There are 700 clivia in the garden.
Repetition is used to create flow.
Unexpected bird life in the bush.
Tucked away at the end of a hidden access road near Buckleton Beach, down a vertiginous driveway into a dark grove of native bush, lies Omaio, one of just a handful of Gardens of International Significance in NZ.
There are no signs and most people driving along the ridge of Whitmore Road would have no idea that it was there, and that is just how its creator, Liz Morrow, likes it.
“We are open by appointment and I won’t open unless I’m here,” she says. “It’s my garden and I want to share my story personally. We protect our privacy.”
It is indeed a very intimate space – a cool, green oasis of soft shapes surrounding a long, low log cabin that blends in with the bush and looks like it’s been there for ever, all overlooking a perfectly-framed vista of Kawau Bay.
However, it is scarcely a decade since Liz moved in to what was previously just a much-loved holiday retreat with little more than a scrap of lawn surrounding it.
“When we bought the land in 1980 and built the cabin, there was nothing, just tea tree and bush,” she says. “I moved in 2005 and in January 2006, I started laying the garden out. I used garden hose to create the curves. I shuffled it every day for months. Finally, one day, the shape and the flow just felt right and I started planting. That was in July. Unless you have your boundaries right, it’s a waste of time. Since then, I’ve never changed it once.”
Liz already had considerable experience of gardening when she moved from Auckland, having been the first manager of Eden Garden in Epsom, as well as involved in the running of Ellerslie Flower Show and opening her own garden in St Heliers to raise funds for various causes. But Omaio – which means place of peace, quiet and tranquillity – required a different approach to the East Coast suburbs.
“I garden differently here; I used to have 380 roses in my previous garden, but when I came here and looked at this landscape it was clear that roses just wouldn’t have fitted in. It would have been terrible, and it was the same with camellias, rhododendrons and perennials – they just didn’t suit the environment.
“We had placed the cabin in a stand of mature native New Zealand bush, so it had to be sympathetic with everything that was here, not compete and argue with it.”
So Liz has blended all her planting to create a more natural landscape, with the focus on shaping, form and texture, with sweeps of plants flowing from one area into the next. There are tall banks of cream and blue hydrangea, drifts of arthropodium under tree ferns, a long shady walk bordered by clivia, and meandering trails through stands of ancient puriri and kauri. Nearer the house, specimen plants and shrubs are artfully placed and clipped into soft spheres, their shapes echoed by artworks in wood and iron.
She does the bulk of the work herself, though she says she couldn’t have made the garden what it is today without the continued help of her son, Johny, and Lance Michell from Leigh, who handles the heavier work and maintenance.
Liz says she was “rather overwhelmed” and could barely speak when the NZ Gardens Trust called her in April to let her know that Omaio had become a six star Garden of International Significance. But she is modest about her achievements, and the fact that hundreds of garden lovers seek her out every year.
“I’ve got no formal training whatsoever,” she says. “But I’ve always loved trees and loved plants. I really grew up with an appreciation of nature.”