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Innisfree Garden


It’s no secret that life in the 21st century is stressful. Even before COVID-19, many Americans felt anxiety over the environment, endless wars, income inequality, family dysfunctions and a myriad of other problems. But for residents of the tristate region, a sense of relief, of grounding in the present moment, is close at hand.

Innisfree Garden, located at 362 Tyrrel Road in Millbrook, is a sanctuary 100 years in the making that invites visitors to explore its renowned landscape. Designed by former owners Walter and Marion Beck and landscape architect Lester Collins, Innisfree is “alive with ideas and experiences that society needs now more than ever—a sense of wonder and peace, the connection between all living things, art, cultural diversity and sustainable, nature-based practices,” according to Kate Kerin, landscape curator for the garden.

“Innisfree is my super-power,” Kerin said. “I grew up in the Hudson Valley and this is a place I have known my whole life but, the more I learn about it, the more excited I get.”

COVID-19 has forced the Innisfree Foundation to put on hold events planned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the garden’s public presence but, as with nature in its entirety, the garden rolls on, unperturbed by the emergency facing humans. The garden so carefully sculpted by Becks and Collins continues to emerge with the seasons—just as their creators envisioned—and is open to visitors who wish to step away for a moment from the stressors in their lives.

“There are so many layers to the garden,” said Kerin. “you come around a corner and you are always seeing something surprising. I have (walked through it) with top designers and artists, leaders in the field of horticulture and they are all equally delighted.”

Innisfree, recognized as one of the “world’s ten best gardens,” is on the National Register of Historic Places and recently was a Dutchess Tourism Awards of Distinction Finalist. It is gaining international acclaim but, oddly, remains relatively unknown in its own backyard.

“Part of the story, part of why so many don’t know about it, is that when it opened to the public it was in considerable debt,” said Kerin.

In the late 1920s, Innisfree was a much smaller garden surrounding the home of artist and teacher Walter Beck and avid gardener and heiress Marion Burt Beck. Walter Beck’s fascination with Asian art influenced his painting, the collecting he and his wife pursued, their ideas on garden design and ultimately supplied lasting inspiration for Innisfree.

In the 1930s, Beck discovered the work of 8th-century Chinese poet, painter and garden maker Wang Wei and observed that Wang created carefully defined, inwardly focused gardens and garden vignettes within a larger, naturalistic landscape. Beck christened these vignettes “cup gardens” and carried the concept to his Dutchess County sanctuary where he created three-dimensional pictures in the garden.

In 1938, they started to work with landscape designer Lester Collins to create sweeping landscapes that merge the essence of Modernist and Romantic ideas with traditional Chinese and Japanese garden design principles. It was Collins’ genius that linked Beck’s individual compositions to each other and to the landscape as a whole in the 185-acre garden.

But all this came at a cost and by the time Marion Beck died in 1960 and the property was bequeathed as a public garden, the planned $1 million endowment had evaporated. “The money was gone and then some,” said Kerin. “The Innisfree Foundation had to borrow $200,000 just to pay her personal debts.”

But the garden was well worth the effort. “Collins’ vision was to wrap that garden all the way around the lake so a sense of journey is part of the experience,” Kerin said. “He had that idea in place by 1969. Then, in the 1980s he started spending more time at Innisfree and was able to really start to layer the ideas he had. The partnership with nature was refined. Innisfree is a glacial landscape and he played with that.

“Collins had many decades to refine and perfect the gardens,” she continued. “Everything feels as if it is in its place. He got to play with it for a long time and he knew how the light works and the seasons change. He incorporated innovative and sustainable protocols that continue to this day.”

Despite the financial constraints the Foundation has experienced, Collins’ Innisfree design has contributed to its own continuance. “The garden has stayed looking like it should,” said Kerin. “Collins sustainable landscape maintenance techniques were developed to partner with nature to shape the ecosystem. For instance, by changing the amount of sun that hits the ground, things in the native seedbed naturally emerge. These are things that can be employed anywhere in world. In the end, it costs a lot less to run than other gardens because of this approach.”

Collins’ efforts are beginning attract the attention of leading horticulturists from around world because of “their innovative, environmentally responsible, and remarkably cost-effective landscape maintenance practices,” Kerin said.

“Making places where people can go and feel great and grounded, can get that mental calm—these are ideas we need now. Gardens are places of healing and wellness and we are trying to share the ideas Lester Collins developed.”

The Foundation had hoped its 60th anniversary celebration would kick off a new era of prosperity for the garden but those plans have had to be shelved for a while. “This was going to be our year—our first real fundraising effort—and here we are,” Kerin said.

But the garden has not closed its doors on its mission. “We have started to open on a limited, advanced-reservation basis.” she said. “We believe that places like Innisfree, that feel peaceful and that connect people to nature and art, are needed now more than ever. We are part of the community and we’re trying to answer that. We tried to open for our daffodil viewing weekends—thousands of daffodils all planted before 1950—but we couldn’t do it. So, volunteers cut, arranged and delivered about 4,500 of them to Vassar Brothers Medical Center and The Fountains, a nearby assisted living facility. I wish we were growing masks and PPE but that is what we had.”

Those who would like to visit Innisfree must reserve their three-hour spots in advance and must observe New York State protocols for the numbers of persons in a party, wearing masks and the like. The garden is open from 10AM-1PM and from 2-5PM in the afternoon. Reservations cannot be made onsite.

For more information about visiting and the restrictions imposed by the health crisis, please visit the link below.