In stitches: Quilt gardens worth the drive to Elkhart County

Using trowels instead of needles and plants instead of fabric, gardeners in one northern Indiana county have “stitched” together a variety of floral quilt blocks.

This is the 15th year for the Quilt Gardens and Murals along the Heritage Trail in Elkhart County. Visitors can view 17 gardens and see 25 hand-painted murals. Locations are varied and include the county fairgrounds and courthouse, local parks and visitor centers, and other points of interest. The gardens were unveiled May 30 and will be on display until Sept. 15.

Visitors can start a tour at any of the quilt gardens and see them in any order; but a good place to begin is at the 4-H Fairgrounds on the east side of Goshen, the county seat. This garden is maintained by Elkhart County Purdue Extension Master Gardeners. Not surprisingly, the theme is Heads, Heart, Hands and Health, the 4-H motto. The colors are vibrant and kept healthy with sprinklers. Next to it is a cast sculpture of a man with a child on his shoulders looking at the garden. Sculptures like this are at several of the gardens.

From there, visitors can head northwest to Elkhart or northeast to Middlebury and Bristol. There also are gardens in Wakarusa and Nappanee in the southwest part of the county. Each garden has an interpretive sign that shows the layout of the quilt block and the flowers and plants used to form the color sections. A few of them have viewing platforms that allow for a better view of the design and for better photos.

There are several gardens in Elkhart, which can serve as a good base for visitors who wish to spend two days roaming the county. The city has created linear parks along the Elkhart River in the city’s heart. So in addition to viewing the quilt garden, visitors can stroll paths and enjoy the quiet oasis just off the downtown.

At the Ruthmere mansion just north of downtown Elkhart is a Friendship Square quilt block. It utilizes snapshot yellow snapdragons, ipomoea batatas (purple sweet potato vine), Super Olympia red green leaf begonia, and Super Olympia white green leaf begonia.

Begonias are used in several of the gardens because of their hardiness and vibrant color, especially when the blossoms contrast with the dark green foliage. Other plants utilized include parsley, caladium, marigold, impatiens, isotoma and coleus.

The mansion itself is worth a visit. Tours of the grand late 19th century home are available Tuesday through Sunday. The house is filled with classic antiques, vintage cars and Tiffany glass.

Several other gardens also are connected to interesting stops. For example, one quilt block, Fresh Connections, is just outside the Wellfield Botanic Gardens in Elkhart. An extended stop there can include a stroll through the gardens themselves. The sculpture there is of the impressionist artist Claude Monet painting the quilt block.

Another quilt block — Sunflower — is located at the Elkhart Environmental Center, a nature park on the city’s south side. Nappanee is known for its connection to the Amish community. A stop here can include a visit to the Barns at Nappanee, where visitors will find a restored 19th century farm, an Amish-style restaurant and a theater in a round barn.

Another theater is located in Bristol east of Elkhart. The quilt block is located at the nearby Elkhart County Historical Museum, still another possible stop.

Downloadable maps are available on the Elkhart County tourism site, but visitors should pick up a larger map at one of the gardens or visitor centers as early as possible. The larger size will make navigating easier.

Overall, a visit to the quilt gardens is a slow-down-and-enjoy-the-journey type of activity. When you get off the main highways, expect to slow down for horses and buggies. It’s part of the experience.

Rich Gotshall is a retired journalist and Franklin resident.