You don’t have to quilt or garden to appreciate Amish Country’s Quilt Gardens, 17 well-tended flower gardens that replicate colorful quilt patterns, scattered about Elkhart County in northern Indiana.
“This is the only place in the nation where they exist,” said Sonya Nash, director of group and experiential sales and marketing for the Elkhart County CVB.
From Memorial Day until mid-September, and often longer depending on the weather, the quilt gardens and their 1 million blooms are free attractions that delight those who travel the county’s 90-mile scenic Heritage Trail.
Elkhart County is known for agriculture and Amish artisans, so the quilting/gardening combo is a natural. “We have a lot of quilting, and we like farming and gardening,” said Nash.
The number and locations of gardens fluctuate each year although some participate every year. In areas with no green space for gardens, artists have painted quilt murals, 22 of them in all.
Local attractions tend gardens
Most gardens are sponsored and cared for by attractions or businesses that also welcome groups. Among them are Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury, Indiana’s largest restaurant, famous for fried chicken and pies; Coppes Commons in Nappanee, where a former factory that made kitchens for John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra now houses an ice cream shop, bakery, bookseller and other shops; and the Elkhart County Courthouse in Goshen, a small town packed with art, entertainment and local shops.
“From the garden near Das Essenhaus, you can smell the fried chicken and even if it is 10 in the morning, I feel like I have to go get fried chicken,” said Nash.
The quilt gardens were conceived 12 years ago as a way to grow tourism, especially visitation to smaller, lesser-known communities.
“Our goal was to connect each of the six towns and encourage visitors to travel the Heritage Trail,” said Nash.
It seems to work. For example, in Elkhart, admissions double at Ruthmere when the historic house museum’s quilt garden is in bloom. Visitors flock to Shipshewana each June for a quilt festival the town launched a few years ago. (It will be June 19-22 this year.)
Piecing together itineraries
Like quilts, there are endless ways to design an itinerary that includes quilting and gardening: A lunchtime garden party, an Amish quilting bee with a family-style meal or a class led by an Amish-Mennonite duo who teach participants how to make wooden quilt blocks.
“Quilting is thriving and a lot of people travel for their passion,” said Nash. “They buy fabrics, see what other quilt artists have made. The Amish are known as quilters and their stores and historic quilt patterns are a mainstay of their culture.”
A stop or two at the cheery gardens is a thrill for many group travelers.
“They can see one garden or all 17, or pick several to visit,” said Nash. “Many traditional tour operators use one or two stops to brighten up an itinerary.”
For those who want a more extensive program, quilt garden ambassadors are available for meet and greets. Master gardeners can step-on to talk about the varied gardens, the annuals chosen and maintenance of the colorful floral displays.
Speakers often point out the commitment and hard work – planting, weeding, replacing failed plants mid-season — the gardens require. “Groups like to hear about the work people have done to bring something to life,” said Nash.
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