted under fruit trees
Geese grazing in orchard primarily eating the competing grass but not the flowering bulbs

We have water lilies and willows for very different reasons; Water lillies for insect and fish habitat;  Willows for animal fodder, bee forage, erosion control, water filtering and fire barrier.

Winter view over dam to “Tea house” and black bamboo (right) slowly establishing after 15 years!
Monet’s Garden, Givery France 2013 (photo Joanna Richardson)
Water lillies interrupting the reflection of E.melliodora with bamboo and weeping willow at far left

Even this ecological rationalist might occasionally be struck by light and impressions. But the realities of water in Australia without the abundance of permanent flowing streams is of course very different from Monet’s Seine valley.

But even this ecological rationalist might occasionally be struck by light and impressions
Dam in drought conditions after irrigation draw down. Three grey patches on far bank of dam are shrivelled leaves of dormant water lilies

Given my position defending willows along our river and streams from govrnment funded nativist removal programs, I am pleased to be associated with an exhibition that casts the much maligned willow in a good light.

Cast netting to catch naturalised Redfin with weeping willow behind (favorite roost of the Nankin Night Heron)

Even the roses much reviled by Mollison as useless ornamentals are actually a source of perfume, culinary delights and medicinal rose hips as well as being yummy goat fodder.

Looking over the vegetable garden to raspberries and roses
Rose on chook pen with intertwined hops,  but wait! is that a meteorological ID picture or just an attempt to capture the ephemeral light of a special sky?

So maybe there can be an accommodation between aesthetics of Monet’s and ecological rationalism of Permaculture  because these apparent polar opposites always carry the seed of the other.


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