Garden Conservancy Open Day at Millbrook’s Innisfree Garden

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 Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program is a great excuse to investigate gorgeous gardens in our region, both public and private. On the list for this Saturday, July 27, is Innisfree Garden in Millbrook. Open to the public since 1960, Innisfree used to be a very wealthy couple’s extraordinary backyard. Minnesota heiress Marion Beck had already acquired the 950-acre glacial bowl surrounding Tyrrel Lake when she married Walter Beck in 1922. The couple built a house on the site: no wattle-and-daub “small cabin,” but a fine Queen Anne structure that, sadly, was demolished in the 1960s, after the Becks’ demise.

Walter Beck was a self-taught amateur landscaper, and the couple set out to surround their new home with gardens worthy of the bucolic site. The choice of name — after the 1888 lyric poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” — hints at the Becks’ original intent: to create a formal, symmetrical English-style border garden showcasing an encyclopedic horticultural collection, surrounded by a landscape park. Dissatisfied with their work-in-progress, the couple tore out the garden beds, then set off for a year abroad to see what other approaches the world had to offer.


Walter found the answer to his quest in a book of illustrations by an influential eighth-century Chinese garden designer named Wang Wei, regarded by modern landscape architects as the inventor — or at least the popularizer — of a technique known today as “cup gardens.” The concept is that a stroll through a garden should be an unfolding, episodic journey of discovery, moving from one contained scene to another, framed within the context of a larger landscape. Each “cup” has subtle borders or screens that direct the eye to some particularly sublime viewpoint, such as a strategically positioned stone, a perfect specimen plant, an architectural or water element. Every turn in the path is meant to create new angles of view that elicit surprise and delight, whether looking ahead or back from whence you came.

From 1930 to 1950 the Becks labored to transform the grounds of Innisfree into a series of cup gardens that followed the Asian aesthetic but incorporated European influences. In 1938 they found an invaluable ally in Lester Collins, a graduate student in landscape architecture who had studied in China. Collins undertook the development of Innisfree Garden as his life’s work, and carried it on beyond Walter and Marion’s deaths. After the formation of the Innisfree Foundation in 1960, Collins focused all his attention on the core 160 acres that remain open to the public today, creating trails that link the separate “cups” into a continuous ramble and building a bridge that makes it possible to circumambulate most of the lake. His wife Petronella continued Lester’s work after his death in 1993, emphasizing greater usage of native species and planting naturalized perennials to transition the gardens to surrounding woodlands.

All these decades of successive stewardship have yielded spectacular results, especially among the stone terraces that extend uphill from Lake Tyrrel’s northwest shore, seamlessly incorporating Nature’s beauty with human artifice. A thread of water cascades down the valley’s steep side, passes under a stone bridge that defines the edge of the gardens and wends its way through a circular grotto reminiscent of a moongate, studded with rocks artistically carved by no human hand. After watering a clump of lotuses, the stream passes out of the terraces over an artificial waterfall and trickles into an oxbow meandering through a meadow. Water elements are everywhere, including a variety of different types of fountains. Texture here is at least as important as color, so that the garden retains its beauty in every season regardless of what plants are in bloom. The Asian design influence is clearly apparent, echoed in the style of carvings inset into walls and patios, including a snoozing dragon carved into the capstone of one wall.

A two-hour visit will allow you to tour the highlights of Innisfree Garden at a strolling pace, although you could easily spend a full day here. The basic circuit of Lake Tyrrel is less than a mile in length, but elevations change constantly and the path is sometimes a bit rough, so come prepared with sensible shoes and a water bottle. Nothing here is truly handicapped-accessible. There are picnic tables and Porta-Potties, but no gift shop or snack bar at Innisfree. Nor is this a botanical garden with interpretive panels and identification labels on every plant.

Innisfree Garden is located on Tyrrel Road, about one mile south of Route 44, 1.7 miles east of the Taconic Parkway’s Millbrook exit. It’s open for the season through November 10; hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and legal holidays. It’s closed Mondays (except for holiday weekends) and Tuesdays. Admission costs $10, $5 for seniors (65+) and children aged 4 to 12; kids under age 4 get in free. Pets are not allowed on the grounds. For details visit, where you can also download a brochure, or call (845) 677-8000.

Upcoming events at Innisfree include:

• Saturdays, July 27, September 21, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Garden Conservancy Open Days. $10/$5. For detailed information and discounted tickets, visit the Garden Conservancy’s website at or call (845) 424-6500.

• Saturdays, August 3, 5 a.m.; October 12, 6 a.m.: Morning Light at Innisfree. The garden will open about one hour before sunrise for photographers, artists, birders and anyone else who would like to experience the garden bathed in spectacular golden light. Seasonal highlights: August, lotus and rose mallows; October, fall color. $10/$5.

• Saturdays, August 10, September 21, 10 a.m.; October 12, 10:30 a.m.: Guided Garden Tours. Join landscape curator Kate Kerin for a lively 1.5-hour tour exploring one of the world’s ten best gardens. Discuss the people, the inspirations and the natural and designed features that make Innisfree such a memorable and moving place. Advance reservations via e-mail at are suggested. $15 general public, $10 Innisfree members.

• Mondays, September 2, October 14, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.: In honor of the Labor Day and Columbus Day holidays, Innisfree will be open these two Mondays only. $10/$5.