Vive la difference

Huguette Michel-Fleurie remembers photographing and naming plants as a small child living in the mountains of tropical Reunion, a French Island in the Indian Ocean.

Four decades on, in a stunning, sprawling garden in the heart of Marlborough's wine district, she continues that penchant for recording her plants, photographing some, painting others, and ensuring all are carefully recorded.

That's no small task at the 1ha Hortensia House, where hydrangeas thrive along winding trails and shaded corners, with at least 150 breeds of that species alone. Their soft and generous blooms, from greenish-white to papal purple, are crouched under trees, shrugged between shrubs, draped through garden structures, and woven into a plethora of other plants. Like Huguette, they are thriving here, far from their natural habitat.

When she moved to New Zealand with her family in 1999, after falling for the country during a campervan holiday from Cape Reinga to Bluff, Huguette originally wanted to settle on the West Coast, where she had also fallen for the hydrangeas flourishing in the inclement climate.

Husband Georges ruled out the wet west, and they settled on Marlborough instead, investing in a vineyard and the Georges Michel winery.

They were still living beachside on Reunion when Huguette saw potential in the O'Dwyers Rd property, with its red brick house surrounded by a small garden, paddocks and a sparkling creek, hidden by a wall of flax.

By the time they moved here in September 1999, renovations were in full swing, with the house clad in weatherboard, traditional wooden windows and doors replacing aluminium, verandahs added and the roof replaced.

Now the elegant country home, its white and blue facade draped with wisteria, gives no clues that it has ever been anything else.

The same effortless elegance reigns in the garden, with pathways wandering through a wilderness of lush plantings.

Looking at the property, it's almost impossible to imagine sheep grazing a stony, bony paddock.

"Thirteen years ago, it was nothing, and I started to plant a lot of trees here. I didn't want sheep, and no grapes," Huguette says, in her strong French accent, standing in a former field.

The garden already surrounding the home was also transformed.

While builders were gutting the house, she removed a large turning circle outside it, as well as most of the fences on the property, and began planting.

Huguette had little experience, and used magazines, trips with a Blenheim gardening club, a love of flowers and an unerring sense of style to shape her new world.

Her gardening naivety worked in her favour, leading her to plant a species that may love the wet of the West Coast but is not a natural choice for the hot, glaring days of Marlborough.

Hydrangeas have nonetheless thrived at Hortensia House, especially as the trees mature, casting more shade, allowing Huguette to continue buying new varieties.

"Every time I cut some branches, I would think, ‘I can plant some hydrangeas under that'."

The garden evolved with no master plan, bar the knowledge that she wanted extensive ground cover, a lot of blue and white, to reflect the house, and flowers blooming all year round. The hydrangeas play their part in that from late spring to autumn.

"What I like with them is they are always different. When they start at the end of November, they are blooming with a little bit of green, and, a month after, they are in full colour, and now they start to change into autumn colour. It's always something nice."

Huguette has a little blue bridge, based on the one in Monet's Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies, spanning the stream, and if water lilies could survive the cold waters of the stream to float beneath, the resulting scene would be near picture-perfect.

Instead, she has put in a pond on the drier land across the stream, where plantings are hardier but the result no less beautiful.

It is here, looking over the sparkling blue spring waters of the stream, to the colonial home and gardens beyond, that couples hold their ceremonies when Huguette opens her garden for weddings and tour groups.

Though vast, she has made it an easy-care garden, so all the work can be done in two mornings, "quick, quick", leaving time to tramp, do yoga, paint and, of course, keep a record of every plant.


Huguette prunes once a year.

As a rule of thumb (though not for all varieties), pruning to three or four stems will ensure fewer but bigger blooms.

Leaving more stems will mean lots of smaller flowers.

She doesn't dictate the colour of the bloom by changing the acidity of the soil, but lets them bloom in whichever colour their variety, age and soil create.

She says for the first few years, they will take their nutrients from the soil they were potted in at the nursery.

But after five years, they will have dug their roots in and established a true colour.

Her driveway's blue hydrangeas are the perfect complement to her home, but were a disappointing range of pinks and purples until they finally took on the colour she had hoped for.

The Marlborough Express