December 08, 2021
“Pam, I hope you are planning a visit to Innisfree, the world’s greatest underrated and too little known garden.” So messaged James Golden of Federal Twist after I’d asked if I might visit his own increasingly well-known garden while on my Northeast road trip in October. As it happened, Innisfree was on my itinerary. And if not, I’d have added it on James’s recommendation alone.
Even though I’d worked out a snaking sightseeing route from Maine through New Hampshire and Vermont to get here, I knew next to nothing about Innisfree Garden. Located near the charming village of Millbrook, New York, where David and I stopped for lunch, Innisfree is a former private estate and 60-year-old public garden somewhat refreshingly devoid of glamour or visitor amenities. You won’t find a grand old manor house here. It was torn down decades ago. You won’t find a gift shop or café either. Two porta-potty toilets, a ticket kiosk, and picnic tables are the only public-garden concessions on offer.
But you won’t miss those things. (Well, maybe real toilets.) What you will find is a contemplative, engaging strolling garden around a glacial lake, planted with sturdy native and well-adapted trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses that don’t require a platoon of gardeners to maintain. You’ll also find, if you wander about, interesting and sometimes mysterious cup gardens — inward-focused gardens or vignettes inspired by scroll paintings of ancient Chinese gardens.
Innisfree’s founders, Walter and Marion Beck — he was the mystical artist with a passion for garden design; she was the money, a lumber baron heiress as well as an avid gardener — began working with landscape architect Lester Collins in 1938 to create the garden. For 20 years they collaborated, rejecting the original plan for an English-style garden to complement their newly built English-style house in favor of a Chinese-influenced strolling garden.
When the Becks died without heirs, Collins kept on with the garden as director of its foundation. Over the next 30 years he simplified the overall design for easier maintenance, extended a walking path around the lake to make a loop, and added other significant features. He also razed the Becks’ mansion, which was expensive to keep up and, in his view, didn’t suit the garden’s aesthetic. After his death, his wife, Petronella, took over and kept the garden going until 2017. Recently the garden’s significance as “a postmodern masterpiece” led to its listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Even so, as James Golden noted, the garden remains little known.
So let’s get to know it! We arrived at opening time on the morning of October 8th, after a two-hour drive from Bennington, Vermont (finding an affordable motel or hotel near Millbrook had proved challenging). From the parking area you walk down to the lake, where a broad view of water and wooded hills gives you a sense of leaving urban life far behind.
The woodsy path leads along the base of a boulder-studded hill, and then you hear a dripping waterfall — one of the cup gardens. A beaded curtain of water hangs from the lip of a jutting rock at aptly named Lip Rock Waterfall.
Unusually shaped and marked rocks stand upright here and there, like spirit guides.
Soon we found ourselves climbing shallow stone slabs to the top of a knoll.
Trees turning autumn hues perch here too, their roots dug deep into rocky crevices.
A mossy glade makes a pretty canvas for falling leaves. It was hard to discern where the path was up here, and I worried we’d gone off-trail, but we soon picked it up again.
I’m skipping over an interesting cup garden in dappled shade at Tiptoe Rock that defied my picture-taking skill. We diverged from the lakeside trail to explore the North Lawn, where an interesting view opened up: lumpy, grassy berms with a backdrop of trees turning orange and gold.
The lawn looked like a green bedspread pulled over down pillows. We walked down the pillows — the path had vanished — and explored the “bed.”
A large standing stone near another berm attracts the eye.
Tucked amid the berms, a lotus pond bog garden was going orange and yellow.
More beautiful fall color
A cobblestone bridge arch surrounded by golden trees caught my eye and we wandered over.
Another stone stair appeared, curving uphill under a gracefully bent tree.
Bark and leaves
As we reached the top we looked left…
…and saw another interesting scene, a bosque of fastigiate trees with mist rising behind them.
Just imagine how they must look in their golden glory a little later in October.
Another trickling water curtain drew us to the edge of a wooded hillside, where we found Buddha Cave, a rocky grotto.
Opposite, a contemporary water sculpture shoots a vaporized jet of water skyward. The red column stands alone in a shallow bermed circle.
From certain angles, the mist makes a rainbow.
A brick terrace offers shady seating under a vine-draped arbor. The yellow bench must make a wonderful color echo with the nearby ginkgos when they turn.
I read somewhere that this terrace is all that remains of the Becks’ inappropriately English house. Inset stones depict Chinese imagery that suits this garden.
Beyond the yellow bench, the arbor frames a view of the red water sculpture.
We soon came across another lotus pool with a small waterfall. Just beyond, an arched stone wall contains the Circular Grotto.
Angled stones, vaguely animal shaped, seem ready to battle, the left one with outstretched arms, the other with a gaping maw? Or do you see something different?
A rusty-leaved Japanese maple points the way to the Middle Terrace.
I can never resist peeking under the skirt of a weeping tree. They always remind me of a child’s secret hideaway.
Other weeping trees, like so many hunching figures, can be seen on the lawn.
Don’t they give a melancholy appearance? Maybe they miss the house, or its former occupants.
Below the terrace wall, a piered wooden bridge crosses a stream. Stepping stones then trail off in the lawn.
But let’s explore the rest of the Middle Terrace, with its collection of Japanese maples and weeping trees. Here, as everywhere at Innisfree, rock forms the structure and focal points.
Romantic, melancholy weeping trees along a stone path
The walls look as if they could be the old home’s foundation, but perhaps they’re just made to look that way.
One wall is etched with Chinese-style figures. I wonder what story is being told.
A cave-like room under the wall was open, so we popped inside to look. It seemed to be an old storage space.
A Chinese tile window offered a little light.
On the outside, the blue tile window and vine-draped stone walls give the place a fairy-tale vibe.
Up next: Part 2 of my stroll at Innisfree, including a wish tree, oxbow stream, and lakeside views. For a look back at the Green Mountains of Vermont in brilliant fall color, click here.
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