A few minutes out of Matakana is a five-star Garden of National Significance that not many know about. But owner Liz Morrow is well-known in the gardening world. Despite never having had any formal training, she’s created exceptional landscapes and planted literally thousands of trees and shrubs. “You’ve either got an eye for landscaping or you haven’t,” she says decisively. “The rest you learn on the job.”Brought up on a 2000-acre farm in the King Country, Liz’s young life was busy, to say the least. She milked the house-cow from age eight and helped her mum cook for the shearing gangs. The station was self-sufficient and gardens had to be productive. “The only rose we had was a beautiful yellow Banksia, which festooned our long drop loo!” she says. The local primary school, Pakeho, had nine pupils, of which Liz was one. But high school years were spent boarding at St Cuthbert’s in Auckland, which she loved – she returned as an Old Girl to landscape it. Liz’s gardening background is impressive. She was the first manager of Eden Garden, a beautiful sanctuary on the slopes of Mt Eden. She was involved at ground-floor level with the Ellerslie Flower Show – one of the original three employed by founder John Anderson (who now lives in Sandspit). Along with Bev McConnell of Ayrlies Garden, she was an original trustee of the NZ Gardens Trust, which she ran for ten years. She also had her own garden in St Heliers, which had 380 roses at last count. In 2010, Liz was made a Fellow of the Royal NZ Institute of Horticulture. The land now known as Omaio was bought way back in 1980 as a bolt-hole from Auckland. They built a basic log cabin (yes, a proper log cabin) and a tennis court in 1981. The property was then just one huge paddock, grazed by the neighbours’ stock. “We fenced it off as soon as we could so the native undergrowth could begin to regenerate – it was completely bare under the big trees,” she says. In December 2005 Liz moved up permanently and decided to create a new garden. So how on earth did she start? “Well, I borrowed miles of garden hoses. I think gardens work best as a series of curves, myself – and they work particularly well here because they echo the curves and waves in the bay. I laid the hoses out where the edges of the gardens would be, and for six months I just moved them around – sometimes just a couple of inches. I didn’t buy a single plant until July 2006. You’ve got to get the foundations right!” Finally, working around precious existing native trees, Liz began to plant. “I’ve had a few of the trees aged – there’s a kauri that’s could be up to 1000 years old and a puriri that’s probably between 1,000 and 1,500. I underplanted the bush areas with shade-loving plants: clivias, renga-renga, hydrangeas, ligularia, hostas and ferns.” Arriving at Omaio, glimpses of turquoise water between huge kanuka tantalise the visitor. There are steps, then a breathtaking swathe of orange clivia under trees. Around the house are huge pots containing lots of rounded hebe and pittosporum – a mossy mound of scleranthus is particularly endearing. “No straight lines here apart from the tennis court!” says Liz. Then the view. Oh, the view. From the deck or the lawn, the blue bay and its islands are perfectly framed between the trees. A timber viewing platform (‘Johnny’s Deck’) down in front of the house encourages you to sit a while and contemplate... To complement the bush without competing with it, some formality has been given with clipped, shaped trees and shrubs of differing textures around the cabin. Jeff Thomson’s corrugated iron sculptures catch the eye. There are a number of easy walks (created by Liz’s son John) through the bush – this has been left as natural as possible. Liz is grateful to her son: “John’s a huge support to me in the garden – he takes a keen interest in Omaio.” The cabin itself was designed to nestle unobtrusively into the landscape. With its deep shady verandahs and sheltered French doors, it blends into the bush perfectly. It’s elegantly rustic; there’s lots of beautiful floral art, including Karl Maugham’s lush hydrangeas and rhododendrons, which look very much at home. Liz rents a guest wing through AirBnB – yes, you can wake up here! It sleeps four, is casually luxurious and very peaceful. Liz’s diary is full of visitor bookings, both local and international. It’s worth noting that you can’t just turn up, and it’s best to call a few days beforehand, especially if you’d like morning or afternoon tea – basket of hot, fresh muffins, anyone? Liz cooks everything herself; her farming background comes to the fore when she has to provide lunch for a coachload of forty, but she’s completely undaunted. Liz says Omaio should now mature gracefully for a while – but she couldn’t resist one more little planting session last autumn. “I put 350 bluebell bulbs under the puriri,” she says. “I’ve had surprisingly great results!” With characteristic energy, she and friends Cathy Gould and Anne Bartley have recently revamped the entire Matakana Farmers’ Market’s garden areas, as well as refreshing the huge pots of flowers outside the Matakana Cinema. This has been a labour of love for all of them – completely voluntary. Despite claims of ‘sitting back to enjoy the garden’ at Omaio, this compulsive gardener is far from slowing down. | T: 09 422 7443 or 021 227 4150