Willowsporn – Summer in the Barossa

(Please note: as this blog has been transferred from our old website some images are low resolution.)

Along a quiet country road near Nuriootpa in South Australia’s beautiful Barossa Valley, two talented gentlemen have breathed life into a forlorn settlement, transforming it into a wonderful, and frequently whimsical, landscape.

AaroWillowsporn - 01n and Graham take time out in a shady spot. During a summer when temperatures have exceeded 40C degrees for several weeks, lawn and umbrageous cover are valuable assets.

The first Europeans to settle here in the 1840s were the Sporns and when their grand daughter Miss Sporn, who lived here with her bachelor brother, finally passed away the place was leased for a few years, then left uninhabited for a year or so.

When Aaron Penley and Graham Butler acquired the property in 1995, it had received little attention for decades and there was certainly no sign of the cottage garden that had once faced the road. However there were gnarled old pepper (Schinus) trees, an oleander, a tamarisk, plumbago and lots of cliveas – so at least they knew a few hardies could survive South Australia’s hot, dry summers.

A couple since 1972, Aaron and Graham had worked together on various projects before restoring a heartbeat to this site steeped in history.

In the early eighties they’d established the popular ‘Lodge Country House’ Seppeltsfield, and later ran Angaston’s ‘Gourmet Foods’, followed by ‘Antiques & More @ 24’.

The cluster of buildings on the heritage-listed property includes a stone cottage (their residence), a barn, stables, a blacksmith’s building and shearers’ quarters.

Everywhere there are signs of creativity: vignettes are placed against adobe walls; artefacts and artful pieces are displayed with panache.

Aaron’s disclaimer:
“Please come again and you’ll see these conifers neatly trimmed; it’d be disastrous cutting them back now in this extreme heat!”

While the garden explodes with colour and perfume in the spring, it’s a testament to these gardeners that it looks so appealing in mid summer.

South Australia’s climate is similar to the Mediterranean where rain mainly falls in winter, and summers are hot and dry. There’s a group of South Australian gardeners belonging to the local Mediterranean Garden Society which helps members understand, adapt to, and embrace the conditions.

For several years at the end of the nineties Aaron was Chair of the Barossa Wine & Tourist Association and in 2000 was awarded ‘Barossa Citizen of the Year’.

“Later Aaron was honoured to be invited as a ‘Baron of the Barossa’, and continues on that Executive today,” says Graham who’s a keen golfer, but prefers to have a lower profile. “I keep the home fires burning.”

It’s ironic that these playful sculptures relate to water vessels.

When the couple first arrived there were only two taps and a couple of rusty old tanks. In 1997 they installed a 100,000 litre semi-submerged tank, and an extensive underground watering system – with innumerable taps!

The tank provides both household and garden water and only rarely, in extreme summers, do they need to use mains water.

Verdant vineyards are a lush backdrop in an otherwise parched, buff-coloured countryside.

Succulents, sedums, geraniums, and roses are some of the hardy plants used en masse that help soften many of the old buildings.

In exposed areas gravel not only looks pleasing, but is easy to maintain and absorbs rainwater.

How all the the rusty garden pieces evolved is a delightful yarn: ‘The Rusty Reprobates’ are twelve people (six couples) who have, over the last ten years, been getting together two Sundays a year. They’re Barossa locals living on old properties where rusty relics are reminders of earlier times. Each couple brings bits and pieces along and, under the guidance of a pro welder, creates ‘artworks’ for their own gardens.

“At 5pm we down tools, open a couple of bottles of wine and talk a load of rubbish!” Aaron says. Considering the fabulous creations they’ve made – a load of rubbish is something worth talking about!

“Our welder is leaving for Tasmania soon so it’s coming to a natural end. There’s quite a lot around our garden now and it’s best not to overdo it. ‘Less is more’,” Graham says. “But we’ll still all get together.”

Pierre de Ronsard roses make a spectacular mid-summer display along the stables wall.

It’s easy to sense the immense joy this restoration project has given Aaron and Graham. They have a gracious home and logowonderful garden, but their efforts are also appreciated by the wider Barrossa community. Anybody who nurtures this country’s heritage needs to be saluted.

P.S. One of their favourite authors on gardening is Louisa Jones. For a review of her latest book on Mediterranean Gardens: A Model for Good Living click the link.


READERS’ RESPONSES – via email. 14/02/14

Just wanted to say what a wonderful garden!
I could never live in such a brown/dry enviroment but it has made me want to go to SA again to see such beauties.
Saw a wonderful “faded grandure” garden in this very area on one of my last trips – had a “sleeping beauty quality” about it that Mum and I loved!
Keep up the good work.
Rowena Margetts
What a fabulous place…thank you.
Jackie Rouse
All I can say is WOW!!!!

And the photography is stunning. Well done Our Australian Gardens.
Kristen Mathews
Burpengarry Qld
Loved the article on Willowsporn.
Fantastic article, great effort by all those involved in the creation of the garden. Would love to see more adopt the ‘Less is often more!’ philosophy.
Al Sweet
Gold Coast Qld
Superb garden!
Gillian Hill
Armidale NSW


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