Printer Friendly

Secret gardens in New York.

"We are a landscape of all we have seen."

--Isamu Noguchi, Sculptor

Gardens may bring to mind huge floral displays and blockbuster exhibits at Botanical Gardens, but there are many others worth visiting in Dutchess County, New York. They may highlight medicinal herbs from Shakespeare's time, heirloom vegetables from early Americana, or natural landscapes connecting us not only to place, but also to ourselves.


"A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in--what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars."

--Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Exploration and contemplation of nature are at the core of Innisfree, a stroll garden (only four miles off the Taconic State Parkway in Millbrook, New York), at what once was a country residence and is now open to the public. Asian garden design serves as inspiration for this remarkable creation by a landscape architect with rocks, water and wood as the primary elements. This aesthetic sanctuary is a site where spirit of place calls upon all of our senses.

Irish playwright and poet William Butler Yeats wrote about an idyllic setting where peace comes in a retreat from urban life, as crickets sing, and he hears the lapping of the lake in his poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" from 1888. Innisfree is a perfect name for this most tranquil garden in Millbrook, New York. Spirit of place is at the essence of Innisfree, a contemplative, 150-acre American stroll garden offering sweeping landscapes with an eye towards Asian garden traditions, mid-twentieth century design, and a sense of serenity. Heiress Marion Burt Beck and artist Walter Beck originally made their country home at Innisfree. They were inspired by the work of 8th-century Chinese poet/painter Wang Wei, who captured gardens within a natural landscape in his scroll paintings. Walter Beck called these "cup gardens" and incorporated them into his Chinese and Japanese influenced garden design at Innisfree.

Upon entrance to Innisfree, a sign explains the importance of "cup gardens," where visitors may roam free to make delightful discoveries from one pocket of nature to the next. "The Chinese devised the cup garden to draw attention to something rare or beautiful. They segregated an object, setting it apart by establishing enclosure around it, so that it could be enjoyed without distraction. At Innisfree the cup garden concept became a stroll from one 3-dimensional garden picture to another. A cup garden can be an enframed meadow, or a lotus bowl, or a rock covered with lichens and sedums." It is a chance to view a palette of green shades punctuated by splashes of other color while encircling the glacial lake, passing waterfalls, streams, seemingly sculpted roots, and other unexpected gems along the way.

First as a private garden and later as a public one run by a non-profit foundation, the creation of Innisfree was a 50-year project primarily led by the vision of landscape architect Lester Collins (1914-1993). Dean of Harvard's landscape architecture department, Collins worked collaboratively with the Becks to create what he referred to as walking "into a series of episodes, like Alice through the looking glass." His design involved editing vegetation on the wooded estate, much as a sculptor works with the negative space, balancing the composition to create a piece of art. Like many Japanese gardens, the overall aim is a scenic composition with trees, rocks, and running water arranged artfully. For Collins--who respected and embraced the land he shaped--the overall design of the graceful garden was revealed to observers slowly with a sense of discovery.

Although there are no musicians performing in boats on the lake, as might have been the case with early traditional Japanese gardens, there is much to view when strolling the lakeshore path. Native plants to the area such as sweet-scented water lily, swamp rose mallow, and spiderwort are among the wildflowers catching my attention at this garden where 40% of the flowers are wildflowers (and 125 plant species have been notated in their wildflower catalog). But I am equally drawn to ancient oak trees and the rocks, from solitary stones and sculptural works to simple benches from which to reflect upon the surrounding beauty and peaceful ambiance.

Open from mid-April to mid-October, Innisfree (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays) offers special events such as wildflower walks, garden design talks, and sunrise photo sessions. But this masterfully created landscape is worthy of a visit with or without special activities. As you explore and interact with the natural world both on and off the paths (as you are encouraged to do), surprises await and slowly reveal themselves. At Innisfree your breath slows down as you reconnect with your center, away from everyday pressures in this idyllic spot.


"I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me."

--William Shakespeare, Henry V

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York is home to an intimate Shakespeare Garden on a 1,000-acre campus, which is itself an arboretum comprised of more 230 species of trees. The 101-year old historic garden--dotted with statues of characters from Shakespeare plays--is the second oldest Shakespeare garden in the United States (the oldest is in New York's Central Park). English flowers and herbs mentioned in literary works by Shakespeare were planted at Vassar with the medicinal herb and culinary sections including quotes by Shakespeare, mentioning both the herbs and flowers on plaques. Designed to resemble a 16th-century English garden, it was originally planted by students to mark the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

Adorning a patch of marjoram, (symbolizing love, honor, and happiness) is a quote from Shakespeare sonnet 99:" The lily I condemned for thy hand, and buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair ..." Accompanying a planting of saffron (not just a culinary herb, but a coloring dye) is: "I must have saffron to color the warden pies ..." And beside bright yellow marigolds (thought to be an emblem of affection) is a quote from the Winter's Tale: "The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun. And with him rises weeping."

Conceived of as a multidisciplinary part of the curriculum at Vassar, where botanicals could be researched and studied, this garden since its earliest days has also served as an outdoor theater, where students have performed plays such as, "A Winter's Tale" with Elizabethan music. In more recent times the college has created a digital postcard of the Shakespeare Garden. The public is welcome to view this English-style garden as well as the lovely landscaped college grounds with a pond attracting ducks and geese.

The 1868 graduates of Vassar planted a white oak, beginning a college tradition of tree planting for each class. There is also an extensive daffodil collection. While the Shakespeare Garden--considered the crown jewel of the Vassar grounds--has undergone several incarnations, it continues to be enjoyed both by members of the Vassar community as well as the visiting public.


"It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green."

--Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from an Old Manse

The small heritage gardens at Locust Grove are part of a not-for-profit museum and nature preserve on the grounds of a 180-acre estate, designated a national historic landmark. You can hike on five miles of trails, visit the Italianate villa, which is a mansion filled with 19th century furniture (Chippendale, Federal, and Empire styles), toys of yesteryear, and unexpected curiosities (elucidated by an informative guide) as well as Hudson River School paintings. Or view the galleries, tracing the life of artist and inventor Samuel Morse ("father of the telegraph" and Morse Code, known as the "American Leonardo"), who lived here as his summer retreat in the mid-1800s.

Locust Grove--a museum, historic estate, and nature preserve--also hosts special events. Among the upcoming activities are Sunset Sensations Wine & Food Event on September 14 and a Mushroom Walk on September 24. Year-round educational programs geared to specific grade levels feature topics such as telegraphy, simple machines, and a house tour with a focus on early American artifacts.

If you can pull yourself away from the luscious pastel-hued peonies, history can also been experienced through a self-guided garden tour augmented by an informative brochure in the heirloom vegetable and flower gardens at Locust Grove. The kitchen garden, functioning on the estate for over two centuries, is currently an heirloom vegetable garden where signage explains how it has changed throughout the centuries.

During the residency of the first owners, the Livingstons (1771-1828) beans, squash, and corn (known by Native Americans as the "three sisters") were prominent along with potatoes, parsnips, and garlic. Culinary and medicinal herbs were planted and fruit included raspberries and strawberries. Emphasis is on long storing vegetables, while later, garden space has a larger allotment for vegetables to be eaten fresh.

In the time of Morse at Locust Grove, tomatoes took center stage along with beets, leeks, and chard. Morse--who was widely traveled and aware of European culinary practices--introduced eggplant, cardoon, and artichoke to the kitchen garden. Fruits at this time shifted to grapes and watermelon. When the Young family moved in (1897-1917), the family garden expanded to also include peas, spinach, and melons among other crops.

At this heirloom garden, I learn the National War Garden Commission also encouraged gardening (backyard and community) across America in 1917 and 1918 to help avoid food rationing and for export to allied countries facing starvation. Accompanying posters speak of the seeds of victory insuring the fruits of peace. Today garden surplus from the heirloom garden is donated to a local soup kitchen. A visit to the Locust Grove Estate and heirloom gardens is a way to step back in time and experience history.

"If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden."

--Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden



Dutchess County has a variety of intimate inns. Among the newest is the Millerton Inn, a historic building in quaint Millerton, New York, serving as an ideal home base for a garden exploration. The attractively decorated Millerton Inn at 53 Main Street boasts cardinal red-hued walls in the reception area, stained glass panels in the hallway, marble fireplaces, and four-poster beds. Their Tap Room, with Edison-style lights offers inventive drinks incorporating seasonal fruit and serves an impressive cheese platter artfully arranged atop an acacia plank. Some cheese varieties are produced at their family dairy farm, as does the Greek yogurt provided at breakfast.

This boutique hotel--with full dining available--is housed in a cheerful yellow structure with a wide porch and drive-through porte cochere overlooking Main Street of this village dating from 1875. Millerton was recently dubbed among the coolest small towns in America with a tasting room for Harney & Sons Fine Teas, an independent bookstore offering "blind date with a book," which is a mysterious, newly published work wrapped in generic brown paper, appealing craft boutiques, and an arty movie house in this rural, yet sophisticated village.


53 Main Street

Millerton, New York 12546

518 592 1900




362 Tyrell Road,

Millbrook, New York 12545

845 677 8000



124 Raymond Ave.

Poughkeepsie, New York 12604

845 437 7300



2683 South Road (Rte. 9)

Poughkeepsie, New York 12601

845 454 4500


Iris Brooks has written about all of the continents, where she has appreciated the natural beauty of the landscape. Highlights were contemplative gardens in Japan, a floral park adorned with tiles in Madeira, an artful cactus garden in the Canary Islands, and sculpture gardens stateside. She continues to explore gardens both far and near, collaborating with respected photographer Jon H. Davis. Many of their articles, photos, and films may be viewed on the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website,
COPYRIGHT 2017 News World Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Brooks, Iris
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 1, 2017
Previous Article:Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.
Next Article:Bavaria: Where Tradition Rules.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters