ISSUE 48  |  The Rural Life

Innisfree: A Storybook Garden on an American Scale

November 30, 2012 12:00 PM

BY Justine Hand

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Spread over 185 acres of the Hudson Valley is a landscape that feels like taking a trip through a mystical land—like Clara's dream journey into The Nutcracker's country of sweets.

Originally the summer residence of Walter and Marion Beck, Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, NY, is a vast estate surrounding a 40-acre glacial lake. Walter, an artist who was influenced by Japanese and Chinese tea gardens, began creating a series of carefully defined, inwardly focused “cup gardens” in the 1920's. But it wasn't until the late 30's, after the couple teamed up with landscape designer Lester Collins, that the dynamic vision for Innisfree began to take shape.

Taking a broad view, Collins used the existing natural features of the dramatic setting —the “cup” defined by the sky, the lake, and the enclosing hills—to link Beck's individual gardens together into a grand scheme. Applying a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and modernist design principles, he choreographed a new suite of gardens and landscapes to create a sense of flow through the space. The result is la mix of contemplative nooks and sweeping vistas that coax you in and draw you onward.

Innisfree is an ambitious combination of modernist and Asian design principles set on an American scale. Fifty years in the making, it is the realization of a life-long dream, as only three visionaries could conceive:

Above: One of Innisfree's more dramatic and yet contemplative spaces, The Point enjoys the rays of the rising sun on a misty morning.

Above: Inspired by the natural formations around it, the manmade Point Dragon Rock looks at home in the surrounding lakeside landscape.

Above: One of the key elements of Collins' dreamy sequence of linked landscapes is his Yarimizu, the oxbow in the meadow stream at Innisfree.

Above: One of many, a lotus lily pad dots the lake.

Above: Each season brings new drama to the landscape. Here a terraced peony garden delights visitors in the spring.

Above: Like a ruin reclaimed by Mother Nature, a verdant stone arch evokes a mystical doorway.

Above: A more intimate space, Lip Rock Waterfall is a wonderful example of how Beck and Collins used existing materials, rocks gathered on site, in their Asian-inspired gardens.

Above: The Terrace shows Collins' gift for tempering manmade, modernist spaces with fluid, informal plantings.

Above: The bog garden overlooks a distant jet fountain, one many sculptures throughout the park.

Above: Lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) bloom from mid July through September.

Above: Feathery fronds complement one of the many misty waterfalls. Innisfree, open to the public from early May through late October, is located about four miles off the Taconic Parkway. For more information, see Innisfree Garden.

N.B.: Looking for more dramatic landscapes to visit? See 58 garden tours in our Gallery of Garden Visits.