Growing a Test Garden
The First Test Garden
After joining Better Homes and Gardens in 1976, I suggested we create a garden where we could test new plants and photograph step-by-step gardening techniques. At the time no land was available at our headquarters in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, so we built our very first Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden on my acreage outside of town. Today, we have a magnificent Test Garden at our headquarters, but we still maintain the gardens at my home. Here is a photo of the first garden built in 1987. It has nine raised beds laid out in a geometric pattern surrounded by a cedar picket fence. The garden measures 60x40 feet. That's garden editor Jane McKeon and me in the photo.
Raised-Bed Salad Garden
Here's an example of how we've used the original test garden over the years. In this case, we were developing a feature about creating a small vegetable garden, so I planted one of the nine beds as intensively as I could with lettuce, onions, potatoes, broccoli, spinach, mustard greens, and cabbage. To keep the garden fertile, we amend the soil every year with several inches of composted horse manure.
Test Garden Center
Two cedar benches in the center of the garden are a great place for a break after a hard day of gardening. The ram's-head urn in the center bed is from Campania International. Because the urn is so exposed to the hot Iowa sunshine, I always pack it with drought-resistant succulents, such as aloe, agave, kalanchoe, and hens-and-chicks. Plus, I don't have to drag a hose into the garden to water the plants. I just plant them and leave them alone until fall, when I transplant them into our greenhouse for the winter. I also cover the urn in winter to prevent it from cracking when temperatures fall.
Because our first garden was in a sunny spot, we needed a place to grow shade-loving plants. We created a meandering path through a grove of old silver and Norway maple trees on the north side of my house. The path was paved with red brick chips spread over landscape fabric to eliminate weeds.
The shade garden path runs downhill, so we decided that alongside the path was the perfect spot to build a stream. The stream tumbles over a series of stone outcroppings and gathers at the base of the slope. A pump recycles the water to the top of the stream again.
We also added an aviary to the shade garden. The design came from a plan we once sold in Country Gardens magazine. We introduced several pairs of white doves to the aviary to provide interest and sound to the garden. The calls of these gentle birds can be heard throughout the yard. During the winter, they are moved to a large cage inside my garage.
I'd always dreamed of having my own greenhouse, so by the time we had our first two gardens constructed, it became clear that a greenhouse was next on the agenda. Here, we start new plants in the spring; harden off plants we buy locally; and store pots, irrigation equipment, and garden hand tools. The greenhouse measures 12x14 feet and is made of single-pane glass, so we only use it from spring through fall. Heating it in the winter is not cost-effective. Our horses and donkeys can be seen in the background.
By the early 1990s, we needed an additional garden to handle the volume of plant material we were receiving from growers around the country. My wife Karen and I decided to build another 60x40-foot garden next to the original Test Garden. We gave the new garden a more informal style so we could also relax and entertain guests. This pergola and large water feature are surrounded by mixed plantings of roses, flowering shrubs, and perennials. An antique wire fence encloses the garden, and a hedge of tall arborvitae protects it from high winds. The water garden is an Aquascape installation.
Our pergola is made from pressure-treated lumber that we’ve allowed to weather naturally. At first we grew grapes over the structure, but they continually became victims of pesticide drift from the neighbor's cornfield. We replaced the grapes with a cold-hardy wisteria that is rapidly taking over the structure. Several inches of pea gravel spread over a weed-barrier mat provide an inexpensive and durable paving material.
This is the view from under the pergola in our informal garden. Hardy hibiscus is just one of the many perennials that edge the water garden. A standard blue spruce provides color even in the dead of winter. The water garden is packed with hardy water lilies and a colorful assortment of koi and goldfish.
Here's another view of the water garden taken a little later in the season. Check out the koi in the center of the pond. The water lilies are planted along the edges of the water garden, leaving the center of the pond open so the fish are visible. In previous seasons, I made the mistake of planting the entire water garden, and by midsummer, it became so overgrown that the koi were hidden from view.
As we developed our gardens, we kept the local wildlife in mind by including food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other creatures. Eventually, our gardens were recognized as an official Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. The water garden is especially popular with amphibians, such as this leopard frog.
When we built the informal garden, we paid a lot of attention to how it would connect to the original Test Garden. This view from inside the informal garden shows how we lined up the gates of both gardens to create a natural and beautiful transition.
Seven Sisters Rose Rebirth
Although we've lived on this farm for more than 30 years, there are still horticultural echoes from previous gardeners. For example, when we moved in, we noticed a single Seven Sisters rose growing behind an old peony border. Over the years, we've propagated the original plant by layering the branches on the ground. Today, we have about 10 plants spread out along the 60-foot-long wire fence of the informal garden. Every June the entire fence is smothered in bright pink flowers. The only sad thing is that Seven Sisters rose is a once-a-year bloomer.
When we have a winter with below-zero temperatures and little snow cover, the Seven Sisters roses often die back to the ground. But after a mild winter, they leap into bloom. Look how impressive this rambler can be growing on our wire fence. In some climates, having a big display from a climbing rose isn't a big deal, but in Zone 4, this flower show stops traffic.
Roots from the Past
As we built our gardens, we did our best to preserve the remnants of gardens past. Here, for example, we left an old peony border in place (they grow in front of the Seven Sisters roses). Planted decades ago, these peonies continue to produce armloads of fragrant cut blooms every May. We also reclaimed all the outbuildings on the farm. The tool shed in the background was actually an outhouse before the main house had indoor plumbing. We moved it to this location, set it on a concrete foundation, and use it to store all our long-handled garden tools.
The Cottage Garden
As the need for additional gardens grew, we transformed the largest of three chicken houses on our property into a potting shed and guesthouse. The building was sturdy and well-built, so all it needed was a little elbow grease to get it cleaned up. We added insulation, wood floors, new double-pane windows, doors, drywall, and a small furnace to make it cozy and comfortable. Then we placed another garden in front of the old chicken house that is primarily devoted to vegetables. We call this the cottage garden because we like to mix veggies with old-fashioned annual flowers and roses. A crushed-slate path subdivides the garden.
When we bought our house, a tall, overgrown privet hedge hid the house and gobbled up much of the front yard. For a few years, we tried to keep it in check, but it was so much work that we hired a bulldozer to remove the entire hedge. After it was removed, we added a metal fence and surrounded it with a mixed border of bulbs, shrubs, roses, and perennials. The front border garden measures 8x95 feet. Here, in the early spring, the narcissus were just starting to bloom. By midsummer, the fence is completely camouflaged under a blanket of bloom.
Over time, our slightly sloping backyard grew increasingly shady as the oak, crabapple, redbud, and serviceberry trees we planted years earlier filled in. The lawn slowly died, and the area became a muddy mess after every rain. We decided to pave the area with a combination of tumbled brick and bluestone pavers. Limestone blocks edge shallow steps that help level the area.
To create our own personal getaway, Karen and I added a slab of concrete outside one end of our chicken house, covered it with inexpensive plastic flooring (Karen painted it in a checkerboard fashion), and placed a portable Hot Spring spa in the corner. For privacy, we surrounded the area with Hick's yews. They have a tall, narrow growth habit that's easily sheared to any height. Plus, they don't shed needles that might fall into the spa. A small blue bistro set was the finishing touch.