Garden Design Ideas from the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden
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 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.
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 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 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 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 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
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.