High Minded: Designing Women

The hidden politics of plants.


This feature was originally published in Volume Five: Flower. Pick up your own copy here.

What do you see when you walk through a garden?

Perhaps you think of colorful flowers, a quiet place to sit, or simply somewhere to unpack a picnic basket. Or maybe you see a waste of money. Gardens, both public and private, are easy to take for granted. They are meant to be inviting. Few gardens, no matter how cutting-(h)edge, are meant to “challenge” the occupant. Nature is trying hard enough to kill us; why would we do that to ourselves?

Garden design, instead, focuses on enticing the visitor to any number of outcomes and activities. There is an invisible hand at work in a planned garden, nudging us to walk along certain pathways, consider certain views and contrast them with others, and be overtaken by a scent around one corner and a breeze around another. Even fauna is not safe from the manipulative mind of the designer: eat here, we tell the pollinators. Not there! we tell the deer. Ducks to the pond, please, and voles, kindly fuck off.

Like all human activities, landscapes contain a political element as well, though it may be hidden behind boxwood hedges. Public gardens communicate society’s values and ideals. Think of the man-made wilderness of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Romantic-era Central Park, created through the destruction of settlements such as the majority Black Seneca Village, replacing the actual wild landscape. Or, for a more slap-you-in-the-face example, consider the authoritarian, labor and capital-intensive grandeur of French designer André Le Nôtre’s imperial palace gardens of Versailles.

The identity of the garden designer also holds a political meaning. Gardening tends to occupy the same liminal status as cooking: it is women’s work, unless there is money and/or fame involved. It has long been (somewhat) acceptable for women to wield influence over private domains, but public spaces influence the way we, as a people, think and act. Pioneering women in garden design refused to accept a private role; they went around educational restrictions, fought against exclusion from professional societies, supported and mentored one another, worked with allies to spread awareness of their contributions, and published their ideas to reach the public directly. Although many of these women’s names have already been blurred from the historical record, one of my personal favorites is Mien Ruys, a Dutch landscape designer and committed socialist whose garden in the Netherlands I visited last summer.

Considered the spiritual mother of the “New Perennial” movement, Ruys combined a love of what we’d now think of as sustainable growing practices with a modernist aesthetic to create a then-burgeoning philosophical movement among European designers scarred by successive wars who wanted to improve the lives of the greatest number of people possible rather than the elite few. In her larger scale projects, she argued against the modernist yen for absolute control by adding “paths of desire,” the landscape design term for walkways that arise spontaneously through use. She created cheap, easily reproducible planting patterns meant to suit a myriad of natural conditions so that anyone could start a garden and feel relatively secure about their success. Moreover, Ruys championed the use of inexpensive and recycled materials in garden architecture, such as concrete paving stones, recycled plastics, and railroad ties.

What I love most about Ruys’s work is her implied insistence that plants are not decoration but functional aspects of an environment, a vital part of our experience in the world. Modernism in the garden too often presents itself with limited palettes: dull plants stuck in strict rows or clipped into unnatural hedges. But plants are not extraneous: they are living creatures, fellow travelers toward a future shaped by humans though not solely inhabited by them. Plants have wants and needs, preferred environments and the ability to adapt to new ones. They provide human necessities, like oxygen and nutrition, but also endless gifts. Plants remind us to ask ourselves not “What can I get?” but “What do I have to offer?”

Ruys’s style, which she once referred to as “controlled wildernesses,” is increasingly popular in public gardens today. (Think: Piet Oudolf ’s High Line gardens in New York or the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.) When I walk by plantings left to grow according to their own strange patterns or see an unexpected flower, I think of Ruys. She believed that exposure to natural beauty is our human birthright—and its stewardship our human responsibility.

Our appreciation of gardens is a work in progress. Today, when I sit in a garden, whether it’s the work of a famed designer or an overlooked city park, I see a reflection of our contemporary ideals, but also the hard-won results of those who fought for everyone in a society to be able to enjoy colorful flowers, a quiet place to sit, and a spot for a picnic.

What, I ask myself, do I have to offer to that fight?