A Plan in the Making: How We Create Dazzling Displays Year After Year


To the outside world, the Cedar Valley Arboretum may seem pretty uneventful during our winter season.  However, starting in February, the Arboretum’s Executive Director, Rob Pruitt, is hard at work planning and designing the gardens for the upcoming season.  If you’re a person who frequents the Arboretum year after year, you have probably noticed that each year the gardens are completely different!  Here’s an insider look into what it really takes to design and plan the annual beds for a 35 acre public garden.


With such a large task, it’s hard to know where to even begin!  I sat down with Rob to find out just how he breaks down this lengthy and difficult process.  According to Rob, the first thing he does is take a look at each area that he needs to plan.  He looks through old photos of the gardens, and sets a theme for each space.  For example, a theme could be warm, cool, or tropical.  For a cool theme, he would choose plants that have cool colors like blues, purples, pinks, and whites.  A warmer theme might include reds, yellows, and oranges.  A popular theme for the Children’s Garden is playful, which means colors are chosen that are fun and really stand out.

color wheel

Rob’s tool for designing garden color schemes

Choosing colors that go well together might seem like something that comes as second nature to most, making this one of the easier parts of the designing process.  But, ironically, nature has thrown Rob a curve ball.  He was born with red-green color blindness.  Rob overcomes this disability by utilizing color wheels to find complimentary and primary colors.


An example of one of Rob’s plans

Rob heavily utilizes mathematics and geometry in his design work.  Once a color scheme for a garden has been chosen, he will draw the garden to scale – 1 inch or one square on a graph paper = 1 foot.  Using colored pencils, he will form an eye-catching pattern within that garden bed.  When finished, he will seek a second and sometimes third opinion on the garden’s design.  When the colors are set in place, Rob begins the search for the right plants using various online and physical catalogues of greenhouses from all over the Midwest.

He selects the flowers for each bed by gathering advice from our Planning & Operations Committee and using a thorough and extremely effective checklist – color, height, blooming time, sun exposure, plant spread (how much ground each individual plant will cover), availability, and, last but certainly not least, cost.  If it sounds exhausting, you’d be right!  This process can take up to six weeks.  But, once those annuals start filling out and becoming something truly beautiful, all of the work is worth it.

frog boosted

A 2015 annual flower display

Rob almost always chooses a tall, interesting flower to be the “bones” or focal point of a garden bed.  The reaction that he aims for is, “Wow!  What kind of plant is that?”.  Then, usually, he will pick plants that are better known to surround the awe-inspiring focal point.  It’s important, for the annual beds, to choose plants that will bloom for the majority of the season.  Plants will be tallest in the center of the bed with descending heights heading out toward the edges.

Picture 159

An example of a striking flower that has been used in the past

Spreadsheets are made to calculate a total for each bed and an overall total.  The true feat is creating a garden that is gorgeous and eye-catching while still coming in under budget.  Orders are placed in the winter for the plants that will arrive in April or May, depending on the weather.  In 2015, there were over 5,000 annuals planted by staff and volunteers.


A group of volunteers planting annuals

When you’re holding a four pack of blue petunias, it’s hard to imagine planting over 5,000 of plants the same size in under two months.  The Arboretum’s Executive Director, Robert Pruitt, is responsible for the planning, but it would be absolutely impossible to pull off his vision without the tireless efforts of volunteers, whether they’re a group volunteering for an afternoon or they help out multiple times a week.  If you would like to help us plant our 2016 annuals, you may contact us at 319-226-4966 or office@cedarvalleyarboretum.org.  Be sure to visit us this season to see the new and exciting 2016 annual flower beds.


By Libby Carter

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