How to grow Inspired Mien Ruys

Mien Ruys

If you’ve ever used a railway sleeper in a garden design you owe a debt to Dutch designer Mien Ruys, the so-called Mother of Modernism. 

Sandra visited her inspirational garden and wandered through its history of 20th century garden design.


Mien (Wilhemina) Ruys was born into a world of plants in 1904 as the daughter of two world-renowned plant growers. In fact she was literally born in a nursery, and not just any nursery but the world-famous Royal Moerheim Nurseries in the village of Dedemsvaart, 146kms from Amsterdam. By the time she was 20 she had started to experiment with plants in her own garden, watching them develop.


This is one of a pair of sunny flowers borders, dating from 1960, in which Ruys experimented with plants for hedges: hornbeam on the left and yew on the right. Without these background hedges the gardens would have little impact. The maturity of this garden can be seen in the trees behind. Photo -


At this time, Dutch gardens were stiff and formal: simple parterres featuring a central fountain with box hedges and coloured gravel around neat flowerbeds. Private garden space was limited in post-war Holland as the population increased, yet even the most diminutive gardens were richly ornamented with statues and small pavilions in a quest for variety.

Ruys was probably influenced by plantsman Karl Foerster, a colleague of her father, who was part of the ‘modern’ movement towards more naturalistic gardens featuring herbaceous perennials. Undoubtedly she was also influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s English style of colour-planned flower borders.


Th Square Garden, first planted in 1974 and renovated in 1997, is designed in blocks of square concrete tiles, square ponds, and square flower beds. The planting of hedges at various heights defines spaces within the garden. Photo -


By the 1950 Ruys had become well-known as a designer whose emphasis was on bold, simple forms, and who was keen to shake things up and work out how gardens could be done differently. She experimented with materials to make her gardens more interesting, using timber decking, concrete and railway sleepers within naturalistic plantings. These materials were new and gave her gardens a strong design which she softened with ‘wild’ planting. This new garden style had a profound influence on other garden designers of her generation, setting off a direction that can be seen in many contemporary Dutch designers.

Around the same time in England the leading taste-makers were Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst and Lawrence Johnson at Hidcote. Both these influential gardens were designed by their owners as a series of ‘rooms’, each with a different theme. Meanwhile, in California, Thomas Church was developing his California Style using asymmetrical designs, raised planting beds, sitting walls and timber decks and in Australia, Edna Walling was designing relaxed, free-flowing spaces, with simple stone walls and an emphasis on Australian plants.


A metal sundial on a stone plinth foregrounds a view to a late-summer border of rudbeckia, lysimachia and alchemilla (Ladies' Mantle). Note the use of square concrete pavers, a new material when this garden was designed. Photo -


Ruys’s own garden in Dedemsvaart is hidden from the road by high hedges. It comprises 28 different gardens, reflecting her changing attitudes to garden design over a period of 70 years. I arrived on a clear bright day early in June and as I wandered I was surprised by the absence of crowds, not at all like the throngs at famous English gardens.

The garden isn’t static, with old gardens being renovated and new areas developed. The most recent garden is the Roof Terrace, created just last year, which features the use of a new sustainable timber product, called Plato wood, in screens, reclining seats and raised vegetable gardens. I was also taken with the display of contemporary sculpture pieces set in the wild grass meadow garden.



The Marsh Garden was built in 1990 for water and marsh loving plants. Plank bridges, made of recycled plastic, form a light pattern of lines. Once you cross the bridges you can study this interesting garden from a different angle. Photo -


Perhaps my favourite of all though, was the Sunken Garden, which dates from 1960, and in which Ruys used railway sleepers for the first time. This gave her the opportunity for designs with differences in heights. This Sunken Garden has an intimate enclosed effect, which I found was best appreciated from a seat under a beautiful dogwood (Cornus kousa) with a line of view between the two sun borders to a dark copper beech hedge.


A stone figurine is set on railway sleepers at the entrance to the Sunken Garden (1960 renovated 1995). Ruys was the first to use railway sleepers, which introduced new possibilities for difference in height. The abundant planting softens the sleepers. Photo -


Even now, 12 years after her death, partly due to her refreshing approach and her design philosophy, the garden is brimming with ideas for the garden lover. Meticulous maintenance by Ruys’ design office and the ongoing renovation of the different gardens keeps this garden in the spirit of its founder. The Ruys design philosophy remains alive.


6 Plant notes: a Mien Ruys plant list

1. Stonecrop

Plant name: Sedum spectabile

Description: fleshy, blue-grey succulent leaves, large flat heads of tiny starry flowers that open green, change to white then to pink and age to brown. 

Size: 46cm x 46cm 

Special comments: tough and beautiful, survives on little water, loves a sunny spot in the garden. Prune back to the ground at the end of winter.

Photo - Sandra Ross

2. Cranesbill

Plant name: Geranium macrohizum

Description: dense groundcover with apple-scented foliage and thick clusters of pink flowers in late spring.

Size: 20cm x 40cm

Special comments: cut back hard after the first main bloom, or at any time, and plant will re-leaf and bloom again. Tolerates sun and dry conditions.

Photo - Sandra Ross

3. Feather reed grass

Plant name: Calamagrostis x acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’

Description: ornamental grass with reddish-bronze flowers in late spring above a tight clump of foliage. Later in the season flowers turn to cream, and in cold areas, the green foliage turns tan.

Size: 1.5 – 2m

Special comments: bred by Karl Foerster in Potsdam, this accent plant features in Mien Ruys’ Grass Garden. Prune it to the ground late winter. It prefers a cool climate.

Photo - Sandra Ross


4. Jerusalem Sage

Plant name: Phlomis russeliana

Description: large, felted, heart-shaped leaves make a dense mat. Stiff flower stems are encircled with whorls of soft-yellow hooded flowers in a tiered arrangement.

Size: 100 cm x 75 cm

Special comments: Mien Ruys planted this in her Yellow Garden, and it is handsome all year round. Prune the spent flower stems at the end of winter.

Photo - Sandra Ross


5. Sneezeweed

Plant name: Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’

Description: dark copper-red, daisy-like flowers with prominent dark brown centres. Petals are reflexed.

Size: 1m x 0.6m

Special comments: Ruys’ father bred this plant, which loves full sun and rich moist soil. It grows best in cool areas, is long-flowering and self-supporting.

Photo - Sandra Ross


6. Kousa Dogwood

Plant name: Cornus kousa

Description: beautiful small tree with white flowers in spring and scarlet foliage and orange-red fruits in autumn.

Size: 5m x 4m 

Special comments: Ruys planted this tree in her Sunken Garden. It prefers half-day sun, and deep, rich, moist soil, and flowers best in cool areas, though is worth planting in warm areas for the foliage alone.


Photo - Sandra Ross


Text: Sandra Ross 

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Author: Sandra Ross