Wellfield Gardens enters third phase of long-term development

Elkhart's Wellfield Botanic Gardens continues to develop into a major tourist destination.
Posted on Dec. 10, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — On a cold, drizzly, gray Friday morning, Eric Amt was moving another load of large rocks in a pickup truck to a new location inside the Wellfield Botanic Gardens when two visitors interrupted his work flow.

Hellos and handshakes are exchanged and Amt immediately begins talking about the existing and future gardens that make up what will eventually be a 36-acre park.

Amt, the executive director of the gardens, has been part of the project since its onset nearly 10 years ago when the Rotary Club initiated the idea of a community garden before it even had a home.

Six years ago this month, the development of the park began with the draining of ponds and moving of earth at the city’s well fields north of the pumping station on North Main Street.

Already an established destination point, the project enters a third phase next year that includes construction of more specialized gardens.

“People think this is all we’re going to do and we’re only 25 percent done,” Amt said. “We got a long ways to go yet.”

A brisk walking tour captures the breadth of the undertaking.

Heading west along a path, Amt passes a new garden that will come alive in the spring with 16,000 crocuses and an equal amount of daffodils that will cover parts of the grass and much of the mounded earth currently topped with dark mulch.

“In three years, when this gets established, it’ll be really gorgeous,” Amt said.

Ahead, he looks out toward the site of a future Asian-themed Island Garden that will include a Bonsai collection inside an open air wood structure.

Further to the west will be an eight-acre wetland education center encompassing a series of bridges and boardwalks that will tie together a group of islands.

Upcoming projects include the Sensory Garden and the Waterfall Garden, featuring a glass-enclosed pavilion extending over the creek.

Other long range plans include a major events garden, a horticulture center, administrative offices, greenhouses, maintenance facility and classrooms.

Every year, the Wellfield Gardens seems to gain a little more interest from major donors, Amt said.

Part of that comes from the addition of more gardens, bridges and statuary.

The park now hosts several annual events and has become a regular destination for year-round visitors, especially people who like to stroll along the paths with their dogs.

“They see the value in it now,” he said about donors. “It’s a tourist attraction.”

The most noticeable change under way this winter is the front entrance, where construction of a visitor’s center is nearing completion. The new building is a modular unit with a pitched roof that gives it a look of permanence. However, the building will eventually be moved and become part of the events garden, an area designed to accommodate large activities and weddings and feature a entertainment stage.

Beginning next spring, the gardens will become a more secured facility and will begin charging admission, except for Elkhart city residents, who will be admitted for free one day a week.

Eventually, more extensive changes are planned near the front of the park.

The silo-esque air strippers south of the entrance will be removed. To the north, organizers hope to acquire property where the old, vacated Selmer buildings still stand.

Plans include a parking lot for 350 vehicles, Amt said.

Amt estimates it will be another 10 years before the estimated $12 million privately financed project is complete.

For now, the work continues.

“A work in progress,” Amt said. “For a long, long time.”

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