Any artist can face setbacks and creative blocks. But it's the hand of Mother Nature and the challenges of working with living (and sometimes withering) quilting blocks that inspire the landscape architects, master gardeners and more than 200 hundred volunteers who create and tend the blooming art of northern Indiana's Quilt Gardens along the Heritage Trail.
"You're fighting Mother Nature," says Jackie Hughes, communications and public relations manager of Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We've had insect infestations; last year there was a mold spore problem, and then there's the weather -- extended periods of extreme heat, hail, heavy rain (or not enough) or late frosts in the spring. There's a lot of wringing of hands when predicting how weather will affect these gardens."
She's referring to the 20 nationally recognized plots throughout seven distinct communities along the Heritage Trail -- from Goshen Shipshewana and Elkhart to Nappanee, Bristol, Middlebury and Wakarusa. The only one of its kind in the country, the exhibit (consisting of all the gardens) features more than a million blooms and remains on display from May 30th to Oct 1st each year. And fortunately, the "quilts" thrive beautifully, according to Hughes, because of the grassroots efforts among the participating communities who so love them.
The Heritage Trail is about a three-hour trip up from Indy, and because the gardens are spaced throughout seven communities, Hughes recommends an overnight visit to take them all in. Maps of their locations are available online as well as a digital guide that offers additional info on the various plots and the quilt patterns they depict.
"Gardening is the most popular hobby in the U.S., and this is a natural marriage of gardening and quilting," Hughes says.
From the Dutchman's Puzzle accented with sweet petunias to the Bowtie and Double Wedding Ring defined by begonias and celosias, each garden design is juried by a review panel and then plotted by expert landscape architects and master gardeners. They must be at least 800 square feet in size (though the average plot is 1,200 square feet), and they should depict a quilt pattern using locally grown annuals (no perennials). This year it entailed planting 160,000 flats of flowers.
The gardens must be 80 percent plants, with only a slight allowance for hardscapes and other features, such as mulch. Their quilt patterns have to be different each year, and the participating communities (and their hundreds of volunteers) must agree to weed, feed, water and deadhead them throughout the exhibits' run.
As a hint from Hughes for your own gardens: For vivid blooms and hardiness, grow begonias, marigolds and petunias, along with dusty miller, vinca and parsley for filler foliage.
Adding to the exhibit's theme are large murals of quilts (130 square feet on average, though the biggest spans 450 square feet) throughout the trail. Most have been painted by local artist, Jeff Stilson.
Until you can make tracks up that way, enjoy these examples of the patterned flower power on display.