THE INCONSTANT GARDENER
A LAISSEZ- FAIRE APPROACH AND MONET- INSPIRED PALETTE FLOW INTO A MAGNIFICENT MARLBOROUGH GARDEN SURROUNDING A SPARKLING CREEK
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.