Down to Earth

By Karen Pasco

Many may not have heard of landscape designer and sculptor Dan Rutherford but those who attended the 2012 Ellerslie Flower Show will know his work.

His sombre and thought provoking exhibition, Fresh Start, New Growth, was awarded a Gold Medal at the show – a portrayal of loss and sadness rejuvenating into light and hope for the future of this city.

During his career, Dan has taught at Lincoln University and has been called upon to speak at a number of specialist seminars. His talents don’t stop there – he has appeared on TV shows Ground Rules, Maggie’s Garden Show, and What Now.

We asked Dan about how he came to be a landscape designer and what is needed to ensure people enjoy the spaces they create outside.

When did you become interested in landscape design?

“I’ve loved gardening since I was a young boy. My mother was a fantastic mentor during those early years. She designed our garden on the hill country farm where I grew up.

As a family we built it, and later bus-loads of garden enthusiasts came from all over the world to drive the long winding gravel road to visit it. It helped me recognise how important a garden can be to creating a real home, rather than just a house.

My heart is in the land.

I love to create real living spaces on it, digging, stabilising, working, and growing plants in it. It’s enormously satisfying for me.

Later, I completed a geology degree at Canterbury University. I was frustrated by the amount of ugly retaining walls and embankments, so I wanted to create attractive, functional land stabilisation systems, especially on the hills. I felt that a career in landscape design was a perfect marriage of my passion for home, land and garden.”

Where do you get your inspiration from?

“My clients. I can always tell if I’ve got the landscape design right for a client if they feel more at home in their garden than they used to. The gardens where I feel I’ve really succeeded are the ones where the owners’ personalities are expressed in the gardens that surround them.

Often people are good at putting their personality into the interior design of their home, but don’t express it in the garden. As a starting point, for example, a very structured person will often enjoy a structured garden, and a more relaxed person will usually enjoy a more informal design.

When I’ve got it right, the faces of friends and family are the best indicators of whether I’ve hit the right chord. They can always recognise the client’s personality in the garden if it’s there.”

How can people transform their garden from ordinary to wow?

“Find the things that you’re truly passionate about in your life, and use references to those things in your garden design.

Start with the basics, such as thinking of your favourite colour. Choose plants and design elements based on that colour, then add complimentary colours to support it.

Or consider your favourite shapes. Include them too. If you like straight lines make them a primary part of the garden design. If you have a life of contrasts, with wild parts and calm, controlled parts, then put both of those parts into your garden. Often the contrast between wild and controlled parts in the garden can help to accentuate the beauty of each.

If you like old, weathered materials, then base your design around them. If you enjoy a life of surprises then make a garden with parts that appear hidden, so people feel special to have chanced upon them. Nestle sculpture into those spaces, to accentuate their mood, and create interest.

Make a garden which tells a subtle story – your story.”

 What is a common mistake people make when planning a garden?

“Not having the courage to look inside themselves for inspiration.”

When starting with a blank canvas what should people consider before they start digging?

“Look at the area around your garden. If there are plants or other design elements that suit your style, isolate them in your mind, so you can incorporate them. Remove everything else.

Remember to look outside your boundaries for design elements. A beautiful building nearby can be framed in a view corridor of trees, drawing it into the garden design. Large trees in the distance can become a part of the view of the garden from inside the house by blending them into the garden planting. That way, the boundaries can appear blurred and the garden can appear much larger.

Check Google Earth, print out a satellite photo of your home. Sketch the layout onto it. Start with pencil, so you can easily change it as you adapt your ideas. Once you get started on building your garden, remember that this might be the only chance you get to dig soil conditioner such as compost into the soil. Once the plants are in place, it’ll be much harder to dig the ground over deeply.”

Who has been your biggest influence and why?

“I really enjoy the work of a British land artist, called Andy Goldsworthy. His works consider the natural cycles of life and he interprets them in a way I consider is thought provoking and beautiful at the same time.”

How can sculpture be incorporated into a garden?

“I’m a great believer in sculpture being installed into a setting which compliments it, rather than simply being placed in a garden.

If you’re looking at buying a sculpture work, consider what kind of garden setting it’s going into. Sculpture can be an excellent way to bridge the gap between yourself and your garden.

If you already have sculpture, design the garden where it will be placed to compliment it. Draw on the colours and textures of the work for your plant choices. “

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