October 26, 2020

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Step into Alice’s Wonderland at this Canterbury garden

An elfin figure scales a tree trunk alongside a gigantic candelabra hanging over a rustic dining table. Nearby, a silver giant in a top hat sits reading under the trees seemingly oblivious to the curvaceous female forms dancing on the lawn and lolling in the shrubbery.

Gardens are many things to many people, but Andrea Wadsworth and Allan O’Loughlin are clear about theirs: “It’s a gallery,” says Allan.

A figure on a penny farthing cycles past Virginia creeper-clad steel obelisks in Allan O’Loughlin and Andrea Wadsworth's Canterbury garden. “They all start out looking like simple stick figures a kid would draw,” says Allan, who can spend several months making his larger pieces.

Juliet Nicholas/NZ House & Garden

A figure on a penny farthing cycles past Virginia creeper-clad steel obelisks in Allan O’Loughlin and Andrea Wadsworth’s Canterbury garden. “They all start out looking like simple stick figures a kid would draw,” says Allan, who can spend several months making his larger pieces.

A metal worker with a vivid imagination, Allan creates works of art in steel. More than 60 of them are scattered around their country garden in Mandeville, 25km north of Christchurch.

Aptly named The Rusty Acre, the garden is the combined effort of a passionate pair of green-fingered creators and curators. If Allan is the artist, Andrea is his muse. The couple met when Andrea was 15 and Allan 20 and have been together for 36 years. “We’ve grown up together, travelled together and created this together,” says Andrea. “It’s our dream.”

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The dream began with the purchase of a bare 9000sqm block of land in 1993. They planted shelter trees around the perimeter and built a small house in one corner. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement, the plan being to later shift it off-site and build a substantial home in the centre of the property. But as the garden grew, the house plans diminished.

“The garden became more important than the house,” says Andrea.

Brilliant blue Californian lilac, a burgundy maple and ruddy Chinese poplar trunk make perfect foils for a rusted koru with a distinctive pitted texture.

Juliet Nicholas/Stuff

Brilliant blue Californian lilac, a burgundy maple and ruddy Chinese poplar trunk make perfect foils for a rusted koru with a distinctive pitted texture.

The garden started with groups of specimen trees. Chinese poplars, chosen because they were $1 at a local nursery, were later joined by maples and dogwoods and interspersed with rhododendrons. Garden beds shaped using the hose crept further from the house and the paddock grass morphed into mown lawn.

Family and friends provided plants, cuttings and advice, and a mate with a digger came and put in a pond. “Everything here has a story,” says Andrea of a garden that is now self-generating. “We love splitting plants and giving bits away.

“People helped us when we were starting out so it’s nice to be able to give back. People always walk out of here with something.”

The couple use the layering technique of propagation for rhododendrons and Allan is trying air layering for the first time. “I sow lots of seeds for the vege garden and recently nursed some hosta seeds until they struck. We are always splitting and dividing. Andrea propagated over 400 lavender plants one year.”

The prolific herb garden was an early project with Andrea growing lavender during her “dried flower phase”. She now puts her creative energy into restyling and upcycling furniture, which she sells from her shop in the garden.

“I love colours and decor,” she says. “I did an interior design course in Nottingham when Allan and I lived in the UK for three years, but when I got home I lost my nerve and went back nursing.”

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), variegated hostas, irises and pink bugle lily join native broom, grasses and trees on the banks of the waterlily pond; the pool is home to a contemplative figure behind gunnera leaves and a swan-like galvanised metal artwork as well as ducks, goldfish and Allan’s pet eels which he feeds at night with cat food offered on a fork.

Juliet Nicholas/Stuff

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), variegated hostas, irises and pink bugle lily join native broom, grasses and trees on the banks of the waterlily pond; the pool is home to a contemplative figure behind gunnera leaves and a swan-like galvanised metal artwork as well as ducks, goldfish and Allan’s pet eels which he feeds at night with cat food offered on a fork.

Allan meanwhile, inspired by sculptures seen on their travels, decided to try his hand at creating his own, using his skills as a fitter-welder. “When I left school I couldn’t read or write,” he says. “I got told I had about five disorders and back then they never really helped you. You just kind of fell in the dyslexic bin. Art was the only thing I was ever good at.”

Allan, whose work has appeared in a number of outdoor exhibitions, including the annual Art in a Garden event at Flaxmere, North Canterbury, builds up his sculptures by layering molten metal using a torch welder. He has devised an ingenious “spit”, by converting a car hoist, for easy access while working on his invariably large pieces. “I only know one size,” he says.

Alice would feel quite at home in their garden wonderland which is packed with whimsical creatures. Indeed, it was Lewis Carroll’s fantasy that inspired Allan when challenged to come up with a theme for Andrea’s 40th birthday celebrations. They went all out with a Mad Hatter’s tea party complete with life-size playing cards, a backward-turning clock and a brazier in the form of a giant teapot.

The central lawn has multiple roles as a venue, viewing platform and stage. “Because the house is small, we entertain in the garden,” says Andrea. “At night everything lights up and it looks unbelievable.”

Bird-friendly pieces are dotted through the garden, including a man holding a cage specially designed so only small sparrows and waxeyes can fit through the bars to eat the fat and seeds. Frustrated starlings perch on top but Allan has catered for them too, building a starling village out of old 9kg gas bottles on poles. “It’s stopped the nesting in my shed,” he says.

His workshop opens into the garden and he happily moves between the two. “Weld, garden, weld, garden. That’s my life,” he says. Not quite. And when it comes to his greatest love, Allan demonstrates his affection in a predictably unexpected way.

A figure perches on a macrocarpa post in the driveway above the white blooms of Rhododendron ‘Pawhuska’ and purple lupins.

Juliet Nicholas/Stuff

A figure perches on a macrocarpa post in the driveway above the white blooms of Rhododendron ‘Pawhuska’ and purple lupins.

His “real job” building automotive conveyor systems often takes him overseas. A few days after heading off on one of his extended work stints, Andrea rang him concerned that a large brown patch had appeared in the lawn. He said not to worry, just keep up the irrigation. Day by day, the surrounding lawn grew greener and more lush, making even more striking the enormous heart which Allan had painted in herbicide the night before he left.

Steel obelisks blanketed with Virginia creeper form a double row of sentinels – the creeper turns fiery red in autumn, matching the tones of the giant heart which is an in-demand backdrop for wedding photos; catmint and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) are planted below.

Juliet Nicholas/Stuff

Steel obelisks blanketed with Virginia creeper form a double row of sentinels – the creeper turns fiery red in autumn, matching the tones of the giant heart which is an in-demand backdrop for wedding photos; catmint and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) are planted below.

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