On a clear day you can truly see forever when you visit Liz and Evan Cowan’s Rural Garden. Their property, Kāmahi, stands on a ridge in Rewarewa, near Ōtorohanga. It has an undulating green tapestry of King Country farmland stretching out in front of it, and the clearest view of the Pirongia and Kakepuku mountains. It is a magnificent exhibition.
Liz says nothing stands in the way of this view. A few years ago, fast growing trees threatened to protect the mountains. The incriminated elements have been removed, chipped and they now serve the landscape as excellent mulch.
The garden began 40 years ago when Liz and Evan built a house on a 6 hectare block adjacent to the family farm where Evan’s late parents, Arthur and Pat Cowan, raised stands of native trees as well. only sheep and cattle.
Arthur was known across the country as a legendary environmentalist. His efforts started on his doorstep, and vast swathes of the bush on Cowan’s 450 ha farm are protected by QEII National Trust covenants.
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Liz and Evan joined Arthur and Pat on the field. They moved into their new home on Christmas Day 1981, and the only vegetation on the raw site was a row of sturdy kāmahi trees. They gave their name to the place. “We really didn’t know anything about gardening when we first started,” says Liz. “We figured if he’s native he should grow here. “
So they quickly added more. Liz found a good deal – native seedlings for $ 1 a pop – at the long-gone Burtons Garden Center in Hamilton, and she created a belt of trees to protect the house from southerly winds. These bargains – including karaka, rimu, kahikatea and more – now form a towering green backdrop to the home.
Liz says it was wonderful to see how quickly the trees got the job done. “It is a fertile area of volcanic ash, it is free-draining and the land had been planted with alfalfa hay for 15 years before our construction. The soil is incredibly rich. I’m not a demanding gardener and if things self-seed, then they must be happy, and they have a place here.
She says she hasn’t started to develop a big garden; it was more about blending harmoniously into the landscape. “The environment dictated the form. And part of the design principle was that lawns had to be accessible for Evan’s riding mower. “We have sometimes redesigned things for the mower.”
The garden extends over approximately 1 ha, descending from the house in an almost concentric manner, depending on the configuration of the land. The different levels are delimited by hedges, paths, stone walls and borders. The paths often lead to surprising items such as rustic seating or collections of pots and urns – things that catch the eye, make you take a break. Liz particularly admires the drawings of the great British gardeners: “They are very good at surprises.
Very early on, she introduced exotic trees and flowers for more color and texture. The elevated property is relatively frost-free. Liz says he has his own little microclimate and that she has been able to plant rhododendrons and other frost-sensitive shrubs and trees. There are also colorful collections of alstroemeria, dahlias, agapanthus, lilies, roses, lavender and hydrangeas. Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, with her big creamy buds turning mint green, is a favorite.
In spring, the landscape is vibrant with hundreds if not thousands of daffodils. Liz and Evan patiently planted an additional 400 daffodil bulbs during the national Covid-19 lockdown in fall 2020. Evan dug the divots, Liz packed the bulbs. They were quickly rewarded; daffodils bloomed in early winter, rather than waiting for spring. “They got confused,” Evan says.
The garden is teeming with birds, and Liz and Evan saw numbers and species grow as the food sources developed. In addition to feasting on native seeds and berries, Liz says that tūī, bellbirds, fantails, and waxeyes enjoy nectar from succulents, red pokers, camellias, and other plants. The majestic kererū also rushes into the trees for food, and Liz and Evan think they are nesting in rimu at the back of the house.
Liz runs Kāmahi Cottage on the property, a luxury farmhouse, and she has a reputation for feeding her guests well, using fruits from the vast orchard like lemon cake, plum flan and lemon pie. Evan also makes schnapps with plums; Liz says it’s great.
But above all it is a family garden, the place where Liz and Evan raised their three children and celebrated the marriages of two of them on the lower lawn. In recent years they have taken a step back from running the farm and their daughter Danielle and her husband Jarrod Hawkins now run the property. They live close by with their children, making generations grow on this beloved land.
Liz, who was born in Switzerland, says her mother was an accomplished cook and gardener, and these weren’t necessarily skills she had when she started out on the farm.
She looks at the beautiful garden she has created and says, “I love it more and more.
Q&A with Liz and Evan Cowan
Best time of day in the garden: Early in the morning, just as the sun illuminates the valley of the Waipā River below. (Liz)
Reliable tools: My Stihl battery powered hedge trimmer, chainsaw and leaf blower. Brilliant. (Evan)
My niwashi – this is a Japanese tool that doubles as a mini scythe, weed hangman, and planting aid. (Liz)
Preferred native: Kauri – My stepfather, Arthur Cowan, gave me one when our son Nicholas was born 30 years ago. (Liz)
Heroes of gardening: Vita Sackville-West, creator of the famous Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the United Kingdom. Her best advice was to visit a nursery every month and buy some eye-catching plants. This way you automatically have something colorful, interesting or attractive in the garden all year round. (Liz)
Irrigation: We recently installed a solar water pump that pumps from a shallow well and switched power to the house. This means we have a 25,000 gallon rooftop collection water tank that can be used to water those parts of the garden that need it without compromising the supply to waterers and other homes. (Evan)
Who does what: I built most of the retaining walls and generally been responsible for moving anything heavy. Lawn mowing is also my department. Liz does everything else. (Evan)
I have help every few months from the wonderful Cathy Wilson who helps me with mulching, trimming wilted plants, and in general coming up with some great ideas. (Liz)
Visitors often say: “You have to spend hours in the garden every day.” I do not! Nature hates a vacuum, so I try to keep the ground well covered with plants and they do their part to keep weeds down. (Liz)