The Quilt Gardens in northern Indiana’s Amish Country may be a free attraction, but they sure have cash registers ringing.
Visitors who flock to ooh-and-ah at a million blooms stitched together into living quilt blocks and other area attractions pump millions of dollars into the local economy. This year, 19 quilt-inspired gardens and 20 quilt-themed murals bind seven communities in Elkhart and LaGrange counties together with common thread.
But before the Quilt Gardens could become an economic boon to one of the nation’s hardest hit areas during the recession, the project first had to establish a grassroots partnership among municipal governments, civic and nonprofit organizations, and local businesses, plus a cadre of volunteer gardeners, says Sonya Nash, program manager for the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Purdue Extension educators and Master Gardeners, with their brain trust of gardening knowledge and expertise in community programming, play prominent roles.
“Step-on” guides contribute to the strategy of targeting the charter bus trade, with approximately 5,000 tourists arriving by motorcoach from June through September. Purdue Master Gardeners Vickie Estep and Mary Davis are among the local guides who join charter bus tours to talk about the gardens and answer questions. The two also wrote the Quilt Gardens Master Gardeners Guidebook, which describes the flowers used in each garden and ways to translate the gardens into fabric quilts.
The Wakarusa Dime Store — a specialty confectionery shop — is just one of the local businesses to get a bump in its bottom line.
“Not only do visitors buy here at the store, they order from our website when they go home,” says owner Debra McNally. “Then, they tell their friends, who also order online.”
The seemingly whimsical gardens follow a finely tuned business plan. Designs for next year’s gardens are under review in a juried selection process this summer.
“It’s not the complexity of the design but how well it translates to a garden,” says Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, director of Purdue Extension Elkhart County and member of the Quilt Gardens Advisory Board.
Lienhart-Cross has designed the garden at the Elkhart County Fairgrounds for the past four years and has teamed with her husband, Mike Cross, to design the garden at the county courthouse in Goshen. The fairgrounds garden is a joint project of Purdue Extension, Michiana Master Gardeners, Elkhart County Extension Homemakers, and The Elkhart County 4-H Fair Board.
Lienhart-Cross says all of Extension worked on the project, bringing some groups together on a joint project for the first time.
"The volunteers are unbelievably dedicated," she says. "The project has made Extension more visible in the county. At the fairgrounds garden, I've seen buses full of RVers attending a rally in the area and 50 bikers riding up on motorcycles."
“There’s a cooperation and connection among all the communities now,” Estep adds. “Everyone works hand-in-hand.”