GARDEN VOYEUR: The Barefoot Contessa’s Garden


TAKE A PEEK behind the massive privet hedge at the Barefoot Contessa’s East Hampton garden. I did that on Wednesday. It was open to the public for a few hours as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, to benefit the organization’s work in preserving exceptional private gardens (usually of people who have died) that would otherwise be lost.

I generally find these Open Days fairly intimate affairs. Rarely crowded, they often feature eccentric and highly original gardens. Many times the gardeners are older women who have earned their stooped backs, cracked hands, and vast horticultural knowledge by dint of years of effort. Usually the homeowner/gardener is present to greet visitors and answer questions.


This garden is different. It’s the home of Ina Garten, the celebrity cookbook author and TV personality also known as the Barefoot Contessa. I’ve never seen the show or read her books, or even tasted her famous brownies, but I did enough research to discover that she was born in Brooklyn [applause] and is self-made, having worked up from modest beginnings to this impressive, sprawling estate. Her husband Jeffrey is the former dean of the Yale school of management.


It is a striking example of what can be done when money is no object. Here’s the description from the Open Days directory:

This garden features design work by Edwina von Gal implemented about fifteen years ago at Ina’s house, and new garden areas designed by Joseph W. Tyree at the barn Ina designed and built on an adjoining piece of property two years ago. Edwina’s original design at the house is arranged in squares like a kitchen garden, but is planted with perennials, annuals, roses, vegetables, and herbs. It includes a crabapple orchard and rose and hydrangea gardens, and is designed to feel like a traditional East Hampton garden. Joseph’s work at the new barn is set up into three distinct areas: the lawn, a walled garden, and a Lagerstroemia walk. The lawn connects the house by a series of low, broad, stone steps to the barn’s main terrace which is bordered by a low hedge and shaded by two great Linden trees. The sun-filled walled garden is planted with beds of lavender and herbs and has fragrant roses trained on the walls. The lagerstroemia walk is planted with only the white ‘Natchez’ variety of Lagerstroemia, boxwood, hydrangeas, and perennials and wraps around the walled garden and barn.

A short distance off Main Street, the garden is so insulated by hedges and 40′ tall cypresses it could be somewhere in the Tuscan hills. It is undeniably beautiful, yet it feels somewhat impersonal and not particularly imaginative. Maybe I’m just being a grouch, or suffering a case of sour grapes, when you consider the dramatic contrast to my own humble weed patch.

Ina Garten is a fabulously successful entrepreneur, and by all accounts a delightful person, but she’s not a gardener. Even when you can hire the best to do it for you, somehow it’s not the same.