First, a little bit about Mien Ruys. I feel very ignorant for not knowing much about her before. Her parents owned a popular perennials nursery, and wanted to add design services to their business. At the age of 19, Mien was put in charge of the new design department since she was more interested in how to use plants rather than how to grow them. Training in landscape design was virtually non-existent at the time, so she studied architecture, and picked up practical training in England. Over the next years, she designed many private gardens as well as public, communal projects. Her projects were mainly in the Netherlands where she’s quite well known, but it seems that she never achieved the same level of fame internationally, which is a real pity.
The Mien Ruys garden is the best that remains of her work. It’s actually her parents’ nursery, which was Mien’s experimental laboratory. The property spans her development over her entire career, from the late 1920’s to the 1990’s. In total, there are 28 separate garden spaces, each of which represents an experiment with a different idea or approach. It’s a unique garden experience to walk through these spaces, each offering a different lesson in garden design. I’ve included pictures from a few of my favorite ‘rooms’, but it would be too much to talk about each one of them here. However, while each space is unique, there were a few consistent themes that struck me (but this is only personal analysis, not sure what the experts have to say about her designs).
Simplicity. There is nothing convoluted or over-the-top in any of the designs. They’re not trying too hard – every element feels right, every element belongs. This is probably the hardest thing to achieve in design – a feeling of inevitability, like this is the only right design for that space, nothing more and nothing less.
Definition of space. Every 3 dimensional space is brilliantly used and defined. The garden rooms aren’t separate, abstract spaces, but they form part of the whole and make use of existing natural features, views or enclosures, and level changes. One ‘garden’ is a perfect circle set in the middle of a small wood on one side of the property. Here, Mien wanted to create a garden in the forest with minimal impact. By only removing a few trees, she created a perfect circle planted only in monochromatic green groundcover. The effect is that of a porthole in the forest with a cathedral-like feeling. Simple and stunning.
Innovation. I was completely amazed by the originality displayed in all of the designs. All the spaces would hold up perfectly well as modern gardens today, and some were created almost 80 years ago! Mien was the first to use railway sleepers in her designs (which I’ve seen in soooo many garden design books now), and exposed aggregated pavers (again, so often seen and copied). In one garden, a square space is planted only in asters. A few other purple plants and grasses poke up through the soft green carpet of asters, as seen below at the time of our visit. But imagine this garden when the soft green cloud of asters will be completely covered in vivid purple bloom – it will be absolutely stunning! The garden has enough to keep it interesting all year round, and then in the fall it will be an unforgettable sight. A completely original use of the plant, which just goes to show the endless possibilities for creativity that garden design allows.
Balance. I found that all the gardens had a fantastic balance of ‘hard’ landscape elements (like paths, fences, patios etc), and plants. Too often, garden designs are either one or the other. They’re both equally important, and each enhances the other. Mien’s unique perspective, which combines architectural training with an intimate knowledge of plants from her parents’ nursery and an obvious artistic touch, is key in her designs.
Overall, this is a garden that should be right at top of the list for both pleasure and educational visits. Mien Ruys is my new garden design hero. This whole garden is like walking through an amazing, living, garden design textbook - imagine seeing all those exercises from design class, like laying out a garden using squares or perfect rectangles only, changing space with diagonals, and many of more things actually put into practice perfectly! It’s a garden for which you’ll need a long time to absorb and properly digest all the lessons it has to offer.