Get Growing: Arise and go now to Innisfree Garden

  • A lake at Innisfree Garden. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Innisfree Garden includes many whimsical stone animals, including this dragon and frog. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Graceful, spreading branches of a Weeping Sargent hemlock at Innisfree Garden. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Mist plume creates a dripping waterfall at Innisfree Garden. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

  • A stone arbor hosts Virginia Creeper vines at Innisfree Garden. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

For the Gazette
Published: 8/30/2019 11:25:53 AM
Modified: 8/30/2019 11:25:43 AM

I was in Millbrook, New York, a couple of weeks ago and I happened to hear about Innisfree Garden, a 200-acre garden encircling a lake just outside the town. I don’t know how I missed knowing about this exceptional place, but I took a couple of hours—all I could spare—to visit there. I can’t wait to go back and spend more time exploring and marveling. A day or two would hardly suffice.

Innisfree was the country residence of Walter and Marion Beck in the early part of the 20th century. The property took its name from the 1888 poem by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats that begins:

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; / Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

The Becks originally owned nearly a thousand acres in Millbrook and gradually began to develop an extensive garden on the property surrounding the lake. The original plan was for an English-style garden that would complement the handsome Queen Anne-style house they had recently built, a copy of Wisley, the headquarters for England’s Royal Horticultural Society. But Walter Beck, an artist who was intensely interested in Chinese art and design principles, had a sudden change of heart about the aesthetic possibilities for the property. He and his wife went to England to study landscape design, and on that trip he discovered the work of Wang Wei, an eighth-century Chinese artist and poet who was also an accomplished garden designer. Beck was not interested in creating a Chinese garden in Millbrook, but he adopted Wang Wei’s method of creating small, complete vignettes within a larger overall design scheme. The vignettes — what Beck called “cups” — consisted not just of plants but of carefully placed rocks and water features. Marion Beck was well-versed in horticulture and contributed her knowledge to the selection of plants for the site.

What had begun as a small-scale project took off when the Becks began to work with Lester Collins, a young landscape architect who was also passionate about Asian design principles. Over the next 20 years, they collaborated to create the series of cup gardens that surrounds the lake like a richly jeweled necklace. They used huge stones from the property, creating stairways, terraces and waterfalls as well as spaces both intimate and grand. The whole garden is not to be viewed as one grand space. Instead, it’s a flowing series of carefully planned environments that succeed in creating the feel of effortless grace.

Although I have seen Innisfree only in late summer, it’s clear that the diverse plantings provide spectacular four-season interest. I can only imagine the garden in autumn, ablaze with autumn color reflected in the lake, and the evocative winter silhouettes of evergreens, bare branches and rock formations, natural and manmade.

The Becks established a foundation for the “study of garden art at Innisfree,” but after Marion Beck’s death in 1959, financial exigencies made it necessary to turn Innisfree into a public garden. Lester Collins, who became one of the leading landscape architects of the 20th century, continued to develop the garden with an eye towards making it a non-profit public space that would attract garden enthusiasts and nature lovers from all over.

Leading landscape architects and scholars have long admired the marvels of Innisfree. One scholar described it as one of the “world’s ten best gardens.” Another wrote, “Like the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China, Innisfree helps us to define what we mean by ‘civilization.’ It is one of the few places in this world that lived up to — nay, exceeded — my expectations.”

Some of us may have the means to travel all over the world to visit famous gardens. But fortunately for all of us, there are hidden gems much closer to home. If anything draws you to Dutchess County, New York, by all means plan a visit to Innisfree. The modest $10 entrance fee allows visitors full access to the gardens, which include beautiful picnic sites and walking trails. It’s possible to complete the garden walk in 90 minutes or so, but you will want to take longer.

Millbrook is just over two hours from Amherst, a drive that takes you through lovely rolling countryside. It’s a pleasant town full of nice cafes and restaurants. No airfare! No jetlag! The garden closes for the winter, so check the website before you go,

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.Upcoming garden events

Celebrate pollinators at the Hitchcock Center

The Hitchcock Center’s Pollination Celebration Day will take place Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be events and activities for the whole family, including a pollinator scavenger hunt and a monarch migration obstacle course. This year, Jennifer Unkles’s monarch butterfly citizen science program will be offered twice. Learn how to tag monarchs, keep track of them and contribute to a growing body of data that helps us understand monarch migration. Make your own pennants and streamers, or bring your own pollinator costume from home for marching in our pollinator parade. Learn how to make your garden more friendly to pollinators. Bring a picnic and stay for the whole event. Rain or shine. Members: $4 children, $7 adults/nonmembers: $5 children, $8 adults. For more information and to register, go to

Hawk Watch at Skinner State Park

If you’re interested in larger flying creatures, on Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. to noon, the Hitchcock Center and the Kestrel Land Trust are hosting a hawk watch at the summit of Mount Holyoke in Hadley. As the summer season shifts to autumn, a great migration gets underway as birds large and small take to the skies and head for warmer climates. Dave King, U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist, and Dan Ziomek, host of the long-running show “Bird Songs” on 93.9 The River, will lead this year’s hawk watch. They will provide an introduction to the hawks and other raptors seen in our region and talk about how to identify them. They will also discuss the ecology of hawks from nesting to migration, as well as conservation efforts to support hawks and other bird species, including the American kestrel. If weather conditions are favorable for flying, participants may see a variety of hawks, falcons and vultures soaring past. Binoculars or a scope are recommended. Heavy rain cancels. The event is free, but donations are appreciated. Space is limited, so registration is required at Skinner State Park charges a $5 parking fee at the summit, so you may choose to park below the ranger gate and hike up to the summit to avoid the parking fee.

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