A Proper English Garden in Water Mill
by jamee gregory
The handiwork of Nicolas Rutherford’s green thumb
As Nicolas Rutherford leads me past rows of dahlias, hostas, perennial peas, Solomon’s seal, statues, and fountains, I can’t get over what a surprise it is to find such an extraordinary garden hidden in Water Mill. Rutherford—a handsome, charming Englishman, who is blessed with a green thumb—collects sculptures, fountains, and gates as they capture his fancy. He then adds water features with large goldfish to accent the greenery.
“My mother’s father was editor of The Manchester Guardian,” says Rutherford, who grew up in Shropshire, England. “She married and joined a Christian colony, where I learned about gardening. We went to Paraguay where I learned to appreciate tropical plants, then Vietnam, then returned to England where my parents managed 80 acres with a greenhouse at Bulstrode.”
Rutherford moved to the United States in 1968 to teach and eventually bought this Hampton home with his partner, Joseph Obermayer. Here, they have created vistas within the two-acre garden, directing his visitors’ attention through an abundance of plant life. Scented clethra perfumes the air, and tree stumps support climbing clematis. The paths wind through masses of begonias, sage, basil, rosemary, rhubarb, cherry tomatoes, and espaliered pear. Fragrant Canna lilies attract birds. Climbing string beans stretch to the sky and beets, eggplant, and squash are “coming up like volunteers,” says Rutherford.
“In the lower terrace I left a shady place for eating lunch,” he says, pointing out a stand of native American beech with its branches removed to show the stalks. Purple lythrum, ironweed, and heliopsis blow in the wind. Yellow and blue blossoms pop in contrast; white, pink, and pale yellow dominate in spring, then the colors grow stronger as the season progresses. We pass plume poppies and magnolia grandiflora and then head for a secret glade.
Using giant urns found at a yard sale and cast iron containers from Mecox Gardens, Rutherford cleared an axis from his walled garden to his pool. I am dazzled by Russian kale, self-seeded cleomes, white cabbages, and masses of lavender. “I hope a good houseguest will help me cut it all back,” he says. “In the beginning there was just grass in front of the house, but we built terraced walls over the pool and dug out enough space for a pool plaza.” Here, a statue of the god Apollo playing a lyre is surrounded by honeysuckle and bamboo. Arugula, fig trees, Mexican sunflowers for the goldfinch, cardinal vine covered in scarlet flowers, and bergamot all clamor for attention.
A former Nassau County early childhood development teacher, Rutherford pauses at a statue of two children reading—a gift from fellow teachers upon his retirement. He points out a hammock, a perfect spot for observing his work, and an old column, which is colonized by honeybees. “It’s very much a part of nature, Feng Shui, all good luck!” he says as we pass hydrangeas climbing on totem poles, a holly tree full of berries for robins to feast upon, a trumpet vine laden with blossoms meandering through trees, and wisteria vines. “Everything evolves
photography by Josh Lehrer