Mien Ruys' own garden in the Netherlands is the ideal place to start a new series on design articles on 'Why this Garden Works'. Each article is presented by landscape designer, Tracy Rich, who will examine a single garden and provide design tips based on that garden's layout, materials and planting.
You will have an opportunity in the comments section to agree or otherwise!
Tuinen Mien Ruys, The Netherlands
From the 1920s to the 1990s the Dutch landscape architect, Mien Ruys, created small, experimental gardens with radical new designs. She wanted to test what works and what doesn't, often with a commercial purpose in mind. For instance, she created many plant combination packages that customers could then buy in her father's nursery.
Tuinen Mien Ruys now contains 30 experimental gardens open to the public. All are fascinating but here are three that offer some great design tips.
The Yellow Garden
The Yellow Garden is one of the most famous of the experimental gardens. I was instinctively drawn to the circular lawn, bathed in light and surrounded by yellow plants. When I visited with a design group we all felt instantly happy in that space. But why does it work?
1. Circular lawns still work. Circular lawns are now quite a common design feature but this is the best I've seen so far. It is surrounded by planting except for two opposite entrances. There are clear views out of the circle and the tree acts as a strong focal point, drawing your eye. The garden balances a sense of enclosure with open-ness. Would you feel claustrophobic if you were completely surrounded with just one way in? Would it also work so well if there were four entrances with an urn or fountain at the centre, as is often seen in traditional design? Or a combination of interlocking circles, which is also quite often seen in modern design? To me, this simple yet strong version is much more effective.
2. Subtle changes make all the difference. The lawn is deliberately concave but only very slightly. There is a 100mm height difference, which reinforces the sense of enclosure and privacy. Why bother? Most of us wouldn't. But it seems to work when you're standing there, surrounded by the thick band of yellow bricks. Mien Ruys called it her 'magic circle'.
3. Don't be afraid of yellow. Many clients tell designers they'd like any colour in their garden except yellow. But think how different this garden would be using a different colour palette. Yellow is the colour of sunshine and seems to be the perfect choice for this open, circular space.
The Sunken Garden
Mien Ruys was the first designer to use railway sleepers in the garden after she'd seen some lying about while looking for a retaining wall solution. She excitedly ordered a truck load of sleepers and started experimenting with them. The Sunken Garden was created in 1960 but still feels fresh and zen-like.
1. Use cheap materials artistically. This garden uses three relatively inexpensive hardscaping materials, which all work well together. Why? Partly because they are all complementary rectangular shapes and partly because they are used in clever combinations. Cheap concrete pavers are used throughout Tuinen Mien Ruys. However, their use is thoughtful and here they are combined with small setts, which give a more expensive 'artisan' feel. Would the garden work so well if the central terrace was made up of large pavers rather than small setts? Or if the whole path was made entirely of pavers rather than combined with the setts in a stylish mosaic? Adding a touch of craftsmanship to materials can make them seem more expensive than they really are.
2. Be generous with layout. Often in a small garden our natural inclination is to minimise the hardscaping and make paths and terraces as small as possible to fit in more planting. The Sunken Garden does the opposite. The timber sleepers are set on their wide edge, taking up more space than if turned the other way. Steps are wide and shallow. The central terrace is relatively large. All these things work to give a feeling of open space and luxury rather than meanness. No meanness in the planting either. There is enough left-over space to plant bold blocks of single varieties.
3. Use terracing carefully. The Sunken Garden was created artificially by excavating 150mm of soil and piling it up on the outside. Just this 300mm height difference is very effective, which made me realise that an even greater height difference may be too overpowering. I thought of all the gardens I'd seen where massive terracing has been added to gardens on a slope to create flat areas. It's hard to do this without the garden looking like a walled fortification. I'm now trying to rethink my own designs to come up with ways of balancing natural slopes with lower walls. And also recognising that small height differences can make gardens much more interesting.
The Clipped Garden
This garden was created in the year Mien Ruys died (1999) by one of her design colleagues. The experiment here was to create a garden without flowers. This shouldn't work, should it? But, perhaps strangely, this was the favourite garden of many of the designers on our visit.
1. Balance textures. The overall garden is very regimented, with small square pavers, clipped yew pillars and a long rectangular pool. In contrast to these formal straight edges, the garden is softened by the large body of water together with light, fluffy Miscanthus grass. There is movement courtesy of some simple (and also severe-looking) water sculptures. Flowers do appear after all but are limited to a strip of dainty Erigeron karvinskianthus daisies under the grasses.
2. Think in 3D. Without CAD software or a talent for elevation drawings it is easier for designers to focus on the horizontal plane. We spend a lot of time creating a nice, patterned layout that can be appreciated like a painting on a wall but sometimes neglect the vertical plane. It can be tricky to convince shade-fearing clients to add height through tall trees, planting or sculpture. But the Clipped Garden wouldn't work without strong vertical elements. The low, flat paving and pond are balanced by the tall grasses and monumental yews. How do you think this garden would look in the winter? Great or boring?
3. Don't overcomplicate things. I think that he secret to this and most other successful gardens is elegant simplicity. Straightforward elements but designed to, as MaryBerry would say, 'sheer perfection'. Nothing more and nothing less. For me, the overall lesson of Tuinen Mien Ruys is: think about how little you can put in a garden and not how much.
Articles in the Why this Garden Works series:
About the author
Tracy Rich is a landscape designer based in Stirling, Scotland. Tracy provides a full range of garden design services for private residences and community spaces.