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Garden Design Ideas from the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden

Contrasting shapes, textures, and colors combine for a visually pleasing flower border.
Contrasting shapes, textures, and colors combine for a visually pleasing flower border. | Source

Visitors to Des Moines, Iowa may be surprised to discover a colorful garden oasis situated on half a city block between a busy downtown street and a high rise office building. The building is the corporate headquarters to Meredith Corporation, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens and several other lifestyle magazines. The urban oasis is the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden.

The test garden gives the garden editors of Better Homes and Gardens the ability to assess and document the performance of new plants, develop new garden plans, and bring those new plants and plans to the magazine's readers. It functions as much more than just a garden, however. The test garden also serves as an outdoor photography studio for the magazine, an open-air break room for Meredith employees, and a venue for corporate entertaining. It's open to the public on Friday afternoons from noon to 2:00 p.m., May through September.

Any gardener would benefit from a visit to the Better Homes and Gardens test garden. With 22 distinct garden areas, 2,500 trees, shrubs, and perennials, 17,000 bulbs, and 500 annuals, the garden provides endless inspiration for those who love to dig in the dirt. A stroll along the garden's paths imparts lessons in garden design, plant selection, and how to add just the right finishing touches to give a garden its own unique style. Here are some garden design ideas inspired by one recent visit to the test garden.


Design Idea 1: A water feature adds interest to any garden

The large, formal fountain is the focal point of the test garden's central plaza.
The large, formal fountain is the focal point of the test garden's central plaza. | Source
The pond and cascade is found near the east end of the garden.
The pond and cascade is found near the east end of the garden. | Source
The late afternoon sunlight dances on the pond.
The late afternoon sunlight dances on the pond. | Source

The test garden demonstrates several ways to incorporate water features into a garden. Water can be used formally as a sculptural feature, like the fountain in the test garden's central plaza, or in an informal, free-form shape that imitates nature, like a gentle ripple of water falling into a rock-rimmed pool. Whether it's used formally or informally, water introduces a soothing element to the landscape and adds visual appeal.

Other ideas to try in your own garden include a geometrically-shaped pool or water running down the side of steps, a garden design idea that originated in the Middle East. Garden centers offer a variety of fountains and do-it-yourself pools for those on a budget.

Design tip: Remember light enlivens water. Place your water feature where it will catch the sunlight to make the water bounce and sparkle.


Design Idea 2: Integrate vegetables beautifully into the garden

There are few things that taste better in summer than a juicy, vine-ripened tomato or a crisp cucumber just picked from the garden. A vegetable garden need not be an unattractive production plot. The test garden shows us that an edible garden can be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

In this example of a potager garden bed, rosemary and lavender plants surround a planting of squash, which will climb the center trellis as it grows to add vertical interest to the garden.
In this example of a potager garden bed, rosemary and lavender plants surround a planting of squash, which will climb the center trellis as it grows to add vertical interest to the garden. | Source
A planting of colorful leaf lettuce makes an attractive border in its own right.
A planting of colorful leaf lettuce makes an attractive border in its own right. | Source

The test garden incorporates the design concept of a French potager, or ornamental vegetable garden. In a potager, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers are planted in a formal design, using texture, color and height to create eye-catching patterns. The test garden's potager features wood-framed beds in different geometric shapes planted with vegetables and herbs and divided by wide gravel paths for easy access.

Incorporate the design qualities of a potager in your own garden by planting vegetables in groupings instead of long rows and creating patterns with different plants. Use both edible and ornamental plants to create attractive combinations of color and texture. Many vegetables, such as rainbow chard, red cabbage, and curled kale, are striking plants on their own. Showcase these ornamental edibles in their own beds and tuck other vegetables into flower beds for beautiful results.

Design tip: Many flowers serve as beneficial companion plants to vegetables by deterring garden pests and attracting insects like wasps and bees that prey on garden pests and pollinate plants. Geraniums repel white cabbage butterflies, marigolds repel deer, and petunias repel potato and squash beetles. Take advantage of these and other companion plants when designing your vegetable garden.


Design Idea 3: A garden path provides both aesthetic and practical functions

A garden path is a necessity in all but the smallest of gardens. A path provides access to garden beds without trampling on plants and serves to keep feet dry and free from mud. Beyond these practical considerations, a garden path creates visual impact and enhances the structure and design of the garden.

The test garden features a wide, paved brick walk that loops around the entire garden and intersects a various points with gravel and flagstone pathways. This network of walkways llustrates how garden path design can impact one's journey through the landscape.


A flagstone path beckons visitors to explore around the bend of the perennial border.
A flagstone path beckons visitors to explore around the bend of the perennial border. | Source
A gravel path allows visitors access to a fragrant test garden flower bed.
A gravel path allows visitors access to a fragrant test garden flower bed. | Source

A narrow, meandering path invites further exploration, while a wide, straight path provides a clear destination. The path's surface material also sets the garden's tone. A mortared brick path adds a structured, formal element to a garden, while the satisfying crunch of gravel underfoot lends an informal air.

Design Tip: In designing a garden path, consider the path's practical function. If it will function as a service access, it must be wide enough for a wheelbarrow. If it will need to be kept clear of snow, choose a solid surface that will withstand a shovel.


Design Idea 4: Use a hedge to screen a view

A row of aborvitae screens the test garden from passing traffic.
A row of aborvitae screens the test garden from passing traffic. | Source

A hedge acts as a natural fence to define a garden's boundaries, add height, and screen an unattractive view. The test garden features double rows of arborvitae on three sides, which screen the garden from the street and transform it into an urban garden oasis. The dark green hedge also serves as a striking backdrop for the perennial border in front of it.


Design Idea 5: Include storage and work areas in your garden plan

Don't overlook the need for work areas and storage space when designing your own garden. The test garden demonstrates that functional spaces in the garden can be beautiful, too. In the test garden, a tool shed is disguised as a quaint garden cottage and even the compost bins add an attractive design element.


This quaint cottage provides a beautiful storage and work space for the test garden.
This quaint cottage provides a beautiful storage and work space for the test garden. | Source
Compost bins are tucked into a corner of the test garden and screened with prairie grasses.
Compost bins are tucked into a corner of the test garden and screened with prairie grasses. | Source

Gardeners accumulate lots of tools, equipment, and supplies that is best stored in a waterproof location secure from children and animals. Situate a storage structure in a convenient area next to an existing hard-surfaced area, wall, or fence. Use paint, trim, sconces, potted plants, and other decorative elements to deck out a basic pre-fab shed, or blend a simple, utilitarian structure into the background with a trellis and climbing plants, tall grass, or other natural screens.

Design Tip: Consider camouflaging your storage as built-in outdoor seating by using a watertight storage box topped with a hinged lid that doubles as a bench seat.


Design Idea 6: Increase your outdoor living space at less cost with a low wooden deck

A low wooden deck in the test garden serves as a  relaxing outdoor seating area.
A low wooden deck in the test garden serves as a relaxing outdoor seating area. | Source

A low wooden deck provides an attractive alternative to a concrete patio and creates a defined area for an outdoor entertainment space. If the deck is no more than a foot or two off the ground, a railing generally isn't required, which helps to keep costs down. (Make sure to check the rules in your area.) Redwood and cedar are good choices for decking material. Both are resistant to decay, splintering, and warping and weather to a pleasing gray color.


Design Idea 7: Use garden accents and ornaments to create a finished look

A obelisk supports climbing clematis in the southwest corner of the test garden.
A obelisk supports climbing clematis in the southwest corner of the test garden. | Source
A bright yellow chair adds a pop of color in the test garden's wildflower meadow.
A bright yellow chair adds a pop of color in the test garden's wildflower meadow. | Source
The test garden incorporates garden lighting in the shape of a birdhouse.
The test garden incorporates garden lighting in the shape of a birdhouse. | Source

Just like the accessories often make an outfit, the right finishing touches can make a garden special. From a colorful bench that serves as both a garden focal point and a spot to sit and enjoy the flowers to a garden obelisk that adds vertical interest and provides support for climbing plants, the test garden shows how garden accents can enhance one's enjoyment of the landscape. Other ideas for accessorizing your garden include bird baths and houses, sundials, artificial lighting, and sculpture.

Design Tip: Garden accents need not break the bank. Add interest to the garden with found or repurposed items like an old wagon filled with potted plants, a leaky watering can converted into a planter, or an old gate or section of fence used as a trellis. Use your imagination and don't be afraid to incorporate a sense of humor. Your garden should reflect your personality.

Additional reading: Recycled Container Gardening Ideas.

Test Garden Location

A marker1716 Locust Street, Des Moines, IA -
1716 Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA
[get directions]

Comments 44 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Deb this is a very interesting hub and your photos really make it pop! I love the photo of the large marble fountain - a real action shot, you can see the water flowing! I have my lettuces and beetroots in pots and the leaves on both are really lovely and it all looks very colourful. Voted up and shared.


Arlene V. Poma 4 years ago

Deb, what a lovely Hub! The test garden closest to my home in California is in Menlo Park. That belongs to Sunset Magazine, and I am ashamed to say that I have never been! As for this test garden--your writing and photographs take me there so I don't have to jump on some plane. Thanks for packing your article with plenty of gardening ideas. UP+++ and everything else. What else is new???


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Julie! I usually have a pot or two of leaf lettuce going, but never thought to put beets in a container. Speaking of beets, I just picked some huge ones this morning - and I'm talking really, really huge. I think my next project will have to be figuring out how to make and can pickled beets. Thanks again for the comment, votes and share.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Arlene, I think you need to get right on over to Menlo Park. A photographer like you would go nuts in a test garden! There's so much inspiration everywhere you look. But I'm glad you stopped by for a little visit to BHG test garden. It's always nice to hear from you.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Deb, I found a great method online for pickling them. If I find it, I will email it to you. I am doing the same this year for the first time - I love beets especially if they're nice and sweet.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

I'd love that, Julie. Thanks!


mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

I'd sure like to visit one of these test gardens. You could get a lot of good idea for your own garden. Your Hub is beautiful with nice photos, too.

I voted this UP, etc.etc. and I will share.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Mary. I appreciate the comment, votes and share. If you get a chance to visit a test garden, it's definitely worthwhile. I also had a chance to review the Better Homes and Gardens test kitchen, which would have been very cool, too, but I spent too long in the garden and missed the last tour. Bummer!


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States

What a great hub--and an awesome opportunity for you. Very inspiring! Voted up, etc.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Beautiful, Deb! I'm a big fan of Iowa; someday I'll get back there to see my family's hometown and stop by Des Moines.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi Dirt Farmer. Thanks so much. It was great to visit the garden; I had no idea it existed before. Glad you enjoyed my hub.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Bill! If you ever get back to Iowa, let me know and I will meet you in Des Moines.


Sueswan 4 years ago

Hi Deborah

I love your pictures. I am not a gardener but I appreciate a beautiful garden and I see there are many in the Test Gardens of Better Homes and Gardens. Maybe one day I will be lucky to visit .

I have linked this hub to my latest poem, "A Sunday at Edwards Gardens."

Take care :)

Voted up and away


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi Sueswan. Thanks for the comment and the link back. When I read your beautiful poem so soon after publishing this I knew it would be the perfect complement to this article.


vwriter profile image

vwriter 4 years ago from US

I live in Iowa, and not far from Des Moines. I never knew there was a test garden. The pictures are fantastic, thus, I have to assume so is the test garden. This might be a great outing for my husband and I. Not only can we enjoy the scenery but maybe pick up some ideas for our own home. Voted up.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi vwriter. I didn't know you were from Iowa, too. I wasn't aware of the test garden until I attended a reception at Meredith Corporation and they were offering tours of the garden. It's well worth a visit some Friday afternoon, which is the only time it's open to the general public. I hope you get a chance to check it out. Thanks for the comment.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

What excellent suggestions. You have a wonderful imagination, and it reflects itself in all these assorted gardens. Bravo!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks for the comment, aviannovice. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

I am so jealous! What gorgeous pictures and what an opportunity to be able to visit BHG test garden! If you've read any of my hubs (which I know you have) you've seen I really love gardening. I had a vegetable garden years ago but it was too much work with then small children. Now I have chives, pineapple sage and one other herb growing in my flower garden and a tomato in a patio container but these ideas are lovely and so doable! Thank you Deb.

Voted up, useful, beautiful and interesting.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks so much for the comment, tillsontitan. I hope these ideas have inspired you in your own gardening efforts. Gardening is such a great activity; you get exercise and are rewarded for your efforts with a beautiful outdoor space and fresh flowers/vegetables.


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

What a great opportunity, to visit the BHG test garden! I would love to be able to see that. Great information here and love the pictures! I am definitely going to use some of your suggestions. Voted up+ and sharing on my Flower Garden Get A Way blog. Have a great day! :)


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks for commenting and sharing, sgbrown. It's truly an inspiring spot. I hope you get a chance to visit some day.


Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

Hi Deborah,

What a lovely article, this test garden looks great! Reminds me of one place here in Ireland that has examples done out in gardens which is so handy to see and get ideas! Thanks so much for linking my article, I appreciate it BIG TIME!! voted up, useful, interesting and shared! :-)


Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

Thanks to Suzie HQ for sharing this. What a shame I live so far away from this garden. It is stunning and the tips are so helpful. I only wish my garden looked this good! Voted up and beautiful.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi, Suzie. Thanks for checking out my article. When I saw yours, I knew it would augment mine beautifully. I really appreciate the share.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Glimmer Twin Fan. I had no idea this garden existed until I attended an event at the Meredith Corp. headquarters and got an opportunity to take a tour. Perhaps there is something like it in your area. You just never know what hidden little gems exist. I appreciate the read, comment, and votes.


unknown spy profile image

unknown spy 3 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

wow very beautiful!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, unknown spy. I'd love to visit the garden again someday for more inspiration.


DaffodilSky profile image

DaffodilSky 3 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

This is a lovely article, full of good ideas and beautiful images!


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

I'm always surprised and pleased to read about all the interesting sites in and around Des Moines. What beautiful garden photos. I hope to have a small plot to put some of these suggestions into practice. I especially like the idea of pairing complementary vegetables and flowers, also of placing a small pool of water where it can reflect sunlight. Voted up!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks for reading and commenting, Daffodil Sky. Glad you enjoyed it.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

Vespawooolf, I would never have found this place but for the fact Meredith Corp was hosting a cocktail reception for I conference I was attending and had the gardens open for touring. What a great little hidden gem! I've since sent several other people there for an enjoyable afternoon. I hope you get to use some of the ideas some day. Thanks for reading and commenting.


idigwebsites profile image

idigwebsites 3 years ago from United States

I love your idea of a trellis in the middle of a garden bed. Most useful for herbs and vegetable plants that crawl. Practical and really wonderful. Thanks for sharing. :)


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, idigwebsites. When I had a tiny yard I bought a book on "postage stamp" gardening, which is cramming as much as you can into a small garden space. One of the best ways of doing that is by adding that third dimension and growing stuff up. Now that I have a lot more room for a garden, I still apply many of those principles.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 3 years ago from California

Just gorgeous!


baja2013 profile image

baja2013 3 years ago from Sarajevo, Bosnia

I will need years and years to make garden which will be close to presented one. Really excellent work!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Audrey. If only my own garden looked as good!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, baja2013. I've been working on my own garden for over a decade and it's not even close to this one!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK

This hub has cheered me up today - it is pouring down and my little garden is looking very drenched and sad - a look at these photos has really cheered me up - this weather won't last forever!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 3 years ago from Iowa Author

I know what you mean, Jools. We've had rain for weeks it seems. Today the sun is out and I'm finding it hard to stay inside and work!


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

I admire gardens and trying to get mine into a beautiful park but a small one so much to do and your photos are so beautiful.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

Thank you, DDE. It's easy to take great photos in such a beautiful place. Good luck with your garden.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

What a beautiful post. I only wish I had space to have such a blessing. You certainly know how to grow them!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

Dianna, thanks, but my gardens look nowhere near as beautiful as the Better Homes and Gardens Test Gardens. In my dreams! Ha.

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