ELKHART COUNTY, Indiana - Gardens planted in quilt patterns: it's a low-tech, enterprising project by our Hoosier neighbors that is an easy, inexpensive getaway.
In its second year, the Quilt Gardens Tour features 16 gardens in Elkhart County, 140 miles west of Toledo. The 80,000 annuals that are the fabric of these quilts are at their most beauteous in August and September. Free and viewable during daylight hours, the gardens can be seen until Jack Frost comes nipping, probably in late October.
This is a relaxing trip made all the more pleasant by an overnight at one of the many mom-and-pop bed and breakfasts. They're relatively inexpensive ($70 to $140) and include scrumptious morning fare. (We stayed at Spring View B&B outside of Goshen, $139 for a huge two bedroom suite with kitchen, dining, and living areas, a pond with paddle boat, and a pancake-and-sausage breakfast served at a table shared by other guests and hosts, Roz and Phil Slabaugh.)
Word of caution: don't let your plans for a sumptuous Sunday afternoon feast of roasted chicken/potatoes/shoofly pie in Shipshewana be dashed as were ours. This is Amish country, meaning establishments owned or operated by the Amish, including most of the town of Shipshewana, are buttoned up on Sunday and for that matter, after 4 or 5 p.m. on Saturday. (See below for suggestions of Sunday activities.)
A second element to this excursion is 16 murals of quilts, painted by Nappanee artist Jeff Stillson on plywood, up to 20-by-20-feet in size and affixed to buildings throughout the county.
Filling the gardens are blue ageratums, begonias, coleus, cosmos, sunny marigolds, silvery dusty miller, pink sweet alyssum, ornamental chili peppers, petunias, rudbeckia, salvia, and zinnias. There's emerald turf grass and flat-leaf parsley. A garden at the Meadow Brook Farm in Goshen incorporates alfalfa, corn, buckwheat, soybeans, and sunflowers, along with turf grass and red geraniums.
Located in city parks, at the edges of towns, and at businesses, the gardens are coordinated by a committee and the sweat is provided by volunteers and employees. One is on the spacious grounds of an inn and restaurant; another's at a spanking new garden center.
At each site, an information box offers glossy handouts about the entire tour as well as a card describing the garden at hand and an on-cell number to call for a 90-second recorded spiel. Hitting all 16 would entail about 40 miles. We visited about 10 of the 16, and among our favorites were:
•The Krider Garden in Middlebury. It's lush and serene, the perfect 2.4 acres to stretch the legs. The land was donated by the Krider family who ran a nursery and whose founder, Vernon, developed a thornless rose. The quilt's pattern is maple leaves in diamond shapes. Flowers include Picobella blue petunias, an orangey dwarf cosmos mix, and New Look Dusty Miller (an oak-leaf variety that's whiter than other types).
• At Das Essenhaus Inn in Middlebury. It's 40-by-60-feet and has 8,000 annuals fashioned into a Center Diamond pattern. On a pronounced slope, there's plenty of room to step back far enough to gain a good view, and you can walk through the quilt itself on narrow turf paths. Tightly geometric, it's bordered with pink begonias, with diamonds of blue lobelias, marigolds, and white begonias. The 2,400 square feet required two long days of planting by Essenhaus landscaper Gary Henderson, his five daughters, and an additional person.
•At the Old Bag Factory in Goshen. The Bird's Eye View garden is a contemporary design by Shirley Shenk, owner of the adjacent Quilt Designs shop. The 28-by-31-foot four-pointed star is surrounded by intricate borders, and was made, similar to a quilt, with full-size paper patterns laid out on the garden and sprayed with landscaper's paint to create the outlines. Nearby is a quaint bricked pedestrian alley with artist studios, shops, and cafes (all closed on Sunday).
The idea for the tour was germinated in 2006 by a dozen people who work in tourism.
"We wanted to look at something that would supplement our brand, Amish Country. What would marry well with that?" said Jackie Hughes, public relations manager at the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Quilting came up. And gardening came up several times."
The bureau hired Sonya Miller in Middlebury to grow flowers and in 2007, two sites were planted. They were a hit.
In 2008, 12 gardens were planted: Success again, despite challenges (May frost, poor soil, viewability, water runoff). Enthusiastic gardeners dealt with the problems and ramped everything up for 2009, said Hughes.
Landscapers and master gardeners provided expertise, and developed a book of standards and specifications.
In September, designs for the following spring are approved. In October, seeds are ordered; they're planted in February and March. A review board meets with gardeners in the spring. "The review board is there to help them," said Hughes.
The week before Memorial Day, flats are delivered, planted, and gardens inspected.
The idea, of course, is that meandering garden gawkers will buy meals, spend the night, and shop. We did not intend to open wallets at Linton's Enchanted Gardens in Elkhart, just to stop by for a look-see at the pinwheel pattern quilt (which had one of the better vantage points from a wooden bridge). But half-price sales on some hard-to-find grasses and bushes were irresistible.
And then there was the fine Italian food and wines at the Vine restaurant in Elkhart.
We look forward to seeing the Quilt Gardens Tour's presentation in 2010.
Contact Tahree Lane at:
IF YOU GO:
Free and self-guided, the Quilt Gardens Tour will continue until the first hard frost in fall.
THE TOUR: The free, 68-page Amish Country Travel Guide is indispensable. You can page through it and order it online. Gardeners will appreciate the Quilt Gardens Tour Master Gardener Guide, at amishcountry.org/QuiltGardens.
The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau has excellent online and printed materials. Among its offerings is a free audio CD of a 90-mile Heritage Trail driving tour; 800-377-3579 and amishcountry.org.
The Amish Country Visitors Center is just off the Indiana Toll Road at Elkhart Exit 92 behind the Cracker Barrel, 219 Caravan Drive.
GETTING THERE: Elkhart is about 140 miles west of Toledo. Take the I-80/I-90 turnpike west.
LODGING: Owner-operated bed and breakfasts are on farms, in the country, and in Victorian homes (amishcountrybb.org and the Amish Country Travel Guide). Most include a large breakfast, but do not have swimming pools. Prices range from $70 for modest double rooms to $140 for suites. There are swimming pools at the Essenhaus Inn and Conference Center in Middlebury, The Inn at Amish Acres in Nappanee, and some of the chain hotels.
CAMPING: Inexpensive RV camping is at the Elkhart County 4H Fairgrounds in Goshen. Information: 574-533-3247 and 4hfair.org.
ATTRACTIONS: The handsome, new RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart exhibits the history of the RV and manufactured housing industries with actual units from 1913 through the 1970s. There are 50 pre-World War II trailers and motor homes, including a 1934 model built for actress Mae West. Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $8, seniors $6, children (6 to 16) $3. Information: 800-378-8694 and rvmhhalloffame.org.
In Midddlebury, there are free tours of the Jayco RV production plant and a memorabilia-filled visitor's center in a restored 1880s farmhouse. Information: 800-RV-JAYCO and jayco.com.
SUNDAY: The 150-year-old Bonneyville Mill near Bristol grinds and sells seven kinds of flour. In Elkhart, the Elkhart River Queen plies the scenic St. Joseph River ($9, at 2 p.m.); also the Midwest Museum of American Art (Norman Rockwell prints and Overbeck Art Pottery, the creative work of six sisters), and Ruthmere, a 1910 Beaux Art mansion. In Nappannee, Amish Acres Historic Farm & Heritage Resort is a restored old-Order Amish farm with a large restaurant, historical buildings, 400-seat theater, and shops.34.35 -90.4528