This paper analyses the style of the 20th Century Dutch garden designer, Mien Ruys. Her model gardens in Dedemsvaart were visited during a study tour to the Netherlands with Capel Manor College in 2009. These are considered the best examples of her work.
Wilhelmina ‘Mien’ Jacoba Ruys (1904-98) came from a horticulture family, her parents owned the world famous Royal Moerheim Nursery in Dedemsvaart, Netherlands. She started working in the nursery at 19 but soon became interested in how plants are used in gardens and public spaces rather than in producing them. Her earliest naturalistic planting scheme, influenced by Karl Foerster, was typical of those prevalent in Europe at the time.
An apprenticeship in England in 1927 gave her the opportunity to meet Gertrude Jekyll, well known for her cottage style of gardening. Ruys then created a classic English border in the Nursery in the same year, which survives today as Oude proeftuin (Old Experimental Garden.)
Two years later in 1929, she went to study at the Agriculture College in Dahlem, Berlin. During this time she discovered interests in architecture and socialism. After her return from Germany, she studied architecture at Delft Technical College in 1931. Subsequently, her design and planting style evolved into something more empathetic with the Dutch modernists.
After World War 2, Ruys joined the De 8 en Opbau, a group of architects concerned mainly with functionalism at the expense of unnecessary ornamentation. Drawing inspiration from Mondrian, Van Doesburg and Christopher Tunnard, her work became more sculptural and architecturally pure but overlaid with planting that was softer and richer. The meeting of the Dutch and English schools of thought won her many admirers, and her planting philosophy had a marked impact on many later designers.
Principals of Design
Ruys favoured an asymmetrical layout, with strong angles and overlapping shapes. During the early years after the War, she designed gardens in diagonal lines in relation to the house and this earned her the first nickname, Schuine Mien (Oblique Mien). This is probably because much of her work during this period of reconstruction was for building societies and communal gardens, as diagonal design would provide optimal use of space.
During the 1960′s, her design style had straightened; in favour of designing with lateral rather than diagonal lines, which has largely remained the case throughout the rest of her career.
After the war, there was rapid change in the style of architecture. The houses and gardens were smaller in scale and different in proportions. With the rise of Modernism, many garden designers struggled, having difficulties with the problem of unifying the house with its garden. As a consequence, many architects also designed the outdoor spaces together with their buildings and many considered perennials as unnecessary decorations.
With a background in architecture, Ruys understood the importance of unity of the architecture with the garden. She also wanted to have an experience of nature in her gardens and because of her connection with her family’s nursery, Ruys’ was fortunate to be able to choose and experiment with a wide variety of plants. Also at this time, the nursery was moving away from the tradition of a rigid, formal carpet of gaudy bedding plants to a more naturalistic style of planting.
Ruys introduced inexpensive, ready-made planting schemes for the masses, eight schemes altogether, to suit different soil types and aspects of the sites. Examples of them are still in display in her ‘off-the-peg’, Confectieborders model garden.
Her socialist views had greatly influenced her choice of materials for her gardens. In the vein of Gardens for The People, she experimented with different, low cost, widely available construction materials; signature aspects being the use of concrete pebble-dashed paving stones and railway sleepers. She was then known to her fellow Dutch countrymen as Bielzen Mien (Sleepers Mien).
She also experimented with recycled materials, one of which was the use of recycled plastic, which could withstand high temperatures, to make decking materials for her bog garden, Moerastuin.
The gardens are well balanced with contrasting textures, forms and colours. She used grasses, planted in large drifts, to give fine textures and arching forms. This contrasts well with water as she demonstrated in her Reed Pond (Vijvertje met riet) and Hedge garden (Geknipte tuin). She liked to use pools and ponds, large or small, in her gardens. Ruys’ gardens appeared to be on the well-planted side in comparison to other flat elements like paths and lawn. This gives the feeling of nature with a touch of wildness.
Simplicity is the key to Ruys’ gardens. There is a calm and uncluttered feel to them, achieved by limiting the number of features and different types of materials used; the gardens are never overly-ornamented; sculptures are made from simple materials and used sparingly just to give form.
Careful choice of perennials also ensures the colour element of the garden remains quiet and subdued. Planting schemes are repeated, sometimes in large drifts to minimise the need to use lots of different plants.
Scale and Proportion
Ruys’ designs worked well in small urban gardens; most of her model gardens are just around 150 metre squares. Her pebble-dashed paving slabs used are smaller (40cm) than the standard size we use today; this makes the gardens seem bigger.
Her sculptures and water features are never oversized or overwhelming; nor are they too small so as to appear fussy: in fact, they are just the right size to attract attention.
Rhythm and Repetition
There is much evidence of repetition, achieved by rows of pots and planters, ‘hedging soldiers’ or seating arranged in a row. The planters and pots used are purely functional, all with identical planting – they are there to provide a strong sense of rhythm and repetition.
Focal points are usually provided by water features and garden sculptures or furniture, mostly from the modernist era, with clean lines and emphasis on form. The use of art in her gardens transforms a visit into an intellectual experience.
At times she experimented with square blocks of brightly coloured perennials for a sharp contrast as seen in the urban garden, Stadstuin. Sometimes one finds amusing details in her gardens that display her modern turn of mind.
The garden writer Jane Brown said “All her work displays the assurance of modern design at its very best.” Ruys’ gardens have aged gracefully and do not appeared dated, the concrete paths and planters have blended well into their surroundings. She has chosen materials that do not look overly synthetic or man-made.
Ruys used an asymmetrical style with overlapping shapes of square and rectangles with strong angles. Her style of design is still very relevant today as it is still an ideal layout for small urban and town gardens. Its strong sleek lines are in unity with today’s contemporary surroundings.
Much of her success is in her planting schemes, she primarily wanted an experience of nature in her gardens. Her choices of plant combinations for different aspects, soil types and situations are well researched and published. Copies of the full planting plans for her model gardens are available.
Mien Ruys’ legacy of notable gardens stems from:
- Unity of house and garden
- Knowledge of plants; including their colour, form and texture
- Use of grasses in large drifts
- Simple devices for rhythm and repetition eg. pots and planters
- Experiment in suitable construction materials for the garden
- Use of art sculptures as focal points
Her use of railway sleepers as a garden construction material is still widely continued today.
Appendix (List of gardens)
- Molensteentuin (Millstone Garden)
- Oude proeftuin (Old Experimental Garden)
- Bank bij de waterbol (Bench by the Water Ball)
- Verwilderingstuin (Wild Garden)
- Tuinmanstuin (Gardeners’ Garden)
- Bos (Forest)
- Beeldentuin (Sculpture Garden)
- Wiekend (Mien Ruys’ Bungalow)
- Confectieborders (Off-The-Peg Borders)
- Verdiepte tuin (Sunken Garden)
- Zonneborders (Sunny Borders)
- Vijvertje met riet (Reed Pond)
- Aanwinstentuin (New Perennial Collection)
- Daktuin (Roof Garden)
- Moerastuin (Bog Garden)
- Gele tuin (Yellow Garden)
- Gemengde border (Mixed Border)
- Hoektuin (Corner Garden)
- Geknipte tuin (Hedge Garden)
- Nieuwe border (New Border)
- Bloementerras (Floral Terrace)
- Grassen (Grasses)
- Stadstuin (Urban Garden)
- Vakkentuin (Compartmented Garden)
- Herfsttuin (Autumn Garden)
- Schaduwborders (Shady Borders)
- Watertuin (Water Garden)
- Kruidentuin (Herb Garden)
- Brown, Jane. The Modern Garden: Thames & Hudson, 25 Sep 2000.
- den Dulk, Leo. “Project Description.” Mien Ruys Project. Cantura 05 Apr 2010
- den Dulk, Leo. “Final report Phase I, Accessibility of Archives.” Mien Ruys Project. Cantura 05 Apr 2010
- Garden Wanderer, The. “Mien Ruys Gardens, the Netherlands.” 08 Oct 2008. blogspot.com. 07 Apr 2010
- Intercontinental Gardener, The. A book by Mien Ruys, mother of the New Perennial movement 08 Oct 2009. blogspot.com 07 Apr 2010
- Kunstbus Mien Ruys 07 Aug 2008
- Tuinen Mien Ruys Tuinen Mien Ruys 05 Apr 2010
- Tuinen Mien Ruys. Beplantingsplannen. June 2009.
- Vulgare EXPERIMENTAL gardenS Mien Ruys – DEDEMSVAART, NETHERLAND 07 Apr 2010
- Wilson, Andrew. Influential Gardeners: Mitchell Beazley, 17 Oct 2002.
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