The New Perennial Movement
Mien Ruys, whose garden has influenced generations of well-known designers in Europe and America, is considered by many to be the leader of the “New Perennial Movement” of the 1990’s. In his book Designing with Plants, Piet Oudolf writes of Mien, “She was everywhere, the only garden designer in Holland who was talking about plants and plantings, the others just talked about design.”
Mien was surrounded by plants from the time she was young. Her father founded Moerheim Nursery in Dedemsvaart in the late 1800s; it specialized in perennials, eventually becoming a very well known perennial nursery in Europe.
At the age of 19, Mien wrote in her diary “Today is the first day of my career.” Her father had started a small design department at the nursery and within a short time, she was put in charge. By this time, Mien had already exhibited an intense interest and talent in using perennials in gardens.
Because there was no training for garden design in Holland at that time, Mien studied in Berlin and then got some practical experience at Tunbridge Wells in England.
Mien began experimenting with designs and plants in her parents’ garden, creating a straight path from the kitchen garden onward until she reached the fruit trees. Continuing with her vision, Mien built a small square pond, surrounded by the perennials she loved. Within a year, most of the perennials had died off due to the acid ground in Dedemsvaart. The death of these perennials was a turning point in her philosophy; either she needed to continually amend the soil or she had to choose plants which could adapt to their new home. Mien chose plants with adaptability.
She continued experimenting, making small perennial gardens on her parents’ property, eventually becoming as interested in the materials used for building gardens as the plant material. In the 1960s, Mien began using railway sleepers in a large number of Dutch gardens, which led to her being known as ‘sleeper Mien.’ She also came up with the idea of using ‘washed gravel’ paving stones.
When I made the trek to Mien’s garden early last spring, what grabbed me was its simplicity, elegance and outstanding bones, but most of all its timelessness. The word ‘experimental’ is synonymous when describing her garden. To see it first hand and learn that much of what appears ‘cutting edge’ was designed several decades ago, is a testament to her outstanding talent and vision.
The outline of the garden is designed geometrically with modernistic elements seamlessly integrated. Mien is known to have always created a space based on simplicity and functionality, which her colleagues did as well. But it was her use of loose natural plantings surrounding the space, and the emphasis on the perennial borders that differentiated Mien’s designs from those of her peers. She felt that the perennials allowed an individual to interact and have a direct experience with nature.
Fran Sorin, author of Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, is a well known gardening expert and communicator. Her multi-media exposure as an author, broadcaster, journalist and speaker, affords her the opportunity to share her belief that gardening is a conduit for living a healthier, more creative, and joyful life. Fran is the CBS Radio News Gardening Contributor and the Producer of the highly trafficked group blog, Gardening Gone Wild.