A few years ago, Gabrielle Spiegel took a long look at "25 years worth of weeds" covering an empty hill across the road from her house on Poplar Hill Road in North Baltimore. It was an eyesore on the scenic rambling street in a city neighborhood that looks like a country village. She offered to buy the land, a quarter of an acre, for $700.
Now it is a vision as lovely as a painting.
In fact, it is a vision as lovely as a Claude Monet painting. On the hill, Spiegel, a medieval historian, re-created a French country garden similar to the one Monet made famous in his Giverny masterpieces. Twenty-two of the paintings, done late in his life as he was going blind, are on display at the Walters Art Gallery until the end of May.
Spiegel's garden is complete with Monet's poppies, water lilies, arches, everything except his famous Japanese footbridge.
"It's continually evolving and taking shape," says Spiegel, a distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University who has published four books and numerous articles in her field of medieval history. "When I first looked at the [hillside] space, it didn't speak to me."
Inspiration came in the hard covers of "Monet's Passion," a 1989 book by California gardener Elizabeth Murray, who spent nearly a year working in the enchanting Giverny garden Monet cultivated outside his home in the countryside near Paris. The Impressionist artist lived there more than four decades until his death at age 86 in 1926.
"Ever since I read that book, it was something I wanted to try," says Spiegel, 55.
So three seasons ago, she began to bring the spirit of Giverny to Baltimore, she says, "one wheelbarrow at a time." She cleared and graded the land herself, with hired help from a young man.
Her neighbors, even her best gardening friends, thought her mad. "So what?" she shrugged.
Spiegel found that her dream was not entirely far-fetched: "A scaled-down version was indeed possible."
Dominating the view are three metal arches in a row along a path. They are exactly the same dimensions as the arches in the "grande allee," the main path, dividing Monet's garden: 22 feet wide, 13 feet tall. Climbing the arches are pink roses -- from a delicate pastel to a vibrant deep blush -- and on either side, a palate of color splashes the landscape.
"I got up here on a ladder last weekend," says Spiegel wryly, looking up at her roses. Small and sprightly, she hardly seems a rugged woman of the soil.
Libraries were her habitat when she was growing up in New York City. She and her twin sister -- both went to Bryn Mawr -- used to check out the limit of library books allowed every week and read them all.
Like Monet, who was a late bloomer as a gardener, Spiegel took up gardening in her mid-40s, in 1990 when both her daughter and son had left for college. "When the children left, I had a terrible need to nurture something," she explains.
Deep "midnight purple" irises, bright orange poppies, stargazer lilies and pink "bleeding hearts" are the leading ladies of the garden this spring. Not far away is a lily-pad pond, where a stream trickles, a tranquil setting where wild ducks alight.
Masses of wildflowers are emerging from the earth, planted by seed in March, and will bloom in June and July. Cosmos, sunflowers, daisies and trailing nasturtiums along the "allee" are among those that will come out to play in midsummer.
While the concept was inspired by Giverny, this garden is a reflection of the gardener herself. It is authentically her own mind and eye at work.
After the arches were complete, "the rest of it is my own thing," Spiegel says. "But I don't actually plan it."
Indeed, intuition and improvisation are the keys to her labor of love, which she sums up in three words: "It just happens.
"I'm a great believer in process rather than product," she explains. "The doing of it."
However, mellow she is not. She spends her Saturdays and Sundays, morning to night, on her living work of art.
"Gardening was invented for something for obsessional people to do on the weekends," she says, smiling at herself.
The professor adds after a pause: "And it's a wonderful way to be alone."
Her impromptu methods defy conventional wisdom. "I never water, ever," even in Baltimore's steamy summers. Nor does she dig up and turn over dirt. Instead, she adds truckloads of layers -- of dirt, mulch and leaf compost.
Wherever in the world she goes, she brings seeds back home to plant. The snowdrop seeds were gathered from nearby woods in Baltimore; others come from as far away as Italy or France, where she travels for her professional work. Her largest purchase ever was for "four or five thousand daffodils" to line the road adjacent to the garden.
There is little to eat in this garden, save a few raspberries and asparagus stalks. She cannot bring herself to cut the flowers for bouquets. Like Monet's garden, there is nothing practical about it -- only love and beauty.
Spiegel says that when her daughter Alix, now in her 20s, saw the garden she had grown to take her place, her reaction was: "Boy, you must love me a lot."
Author and professional gardener Elizabeth Murray, an expert on the Giverny garden, will give a lecture at the Walters Art Gallery, North Charles and Centre streets, at 1 p.m. Saturday on "Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul." General admission tickets $20. For information, call 410-547-9000.
Pub Date: 5/20/98