Garden Design: Mimicking Nature

I'm a firm believer that gardens should be experienced – not just observed. They should invite exploration and contemplation, pique our curiosity in some way.

On my recent trip to the Hudson River Valley, I visited three public gardens that really spoke to me because they achieved this so well and did so, not by the inclusion of quirky follies or flamboyant perennial borders, but rather through quietly mimicking nature. I didn't feel as though I was in a "garden" at all, but rather simply out for a walk in the countryside.


Innisfree: the expansive lake allows for uninterrupted reflections of the trees and sky. The gentle dip down to the waters edge encourages visitors to explore further.

A masterpiece designed by Lester Collins, it is hard to believe that Innisfree is in fact created rather than entirely natural. As we strolled around the lake, a series of artfully framed vignettes were revealed one after another, such that we were always taken by surprise.

Innisfree: a meandering oxbow suggests an evolution of the waters path over time, yet this is just one of many artfully designed details

Bodies of water allowed for reflections of clouds and silhouettes, gentle hills created depth and intrigue. the sky and the land become one.

Mossy hillocks beg to be touched

Mossy paths, crisp leaves, smooth rocks and rough-hewn boulders all offered lessons in the power of contrast.

The history of the garden is fascinating and well worth a few minutes of your time to read here. I found the information on sustainability very interesting, especially the innovative water system and the "farmer common sense" solution to algae. Collins' inherent understanding of ecology means this entire landscape is remarkably low maintenance as he worked with nature rather than against it.

If you only have time to visit one garden in the valley – this should be it. Innisfree is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Manitoga: the experimental house Dragon Rock, perched on a ledge, overlooks the waterfall and quarry lake

A fascinating place to visit, Manitoga is the former home of industrial designer Russel Wright (1904-1976). It is a destination that appeals to many different visitors – those that simply want to enjoy walking the trails, others who wish to visit the experimental house Dragon Rock which is perched on a rock ledge in a manner reminiscent of Falling Water, some who are keen to visit the studio and gallery, and folks like me who want it all!

The expansive woodland garden has been created from an abandoned quarry and we came across several artifacts from those days as we strolled the upper Quarry Path and admired the lovely framed views.

Dragon Rock seen from the pathway. Notice the expansive use of glass to maximize the view

Once again this felt like a natural woodland as we hiked the trails, enjoying waterfalls, mossy banks and native plants yet it has all been artfully crafted, restored and is being maintained by teams of professionals and volunteers.

Now a National Historic Landmark, Manitoga deserves a couple of hours of your time.

Stonecrop Gardens

Stonecrop Gardens: bald cypress trees at the edge of the pond showcase their fabulous fall color

The former home of Frank Cabot, founder of the Garden Conservancy, Stonecrop Gardens is now a public garden. To be clear, the entire 15 acres is not designed to be naturalistic, but is rather a series of different gardens just as one would expect a keen plantsman to develop and enjoy. However, within the collection of gardens is an enchanting woodland and water garden which is thoroughly enjoyed exploring. Like Innisfree and Manitoga, this garden is all about the relationship between the elements of water, sky, stone and wood. Rather than being contrived and complex it is delightful in its simplicity of design. The stone pathways and bridges make sure visitors walk at a leisurely pace – and therefore experience the moment.

Stonecrop Gardens: I had to duck under tree branches to clamber onto the bridge, but what a wonderful invitation to explore like a child again.

All three gardens remind us that there is a beauty in the stillness, the reflections, the textures. These are the spaces that soothe and heal, that encourage mindfulness.

In my own garden I have a variety of different areas, each with its own personality. My woodland garden is a small strolling garden, with a circular path that loops around a seasonal stream. Simple wooden bridges, a stone bench and large boulders anchor the space while a variety of deciduous trees including river birch, Japanese maples and red maples create a canopy. Unlike the gardens shown here, I did not try to re-create nature with layers of green alone, but rather used it as a place to showcase my favorite shade loving (and deer-resistant) shrubs and perennials, but it is still a garden that invites exploration and contemplation, especially in spring and fall.

Do you need a quiet place to sit? Has this given you some ideas?

Come with us!

I'll be leading an Adventures in the Hudson River Valley tour to these gardens (and many others) this fall. In fact, we have been granted an exclusive, out of hours visit to Stonecrop Gardens! Priority registration will be offered to my newsletter subscribers, so if you'd like to be notified when that opens up be sure to get on my mailing list HERE! (You'll get my free Travel Tips when you sign up too).

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  1. Lynn Dickason on January 9, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    That's a wonderful article on Innisfree! Just itching to see it again with plenty of time!!!!

    • Karen Chapman on January 9, 2024 at 5:44 pm

      There's never enough time!! But I'm doing myself to build in "sit and savor" time here 🙂