The Indiana Quilt Gardens proved to be an economic stimulus for Elkhart and surrounding communities, particularly during the recent recession. The quilt-themed flower gardens are an international attraction, drawing visitors from the U.S., Canada, Asia, Australia and Europe. At home, it has united seven communities all working together on one program. (Video by Kelsey Getzin)

Starring Attraction

Quilt Gardens Put on a Million-Dollar Show

By Olivia Maddox

For a free attraction, the Quilt Gardens in northern Indiana's Amish Country 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 dropped $273 million in the Elkhart County economy in 2009 alone. 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 non-profit organizations, and local businesses, plus a cadre of volunteer gardeners. Like gardens, the project had to grow from the ground up, says Sonya Nash, program manager for the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Art Forms Merge in Quilt Gardens

A Winning Combination

Nash says the CVB hit upon the Quilt Gardens concept in 2006 during a brainstorming session for new additions to the Heritage Trail, a scenic driving tour centered on Amish culture.

"We were trying to think of something unique that tells our story," Nash says. "We are an ag-based region—gardening and quilting are part of our heritage." The idea developed into quilt-block flower gardens.

Purdue University's Tourism &s; Hospitality Research Center was tapped during the strategic-planning phase. Purdue Extension educators and Master Gardeners, with their brain trust of gardening knowledge and expertise in community programming, play prominent roles.

The first plants went into the ground in spring 2007 at two pilot gardens, and the Quilt Gardens project was officially launched in 2008. Despite the recession, the gardens' niche markets of quilters and gardeners blossomed. Several locally owned businesses reported the Quilt Gardens helped them survive during the recession, when the Elkhart unemployment rate hit 18 percent.

"People travel to follow their passions, despite the economy," Nash says.

By the Busloads

The American Bus Association—trade group for the motorcoach industry—has named the Quilt Gardens one of its top 100 attractions in the nation for 2014. This is the sixth straight year it has earned the honor.

"Step-on" guides contribute to the strategy of targeting the travel trade. Purdue Master Gardeners Vickie Estep and Mary Davis are among the local guides who join bus tours to talk about the gardens and their plants and patterns, and answer questions. The two also co-authored the Quilt Gardens Master Gardeners Guidebook, which describes the flowers used in each garden and ways to translate the gardens into fabric quilts.

"The gardens really have a 'wow' factor," says Estep, who has been a guide since 2009. "The gardens are just waiting to be admired. When visitors get off the buses, their eyes light up. They take in a wide view of the garden, and then the questions come."

In June 36 charter buses visited—an all-time high for one month. Some 5,000 tourists were expected to arrive by motorcoach from June through September. Visitors stay overnight, dine out, tour other venues and shop.

Stitchin' Heaven, a Texas-based, Texas-sized quilt shop, runs its own travel program that is, well, heaven for quilters. It sponsors an annual bus trip to the Quilt Gardens. Attendees come from as far away as New Zealand, and tours can book up two years in advance.

"People have the gardens on their 'bucket list,' and they don't want to let another year go by without seeing them," Nash says.

In mid-July, 46 McLean County, Ill., Master Gardeners took a three-day tour and left a trail of sales slips in their wake. Davis, the group's guide, reported the bus driver had to empty and repack the luggage bay to accommodate all the purchases. The Wakarusa Dime Store—a specialty confectionery shop—is just one of businesses to get a bump in its bottom line when the Master Gardeners stopped there.

"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."

On the International Radar

The Internet has changed how people around the world plan their travel.

Diana Debelak, innkeeper at the Homespun Country Inn in Nappanee, says more people from Europe are discovering the Quilt Gardens. "They have already done their research," she says. "They know what they want to see.

"International tourists are honing in on the Midwest. They fly in to Chicago and spend up to six weeks visiting the area. The Quilt Gardens is one of the attractions they want to see," Debelak says.

Visitors have also come from China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Community Pride

The seemingly whimsical gardens follow a finely tuned business plan. Designs for next year's gardens were selected in a juried selection process over the 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," Lienhart-Cross says. "At the fairgrounds garden, I've seen buses full of RVers attending a rally in the area and 50 bikers riding up on motorcycles."

Quality Is Job One

A review committee that selects the design also inspects the gardens for quality control. Barbara Jewett, a member of the review committee and the Busy Bees homemakers club, has a list of items to check when reviewing gardens. Those not up to par can be put on probation or dropped from the lineup the following year.

"With social media, we have to be aware of what people are saying about the gardens," Jewett says. "Word will get out—good or bad."

Commitment from growers is also essential for success. A small group of local growers provides the nearly 80,000 annuals used to create the gardens. "The growing stage is critical," says Sonya Miller, of Country Comfort Greenhouse in Middlebury. When a new type of petunia didn't germinate, she ordered seeds three times. "I grow extra in case some need to be replaced," she says.

With a living, growing, outdoor attraction, anything can happen—moles, gophers, fungus, frost, hail, record-setting drought and a high-speed police chase are just a few of the challenges the gardens have endured.

It Takes a Village

Mark Salee, town manager of Middlebury, says the gardens are in such demand that when a local hardware store moved to a new location, owners factored a garden site into their building plans. Residents were quick to volunteer to care for the gardens," he says.

Like the cultivars they grow, the 200 volunteers who coax the gardens into their full glory are a hardy group, putting in approximately 2,000 man hours over a five-month period. Staking and planting thousands of plants can take up to two days, with volunteers working together in assembly-line fashion.

"There's a cooperation and connection among all the communities now," Vickie Estep says. "Everyone works hand-in-hand."