From high school dropout to gardener extraordinaire

Michael Marquet. Photo: RNZ / Georgie Hanafin
Michael Marquet. Photo: RNZ / Georgie Hanafin
By Georgie Hanafin

You would be forgiven for thinking a team of gardeners is responsible for the vast bouquets of beauty and life that greet visitors as they enter Christchurch Hospital's grounds, but the plants - all of them - are tended by just one extraordinary man.

When he dropped out of school at 15, Michael Marquet could not read, nor could he write.

But a passion for gardening has turned the now 60-year-old into an award-winning author of four books and taken him around the world.

For the past two and a-half years, Marquet has been solely responsible for the plots dotted around the more than eight hectares of Christchurch Hospital's campus grounds as well as several smaller Te Whatu Ora Waitaha sites in the central city.

Where there was soil, there are now plants lovingly tended to by Marquet.

His planter boxes were filled with colourful impatiens - native to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands - behind them, Chinese star jasmine climbed a wire trellis, while the garden beds were packed with perennial shrubs and plants to withstand the depths of Christchurch's winter.

Some hardy plants produce pretty flowers throughout autumn and winter, while others sat green until bursts of colour reappeared in spring.

"To plant a new garden is to believe in tomorrow," he said.

"Gardening is one of the best therapies for the soul and the heart. I'm making the place beautiful. What I'm doing is healing for me and it's healing for other people."

The promenade which runs along the front of the hospital hosted beds of shrubs in different shades of green and a few vibrant flowers, planted by Marquet to be enjoyed by everyone.

"The people in the buses, the runners, the staff, the patients. It's just been a wonderful chance to create a garden which creates special energy and powers that are good for your soul," Marquet said.

The beds against the front of the hospital house yucca plants, native hebes and other hardy and colourful flowers propagated by Marquet at his home.

Michael Marquet. Photo: RNZ / Georgie Hanafin
Michael Marquet. Photo: RNZ / Georgie Hanafin
There were more flower beds on either side of the winding paths up to the various hospital entrances that welcomed visitors and patients into the hospital.

Raised in Christchurch, Marquet could not speak until the age of 4 because of a learning disability. He could not even spell his name and struggled to pronounce common words when he left high school.

Much of his early years were spent in the garden, where he grew pumpkins and flowers, but nothing grew as fast as his passion for gardening.

"I always loved planting things and propagating things. I always used to love picking the flowers and sometimes used to pick other people's flowers and got into trouble. The passion for gardening was always in my DNA," he said.

He floundered for years in what he described as a "special classroom" at school. That was until a work experience programme gave him the chance to work in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens once a week at the age of 13.

"My whole whole life opened up. Gardening was one of the main drives that helped me to fight my difficulties, to learn to speak, read and write because I had to learn the plant Latin names," he said.

Marquet longed for a horticulture apprenticeship with the Christchurch City Council, but after being repeatedly knocked back because he did not have School Certificate (now NCEA Level 1), he signed up to classes through the Adult Learning Assistance Programme (now Literacy Aotearoa).

Marquet would have been lost without the help of three volunteer tutors from the programme who also had a passion for horticulture and would gather each week to study, he said.

"I used to go to their places on a Wednesday and study. I got my driver's licence and did my correspondence course. They were learning about gardening and with their help, I got a reader and writer assistant to pass my exams."

He continued working as a Botanic Gardens labourer while completing papers for his national diploma through the assistance programme.

Marquet also worked his way towards a horticulture course through the Correspondent School and was eventually offered an adult apprenticeship with the city council.

"All my life I've struggled and got knocked back and I think it's made me more determined to be able to grow plants," he said.

After finishing his apprenticeship, Marquet won a scholarship to work at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne.

In 1998 while in Australia, Marquet hand-wrote his first book, Michael's Challenge: Overcoming Illiteracy, about his life's challenges.

He was later awarded a UNESCO Literacy award for the book at a ceremony in Paris.

Marquet had since written three more - Literacy My Prize: How I Learnt to Read and WriteIlliteracy to Millionaire, Just Don't Give Up; and Unique Antique Treasures: My Addiction.

He was now working on a fifth book about plants and gardening.

Michael Marquet. Photo: RNZ / Georgie Hanafin
Michael Marquet. Photo: RNZ / Georgie Hanafin
Christchurch Hospital facilities manager Terry Walker said Marquet was a hardy soul who had an energy "like an Energizer bunny."

"We've only just managed to convince Michael out of shorts. He'd be in them all year round if he could," he said.

"By nature he is the happiest man you'll ever meet and that's reflected in his gardens."

Marquet was exceptional in creating beautiful gardens on a tight budget, Walker said.

"He propagates some here in tiny little places, wherever he can find them. He propagates them at home. He brings his own plants in. He just lives and breathes, trying to make this place look beautiful," he said.

Marquet said there was zero chance of getting him out of the garden.

"I've been a gardener since I was 15. I'm 60 now, so I don't think I'm going to change my occupation. Even when I go home, I'm just still living 24-hour gardening and it's in my DNA, I've got a beautiful garden at home. It's a privilege."