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7 Garden Design Ideas From the "Better Homes and Gardens" Test Garden

Deborah Neyens is an attorney, educator, and freelance writer who loves to spend her free time surrounded by plants and nature.

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

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

Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden Plans

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 of Meredith Corporation, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens, and several other lifestyle magazines. The urban oasis is the Better Homes and Gardens "test garden."

Test Gardens

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.

  1. Add a Water Feature to Bring Interest to Any Garden
  2. Integrate Vegetables Into the Garden
  3. Make a Garden Path to Provide Both Aesthetic and Practical Functions
  4. Use a Hedge to Screen a View
  5. Include Storage and Work Areas in Your Garden Plan
  6. Increase Your Outdoor Living Space for Less With a Low Wooden Deck
  7. Use Garden Accents and Ornaments to Create a Finished Look

Design Idea 1: Add a Water Feature to Bring Interest to Any Garden

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 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.

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 Idea 3: Make a Garden Path to Provide 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 various points with gravel and flagstone pathways. This network of walkways illustrates how garden path design can impact one's journey through the landscape.

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.

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

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

Design Idea 4: Use a Hedge to Screen a View

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.

Gardeners accumulate a lot of tools, equipment, and supplies that are 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.

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.

Design Idea 6: Increase Your Outdoor Living Space For Less With a Low Wooden Deck

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, warping, and weather.

Design Idea 7: Use Garden Accents and Ornaments to Create a Finished Look

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 birdbaths and houses, sundials, artificial lighting, and sculpture.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 20, 2014:

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

Dianna Mendez on July 17, 2014:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 07, 2014:

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

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 04, 2014:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 29, 2013:

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!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on May 15, 2013:

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!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 22, 2013:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 22, 2013:

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

Bajazid from Sarajevo, Bosnia on April 17, 2013:

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

Audrey Howitt from California on April 17, 2013:

Just gorgeous!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 29, 2013:

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.

idigwebsites from United States on March 26, 2013:

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. :)

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 25, 2013:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 25, 2013:

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

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on March 24, 2013:

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!

Helen Lush from Cardiff, Wales, UK on March 23, 2013:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 05, 2013:

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

DragonBallSuper on December 31, 2012:

wow very beautiful!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 19, 2012:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 19, 2012:

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

Claudia Porter on September 19, 2012:

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.

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on September 19, 2012:

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! :-)

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 08, 2012:

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

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on August 08, 2012:

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! :)

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 20, 2012:

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.

Mary Craig from New York on July 20, 2012:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 19, 2012:

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

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on July 19, 2012:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 19, 2012:

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.

vwriter from US on July 19, 2012:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

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.

Sueswan on July 18, 2012:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

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.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 18, 2012:

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.

Jill Spencer from United States on July 18, 2012:

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

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

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!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 18, 2012:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

I'd love that, Julie. Thanks!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on July 18, 2012:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

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.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 18, 2012:

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.

Arlene V. Poma on July 18, 2012:

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???

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on July 18, 2012:

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.