About 50 years ago Mien Ruys described her garden philosophy as "a wild planting in a strong design". A characterization that was so accurate, that there is nothing for me to add, be it that my planting is much wilder and my design much less rigid than hers.
When I started the layout of the Priona Gardens in 1978 together with Anton Schlepers, I had the awe-inspiring flower meadows of Central and Southern Europe in mind. That was the picture I wanted to establish in my garden. At that time I did not give the design much thought.
Except for the Gardens of Mien Ruys I had not seen any other garden, and the ideas that I had about garden design, were copied from her garden.
Bistort (Persicaria bistorta) in the Swiss Rhone-valley
Galium verum and Stachys officinalis in the hills near Cerknica, Slowenia
There is another quote from Mien Ruys I did not agree with: "One cannot imitate nature in a garden". Being pedantic, I tried to prove her wrong, but eventually I had to admit that she was right. The subtle plant communities that I planted in my garden, like those on limestone grasslands, were no match for the only plant community belonging to gardens naturally: the ground elder community (Aegopodion podagrariae), a community of weeds that use rootstocks in order to spread.
Greater Periwinkle (Vinca major) is as strong as Ground Elder
Because I still wanted to create a garden that would be experienced by the visitor as a nature area, a garden without artificial fertilizers or chemical pesticides or without waging a endless battle against weeds and marauding insects, I had to look for plants with a natural feel, that would be able to compete without all that fuss. I found them at the nursery of Piet Oudolf, whom I met in 1983. He grew bold plants, that were ready to wage battle with the weeds, but still looked subtle and natural enough to fit into the picture that I had in mind.
Together with Piet Oudolf I have described the result of 20 years of experience with wild and cultivated plants, that are able to compete in a natural garden without too much fuss, in the book "Dreamplants for the Natural Garden".


Over the years, my ideas about garden design became more structural. Because quite soon it became obvious that my garden needed landscaping. The wilder the planting got, the more the need for a strong design evolved. Wild plants in nature don't grow in a disorderly mish-mash, but grouped three-dimensionally in recognizable plant communities and in harmony with the scenery. In an isolated garden there is usually little space. If present at all, space needs to be emphasized by decent landscaping, if absent, it needs to be suggested. The design replaces the scenery!
Cycad at the Telperion Nature Reserve in Gauteng, South Africa. The positioning of the rocks is a designers dream.
A designers dream in the Priona Gardens. The wild planting around the topiary and the Koelreuteria in the background give it a naturalistic touch.
For my own use I formulated this rule of thumb: What is straight, should be curved, what is curved, should be straight. Meaning: in a garden where everything is straight, the walls or hedges around it and the path through it, the secondary landscaping should be curved: sloping or freakish paths, hedges, lawns or borders and the other way around: in a freakish or shapeless garden the secondary landscaping should be straight, in order to obtain a harmonious image.
The idealised harmony of a symmetrical garden with straight hedges, an elongated straight pond in the middle and trees planted symmetrically on both sides (that never grow at the same speed: farewell symmetry), has outlived itself. It is a theme from the past, when people used to be afraid of nature, which was ubiquitous, and the fence of the garden was meant to lock nature out. Today, when nature around us has virtually disappeared, the chilly, nature-adverse surrounding has to be kept outside the fence. Logically the internal garden has to be landscaped in a different manner than it used to be, because nature is not symmetrical. Freakish, curved or round, reflecting the idealised harmony of nature. Idealised, because harmony only exists in our imagination, not in nature. The garden remains a human creation: art (or kitsch): an illusion.
The planting has to be founded on a lucid concept, which can be understood at first glance.
Choosing a theme is the easiest way, though hardly natural: vegetable garden, herb garden, a single coloured garden . The concept of the perennial border, as developed by Gertrude Jekyll, was much more sophisticated. A natural theme, the flowering roadside or woodland edge, could in that way be drawn into the limited space of the garden.
The Long Border in the Priona Gardens
The border backed by a straight hedge or wall offers countless possibilities for the natural gardener. In my opinion, even the  rather primitive concept of the single coloured perennial border has achieved great distinction in the hands of some people (Ton ter Linden, Nori and Sandra Pope).
A border backed by wild growing trees and shrubs is more natural, yet more difficult to maintain. But if at such a spot a plant community could be planted, which belongs there naturally, the ideal garden -almost free of maintenance- comes in store. What harmony! (and what utopia!)

The maintenance of my garden must never degenerate into a battle against nature. If that happens, or threatens to happen, I'm doing something wrong. Plants that can't live without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides don't belong in my garden. Not in any garden by the way; you have a garden for the fun of it. A garden is art, or a hobby, if you like, but not a matter of life or death. Hence chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are threatening the natural environment and consequently the health of all living creatures, ought to be forbidden for use in a garden.
Damage to plants caused by insects or fungi usually has natural causes (the weather, or the age of a plant: plants too are mortal creatures) and is a fact of life that has to be accepted in a natural garden. The damage done by geranium-beetles, who make the leaves of several Geranium-species look like a colander, may be considered to be very decorative. Mildew on Monarda is an autumn feature, just as pretty as red or yellow leaf-colouring. When a Monarda is covered by mildew long before it starts to flower, it has been planted in the wrong place (too wet) and will consequently die. Caterpillars that devour a nasturtium will flitter about the garden like fairies a few weeks later and snails are not troublesome, but useful: they get rid of all the rubbish, including the (seemingly) healthy plants that don't belong in the garden.
Caterpillar on radish-seed
Dead skeletons of Verbascum olympicum. The design (the hedge) stays upright!
I allow all the plants in my garden to run their complete cycle. It is early springtime before I clean up last years remains. I do that to please the birds, which may loot the seadheads, the insects, which can survive a winter in the hollow stems, and myself. Because the decay, collapse and death of the garden are as fascinating as the awakening of spring or the sea of flowers in summer. A bit less exciting perhaps, but who could bear to be excited every day of the year?
Besides: the design stays upright summer and winter. A well-designed garden is always fascinating
Bistort. Click to enlarge
Slowenia - Click to enlarge
Ground Elder - Click to enlarge
Telperion - Click to enlarge
Topiary - Click to enlarge
Long Border - Click to enlarge
Caterpillar - Click to enlarge
Dead garden - Click to enlarge