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You could say Mike Henry hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet during his retirement. The former South African, who likens his hobby to a disease, has created an extraordinary garden out of former Queenstown farmland. He takes a wander with Philip Chandler

Talk about growing like topsy.

In less than 10 years, retired insurance broker Mike Henry has established one of the country’s most stunning gardens on his Queenstown country property.

His richly colourful five hectare garden, Chantecler, enchants visitors with its sheer diversity.

There are formal and English garden areas, a lavender-dominated French-themed garden, Tuscan-inspired plantings around the swimming pool, an Asian garden above, a large orchard and a New Zealand native garden with 5000 plants, water features and two sculptures by Arrowtowner Mark Hill.

Recognised as a ‘garden of significance’ by the NZ Gardens Trust, it’s become a tourist attraction and a magnet for community groups like Wakatipu Plunket, which uses Chantecler for its annual garden tour fundraiser.

South African-raised Henry says he’s always had “the green fingers”.

“When I was at primary school we used to get a plot each and I was the only kid who could grow things like Brussels sprouts and so on.

“But then business life and six children didn’t leave much time and I had a lot of operations overseas so I was travelling a lot.”

Some enchanted garden: Mike Henry in his garden
Some enchanted garden: Mike Henry in his garden

Henry and his Kiwi-born wife Maureen, who’d shifted from South Africa to Auckland in 1980, fell for Queenstown when regularly visiting one of their daughters, and her family, who lived here.

In 2003 they found a Lower Shotover property, then only four hectares, for sale, and bought it.

“For the first three years we used to come down and plant a few plants and then go again, but 10 years ago we decided to move down here permanently.”

There were some roses and big trees originally planted as a windbreak, but little else.

“When we moved here I said ‘I’ve got to do something in my retirement, I can’t play golf every day’.”

He’d already commissioned a garden designer, “but out of 50 varieties of plants they selected, we’ve only got seven left because none of them were stuff we liked”.

Henry says “I’m a creator, ‘m an entrepreneur, I guess.

“I’ll just sit down with a glass of wine and say, ‘why don’t we put a rose garden in there with a gazebo and some box hedging or whatever?”

He and Maureen chose the name ‘Chantecler’ after a country hotel they used to visit while living in South Africa.

Tourist atraction: Chantecler, near Queenstown
Tourist attraction: Chantecler, near Queenstown

Henry describes his hobby as “a disease – you can’t stop, it keeps on”.

He and Maureen also bought another 12ha which allowed their garden to further grow.

One time when Maureen popped off for a week, he carved out the Asian garden in her absence.

Henry says they’re lucky their place is the first and last in the area to get the sun, and that the soil’s so nutrient-rich.

They’re also hooked up to the Arrow irrigation scheme.

“But I’d say Queenstown would be one of the hardest climates in the world to garden in because, even in November, like last year, all the beans got wiped out by frosts.

“We do have to live with a lot of tragedies.”

Last week’s heavy snowfall, for example, caused “horrendous tree damage”.

Henry’s son Byron, who’s studied horticulture, is his property manager and he also employs another gardener over spring and summer.

But with help from his wife he also does a fair bit himself – he uses a quad bike but has calculated he also walks four to five kilometres a day around the garden.

He turns 70 next month but says he doesn’t feel old.

“Some people with a quarter-acre garden are a slave to it but a lot of the plants we’ve got here pretty much look after themselves, like rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.”

Henry recently sowed millions of wild flower seeds in a meadow garden which also has an arboretum for ornamental trees.

“But we’re not necessarily going to expand this much more other than to fill in spaces more.

“I love growing things and to me it’s got to be perfect or as perfect as can be.

“And I suppose it’s silly to say but I actually enjoy seeing other people getting enjoyment out of what we’ve created and people coming and saying, ‘wow, this is the best garden ‘ve ever seen’.”

Mike Henry has a website, www.chantecler.co.nz, posts photos on his Instagram account @chanteclergardens, and charges visitors $15 and $10 for self-guided and non-guided tours, respectively.

scoop@scene.co.nz