In a corner of Huguette Michel’s garden, as in her heart, there is a place reserved just for her Indian Ocean homeland of Réunion Island. In that corner are strawberry guavas – which grow “like weeds” on Réunion, but find it tougher going in a Marlborough winter – and kaffir limes, a staple of Réunion cooking, along with figs and quinces that Huguette makes into pastes or caramelises. All remind her of the tropical home she and her family left behind when they embarked on their great adventure to live and make wine at the bottom of the world.
The property they found after falling in love with New Zealand during a motor home holiday is just off Rapaura Road, the “golden mile” of prime terroir where husband Georges Michel has established his eponymous winery.
You drive in through a set of patterned iron gates, made in the style of Réunion’s French colonial homes, to discover a large and lush garden in two parts, interrupted by the “blue, blue, blue” ribbon of Spring Creek. (An earlier incarnation of the garden featured in this magazine’s November 2001 issue.)
When they first arrived there was a much smaller and simpler garden around the house but across the creek were nothing but sheep paddocks. “I don’t want sheep and I don’t need fences,” says Huguette, “so I started to plant trees.” That this was less than 15 years ago is scarcely credible. The trees at Huguette and Georges’ property are tall, rampant things that seem at least twice as old. It’s the soil that’s behind their stellar growth, she says.
“People said when we bought here that this was the crème de la crème. It is amazing though. Marlborough is a riverbed and just over there,” she points to the other side of the creek, “it’s almost impossible to dig because of the rocks.”
Huguette got lucky with the soil, but the success of this garden owes just as much to perseverance and pushing against the odds. For example, her signature flower, the hydrangea, by rights shouldn’t thrive here nearly as well as it has done.
“Marlborough is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand and the sun is bad for them and we don’t get a lot of water. I didn’t know any of that when I started. Now I know, I still plant them. As soon as a tree grows big enough I say, ‘Good, now I can plant more hydrangeas underneath’.”
At last count, Huguette had 170 varieties of hydrangea at Hortensia House (she named it after the French word for her favoured flower, naturally). But she’s in no way stuck in a rut. The beds closest to the house are densely planted with other favourites – not so many roses, but agapanthus and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), a silvery-grey ground cover that flowers profusely, as well as peonies, daisies, clematis, rhododendrons and rengarenga.
The rengarenga is one of the few natives to have made the cut in Huguette’s garden. “They are great in the forest in the Sounds and in a few places in the garden for shelter, but I wouldn’t do a garden just with natives. It would be boring for me.”
Fair enough too. The charm of this garden is that it does feel like a little piece of Europe – plus a corner of Réunion Island.
Take the bridge that Huguette had built over the creek, for example. Does it look familiar?
“The builder said, ‘What kind of bridge would you like?’ I said, ‘Something pretty, I think’ and I take Monet’s book to him and say, ‘Something like this’.”
She would have had Monet’s water lilies there too, but Spring Creek’s 14-degree year-round temperature made it impossible. As a substitute, she built a pond on the other side, grew her lilies and had a gazebo erected looking back over the water to the house. The garden is popular for weddings and Huguette’s own daughter was married there recently. “I was so pleased when she asked because that setting is so romantic.”
That word applies more generally. This is not a starchy, formal garden. It’s soft and abundant, slightly rambling, a place of curves, dips and hollows.
You can sneak under a curtain of willow branches and find a pair of ducks swimming quietly in a creek eddy. Chooks wander the place, though not as freely as they’d like – a sign on the gate on the bridge reads, “Fermez la porte, s’il vous plaît”.
It’s New Zealand, but with a twist. I ask if they have a rabbit problem. Huguette smiles. “No, no problem. We have plenty. Sometimes my husband shoots one and makes a lovely pâté!”