Barefoot Contessa star Ina Garten's yard features an age-old gardening trick guaranteed to add year-round interest

Clipped evergreens can be used for a smart, contemporary look or as a contrast to a more naturalistic and romantic style of planting

Ina Garten
(Image credit: Getty Images / Daytime Emmy Awards 2021 / Contributor)

Planning a front or backyard with year-round interest might sound a like dream for many, but this attractive, sculptural garden is proof that with a little patience and gardening know-how, achieving a low-maintenance topiary garden, full of haunting whimsy, isn't at all impossible. But what is topiary?

Topiary is the ancient practice of shearing evergreen shrubs and trees to beautify a garden. It encompasses the miniature box hedges that enclose flowers in elaborate parterres and the substantial yew hedging that forms mazes in the gardens of historic homes across the US. But most famously, it is the individual plants that are tightly clipped to form peacocks, pyramids, chess pieces, and other fantastical or geometric shapes.

Trimming plants into fantastic shapes dates back to the decadent days of ancient Rome. Clipped box, bay, and myrtle were frequently used in the gardens of the wealthy, with special gardeners being employed whose sole task was to create and maintain the topiaries. The word topiary derives from the Latin opus topiarium, which means ornamental gardening.

A multi-tasking feature, topiary planting is perfect for creating a strong punctuation point in your planting scheme, and landscaping with evergreens can add structure, introduce low shapes, and add definition to garden paths, similar to Ina Garten's above.

‘Architectural plants undeniably add drama,’ says designer Kate Gould. ‘They work on all scales, from country estates to tiny town gardens. Their ability to transform a space, often simply by a single presence, is highlighted in small gardens, though, where their leaves add interest and shadow during the day and create oomph at night, especially when paired with lighting. Yew, buxus, and ilex are tough plants that can grow into large trees but are equally happy clipped into hedges or shapes. Their green forms add punctuation to lighter planting schemes and can be both traditional and contemporary in feel.’

topiary covered in frost

(Image credit: Annaick Guitteny)

If you want to recreate the look and appeal of Ina Garten's garden, then garden designers suggest you follow a few simple rules. Firstly, decide on the height and shape you want, and get clipping. 

Secondly, choose shrubs with small leaves and thick dense foliage such as privet. The more you clip, the smaller the leaves become, making it a good choice for defining a sharp outline. 

Finally, make sure you choose the best time to prune topiary, such as when to trim boxwood bushes, to ensure you maintain healthy growth and a good shape and structure.

If you love the look of clipped evergreen shrubs, choose lollipop bay trees, smart box topiary balls, and pompom conifers as topiary ideas to add strong shapes that help to define your outdoor space. 

A low-maintenance form of gardening, topiary looks good all year and can add a magical element when caught in a wintry frost.

Jennifer Ebert

Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space. Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.