This Marl­bor­ough gar­den crafted around a pretty creek is filled with hy­drangeas and is painterly per­fect

HUGUETTE MICHEL-FLEURIE, an alarm­ingly forth­right French­woman, isn’t eas­ily alarmed her­self. A fer­ret at­tack in the chook house shakes her – but not the im­mi­nence of hun­dreds of visi­tors about to stream through her prop­erty’s stone gates.

“I don’t want to know the things I am sup­posed to do. I just plant,” she says of the 2ha of gar­den trail­ing 100 me­tres along both sides of Spring Creek and spread­ing in waves of flow­er­ing glory un­der the canopy of tall trees sur­round­ing Horten­sia House. This gar­den, named af­ter its many hy­drangeas, is al­ways a favourite on the Wairau Plains tour dur­ing the an­nual Gar­den Marl­bor­ough fes­ti­val and has been for many of the fes­ti­val’s 25 years. The prospect of so many visi­tors doesn’t bother its owner too much.

“My girl­friends say, ‘Oh, are you com­ing to hear the guy talk­ing about com­post, and there’s an­other one talk­ing about land­scap­ing?’ I don’t want to know; I just plant the thing. If they grow and they’re happy, it’s okay. If they die, it’s okay. I will plant some­thing else.”

Huguette says when she first started gar­den­ing, she lis­tened to ev­ery­one’s ad­vice. “They said: ‘Use these sheep pel­lets, use this fer­til­izer, spray here, put in blood and bone there, plant this here, don’t plant that there.’ I said to my­self, ‘Oh God, I will just do it my way, the way I like it which is to make it look beau­ti­ful, like a pic­ture.’ Now I call my­self an os­trich gar­dener; I keep my head in the sand and I don’t want to know any­thing.”

This laid­back ap­proach has not held her back from de­vel­op­ing a mag­nif­i­cent gar­den on an im­pres­sive scale and to a high stan­dard but, then again, this artist, grand­mother, zumba dancer, tram­per and gar­dener isn’t given to be­ing held back on any­thing. “I have a lim­ited tol­er­ance for in­for­ma­tion. I think the se­cret to hav­ing a gar­den is to plant. I started this gar­den when I was 45, so I didn’t have all the time in the world to wait for per­fec­tion. I just plant, and plant, and plant.”

Huguette says she buys cheap plants, or swaps them, and then gets them in the ground. “You never know what’s around the cor­ner and any­way, it’s a lot eas­ier to cut out than to grow. When I no­tice some­thing is not happy, I get rid of it.”

Huguette and her French-born hus­band, Ge­orges Michel, em­i­grated from the Re­union Is­lands (a French depart­ment in the In­dian Ocean) ar­riv­ing in Marl­bor­ough in 1999. The cou­ple had vis­ited New Zealand five years ear­lier with their two then-teenage chil­dren – daugh­ter Swan and son Naik. That trip didn’t get off to a good start with Huguette’s melt­down in the air­port carpark when she saw the ve­hi­cle in which they were sup­posed to travel.

“It was the first time in my life I had seen such a tiny camper­van and I said: ‘No, NO, no way am I go­ing to stay a month in this lit­tle thing’ but when we got back to Auck­land af­ter the trip I cried, be­cause the camper­van was so cosy and we had fallen in love with New Zealand – and then we de­cided to move here.”

Even be­fore the cou­ple had landed in the coun­try, Ge­orges (a for­mer owner of the Château de Grand­mont vine­yard in Bur­gundy) had pur­chased land on which to plant grapes. It may have been the famed Marl­bor­ough ter­roir that at­tracted Ge­orges but it was pho­to­graphs of Spring Creek – one of the jewels of the Wairau Val­ley if not the en­tire coun­try – to which Huguette was drawn.

THIS PAGE: Huguette’s love of grow­ing things and draw­ing de­vel­oped in child­hood. Ini­tially she drew nudes and por­traits in char­coal but she switched to wa­ter­colour to bet­ter cap­ture the beauty of flow­ers. ‘ Blue Deckle’ (a lace­cap) is one of her favourites in the hy­drangea fam­ily. OP­PO­SITE: There are so many va­ri­eties of hy­drangea that Huguette paints the name of each plant­ing on a stone at the foot of the bush. From top left are ‘ Saturn’ that is some­times red­dish with blue spots, ‘ Blue Wave’ with round white petals, the lace­cap ‘ Red Start’ and quer­ci­fo­lia ‘ Snowflake’, the pink flower is va­ri­ety un­known. Be­neath the stat­uesque trunks of the gums (from left) are ‘ Jokasaki’, ‘ Red Star’ (blueish here), ‘ Mrs Ku­miko’ (pink) and tall, waxy ‘Aye­sha’.

ABOVE: The five- me­tre deep ve­ran­dahs pro­vide as much liv­ing space as the inside of the house. LEFT: Huguette man­ages the Horten­sia House gardens by her­self say­ing that her hus­band, Ge­orges Michel, gets a lit­tle grumpy if she asks him to do any gar­den­ing. Luck­ily, he is an ex­pert at mend­ing the ir­ri­ga­tion- sys­tem sprin­klers which Huguette is ex­pert at break­ing. She doesn’t like machin­ery so a man mows the lawns.

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