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A garden a day - Innisfree Garden

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So far this week, we've looked at three types of public gardens: a former estate, a community garden, and a botanical garden. Today's garden is the unique and wonderful Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, New York. Like Chanticleer, it was formerly a private estate, but it differs significantly in a couple of ways: first, Innisfree is site specific, that is, it simply could not be created somewhere else, as the natural features of the lake and rocks are so much a part of the design. Second, Innisfree was created and is preserved as an example of a specific garden style. Known as a "Cup Garden", this design philosophy is taken from Chinese gardens and it aims to create numerous small, beautiful moments that focus your attention on the tiny details like the way moss grows, or a flower, or a rock. The overall design is highly composed but it is also intrinsically linked with the natural area surrounding. It's very unique and kind of hard to explain - here's what the garden's website says:

Innisfree is a 150-acre public garden in which the ancient art of Chinese landscape design has been reinterpreted to create, without recourse to imitation, a unique American garden. At Innisfree the visitor strolls from one three-dimensional picture to another. Streams, waterfalls, terraces, retaining walls, rocks, and plants are used not only to define areas but also to establish tension or motion. The 40-acre lake is glacial, most of the plant material is native, and the rocks have come from the immediate forest.

I have visited this garden several times in spring, summer, and fall, and each time has been absolute delight. It truly is a special place - very few gardens have been designed with such clear intent, and even fewer have survived with that intent in tact. When people come visit New York, this is the garden I love to take them to. You can have a picnic on the hill overlooking the garden and spend the rest of the afternoon taking it all in. Until you can come for a visit, take a look at my photo album from my visit last spring:

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The lake that Innisfree garden is based around, Tyrell Lake. When you first enter the garden, it is from atop a hill that allows you to survey the site - but once you start walking, you see lots of surprising scenes and places that were hidden from view.

1 The lake that Innisfree garden is based around, Tyrell Lake. When you first enter the garden, it is from atop a hill that allows you to survey the site - but once you start walking, you see lots of surprising scenes and places that were hidden from view.

Many of the plants in the garden are native to the surrounding woods. Columbine - Aquilegia canadensis - became a recurring theme during this visit, as I saw it over and over again, in different places and situations.

2 Many of the plants in the garden are native to the surrounding woods. Columbine - Aquilegia canadensis - became a recurring theme during this visit, as I saw it over and over again, in different places and situations.

At the beginning of the main path through the garden. In the middle background, you can see the mysterious mist-spewing water feature in the rocks.

3 At the beginning of the main path through the garden. In the middle background, you can see the mysterious mist-spewing water feature in the rocks.

The constant spray of mist ensures a high population of lush, moisture loving plants like ferns and moss.

4 The constant spray of mist ensures a high population of lush, moisture loving plants like ferns and moss.

Tightly clipped and sculpted cherry trees provide a visual anchor and a frame of reference as you walk around the lake.

5 Tightly clipped and sculpted cherry trees provide a visual anchor and a frame of reference as you walk around the lake.

Zigzag bridges are used in Asian gardens not just for their striking visual effect, but because they cause the visitor to slow down and contemplate the slightly different view that's revealed at each angle. Later in the season, this bridge becomes almost completely obscured by irises.

6 Zigzag bridges are used in Asian gardens not just for their striking visual effect, but because they cause the visitor to slow down and contemplate the slightly different view that's revealed at each angle. Later in the season, this bridge becomes almost completely obscured by irises.

This nicely illustrates the

7 This nicely illustrates the "Cup Garden" concept - the enclosure created by the rock outcrop draws your attention to the tiny scene that grows within.

The garden is full of water features made from native rock. The water is all pumped from the lake. This photo also shows how the views at Innisfree are carefully composed tableaux - point your camera anywhere, you're guaranteed a beautiful photo!

8 The garden is full of water features made from native rock. The water is all pumped from the lake. This photo also shows how the views at Innisfree are carefully composed tableaux - point your camera anywhere, you're guaranteed a beautiful photo!

Cymabalaria muralis, sometimes called Kenilworth ivy or toadflax, is an adorable little plant that naturalizes beautifully. There is hardly anyplace where this little cutie doesn't look good! In fact, I'm trying to get it growing in my backyard right now.

9 Cymabalaria muralis, sometimes called Kenilworth ivy or toadflax, is an adorable little plant that naturalizes beautifully. There is hardly anyplace where this little cutie doesn't look good! In fact, I'm trying to get it growing in my backyard right now.

As you may have gathered by now, the rocks are a vital part of Innisfree, and of Chinese garden design in general. They anchor plantings and create a little world of their own.

10 As you may have gathered by now, the rocks are a vital part of Innisfree, and of Chinese garden design in general. They anchor plantings and create a little world of their own.

This planting contains moss, ferns, and houttuynia.

11 This planting contains moss, ferns, and houttuynia.

Many of the rocks support a miniature garden like this.

12 Many of the rocks support a miniature garden like this.

This more formal area of the garden, with its stone steps, paths, and walls, contains many ornamental plants and has lots of areas to explore.

13 This more formal area of the garden, with its stone steps, paths, and walls, contains many ornamental plants and has lots of areas to explore.

In the main garden, carefully placed, sculptural shrubs play out a drama of each visitor's imagining.

14 In the main garden, carefully placed, sculptural shrubs play out a drama of each visitor's imagining.

The grotto - an element of Italian Renaissance gardens - combines with a round Chinese moon gate and very sculptural stones to create a completely unique feature that feels classic and contemporary at the same time.

15 The grotto - an element of Italian Renaissance gardens - combines with a round Chinese moon gate and very sculptural stones to create a completely unique feature that feels classic and contemporary at the same time.

Though this water feature looks natural, it is created by the garden's designer.

16 Though this water feature looks natural, it is created by the garden's designer.

I always love cantilevered steps like this! To preserve them, though, visitors are not allowed to use this stairway.

17 I always love cantilevered steps like this! To preserve them, though, visitors are not allowed to use this stairway.

The lake and numerous water features provide an ideal environment for all sorts of creatures - this tiny pool was positively teeming with tadpoles!

18 The lake and numerous water features provide an ideal environment for all sorts of creatures - this tiny pool was positively teeming with tadpoles!

Want to go visit Innisfree yet? This picture makes me want to drop everything and go back for another visit. It's only a little over an hour away from New York City, so if you are in the area, consider spending a few hours here.

19 Want to go visit Innisfree yet? This picture makes me want to drop everything and go back for another visit. It's only a little over an hour away from New York City, so if you are in the area, consider spending a few hours here.

An example of how, despite the strong Chinese influence over Innisfree's design, it remains very much an American landscape garden.

20 An example of how, despite the strong Chinese influence over Innisfree's design, it remains very much an American landscape garden.

Natural plantings are encouraged throughout, and they add to the unspoiled feel of the site.

21 Natural plantings are encouraged throughout, and they add to the unspoiled feel of the site.

This stone terrace jutting out into the lake is in full sun, and the stones are interplanted with thyme. The fragrance is released simply by the warmth of the sun, but even more so when it is trod upon.

22 This stone terrace jutting out into the lake is in full sun, and the stones are interplanted with thyme. The fragrance is released simply by the warmth of the sun, but even more so when it is trod upon.

More columbine, this time combined with chartreuse grasses.

23 More columbine, this time combined with chartreuse grasses.

The grasses soften the edges of the stones and highlight the random pattern between them.

24 The grasses soften the edges of the stones and highlight the random pattern between them.

Since the garden is based around a lake, as you progress around it, you are constantly confronted with where you've been and where you are going. This experience is really central to good garden design.

25 Since the garden is based around a lake, as you progress around it, you are constantly confronted with where you've been and where you are going. This experience is really central to good garden design.

Looking back at the thyme terrace, you see these two rocks much differently than you did when you approached from the other side, and from when you were actually near them.

26 Looking back at the thyme terrace, you see these two rocks much differently than you did when you approached from the other side, and from when you were actually near them.

Eeek! One of the things I definitely don't want to see when I visit gardens! They're alright, as long as they keep their distance...but wouldn't you know it, these water snakes were laying just a few feet from the path. I gathered my courage and passed as quick as I could.

27 Eeek! One of the things I definitely don't want to see when I visit gardens! They're alright, as long as they keep their distance...but wouldn't you know it, these water snakes were laying just a few feet from the path. I gathered my courage and passed as quick as I could.

When I saw these, I thought,

28 When I saw these, I thought, "ooh! Wild orchids!" but then when I looked it up, I was wrong - they're orchid lookalike Polygala paucifolia.

There is a bridge crossing the lake, and this photo is taken looking back toward the garden. You can continue walking all the way around - you'll come across a very large water jet, then just woods for several hundred yards, until you reach the summer house and a glorious grove of smoke trees.

29 There is a bridge crossing the lake, and this photo is taken looking back toward the garden. You can continue walking all the way around - you'll come across a very large water jet, then just woods for several hundred yards, until you reach the summer house and a glorious grove of smoke trees.

All this "Garden a day" business is in celebration of National Public Gardens Day, which is tomorrow and continues through the weekend. There's no doubt an interesting garden that has been generously donated for public enjoyment near you - so get out there and explore it!

Comments (3)

  • One of my absolute favorite places on earth, right in my neck of the woods. I've been visiting there since childhood and it's amazing every time.

  • This garden is in New York - Amazing! Look very English - is that rain i see? Gardens are the most wonderful places for inspiration and for feeding the soul...

  • Hi Kat! Thanks for stopping by! Innisfree is very much in the old-world tradition of a grand landscape garden, and it was a little misty-rainy for the true English experience that day. If you are ever in NY, we have plenty more wonderful public gardens to visit!

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