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Down to Earth: Meet the mother of modern garden design

Mien Ruys is the mother of modern garden design. The fact hers is not a household name is an injustice, writes Cambridge designer Robert Barker

The High Line garden by Piet Oudolf, bearing influence by Mien Ruys
The High Line garden by Piet Oudolf, bearing influence by Mien Ruys

With Women’s History Month running throughout March, it got me thinking about important women within garden design - the mothers of garden design, if you will. Of course, many have been recognised for their influence; equally, as with all things, I am sure there’s also a huge list of those that sadly haven’t been recognised.

The obvious female horticulturalists that spring to mind are Gertrude Jekyll (who between 1843 and 1932 created or consulted on more than 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America) and Beth Chatto (who, as well as being an award-winning plantswoman and author, is known for creating one of the most iconic gravel gardens on the planet, which is definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been already, in Colchester).

Yet not many have heard of one of my favourite designers, Mien Ruys. Mien Ruys, short for Wilhelmina Jacoba Moussault-Ruys, was a Dutch landscape and garden architect who is considered a pioneer and leader in the New Perennial Movement. This naturalistic style is about making gardens symbiotic with nature, which is still incredibly popular.

Many of you will have heard of Piet Oudolf, garden design royalty, whose iconic High Line garden is pictured above, and perhaps Giles Clement, another favourite of mine. Both have made their name from adapting this New Perennial style.

The key to the structure of Mien’s designs was simplicity and clearness. Clean straight lines within the gardens are accompanied with very straight clipped squares of greenery in contrast with an exuberant use of perennials.

This style didn’t stop Mien from designing experimental gardens, however; she was always experimenting with plants and materials. In the early 1960s, for example, she experimented with using old railway sleepers - which led to them being used widely in Dutch gardens and today they’re a common sight in gardens everywhere.

As a student of garden design, one particular day I was feeling particularly flat, a fall out from the previous day where I had worked for a well-known female designer who tried to beat inspiration out of me. Luckily for me, that day was spent listening to a lecture on Mien Ruys and, after hours spent seeing the artistic and creative ways in which she used materials, hedging, topiary etc, I couldn’t help but be full of inspiration and excitement.

Next month I will, for the first time, be visiting her legacy garden ‘Tuinen Mien Ruys’ in the Netherlands and I cannot wait. Mien passed away in 1999 at the age of 94, maybe an unappreciated influence for many - but to me she will always be an all-star.

See robertbarkerdesign.com for more.

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