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Hidden like a gem amid the grid of narrow country roads that crisscross the Amish farmland southeast of Nappanee, Ind., Esther Benedict, her gardens surrounded by fields of corn, raises plants that would be at home in the Alps of Switzerland.

Benedict is Old German Baptist, a group that, like the Amish and Mennonites who live in this area of northern Indiana, harkens back to the ways of the late 19th century. She dresses in a plain homemade cotton frock and wears a bonnet.

Though her roots may be firmly in Indiana soil, her passion is with the miniature plants that have learned to thrive in the harsh climate of the mountains.

"Many people think these are bonsai plants," Benedict says. "But they're not. They're naturally dwarf -- genetic mutations that have occurred because of the environment that they grow in -- sometimes going for weeks without rain and enduring harsh winter conditions."

The plants at Benedict's Nursery include evergreen miniatures such as dwarf spruces, hemlocks and junipers.

"We really have just about any type of evergreen in miniature form that you can imagine," says Benedict gesturing to row after row of potted evergreens some of which are no more than 4 inches high.

Besides miniature evergreens, Benedict also has androsace, faxifarca, genetians, Alpine ladies mantel, primrose, miniature columbine and even hostas.

"My daughter found one hosta seedling that is a miniature that we're keeping an eye on," Benedict says.

Growing her plants from seedlings and also by buying nursery stock and then taking cuttings, Benedict has created a cornucopia of unique plants that are almost impossible to find other places. The entrance to her nursery is along a path parallel to and crossing a large pond that twists and turns up a small incline. Each of the nooks and crannies that jut into the pond are filled with small and large plants that Benedict has grown. Inside the wooden fence that houses her outdoor nursery, a blaze of flowers greets the eye. Not all her plants are miniatures, but all are special to Benedict who seems to prize each and every one of her plants as individuals.

Benedict says that she became interested in miniatures after reading about them. She says she has no formal training in botany but has read a tremendous amount of books and also does a lot of experimentation. She also is a member of the North American Rock Garden Society.

It was while reading books about old fashioned English rock gardens that she came across the idea of hypertufa pots for holding her miniature gardens. Hypertufa is a mix of Portland cement, peat moss and perlite "with a little Fiberglas thrown in for strength."

Benedict and her husband make their own, forming it into different shapes and sizes which they use for growing and also sell to those who want to make their own miniature gardens. Benedict also occasionally holds seminars where she teaches how to make hypertufa. One of the pluses about hypertufa is that it looks natural and attracts moss and lichens that help make it look like something that has been around for centuries.

Visiting Benedict's Nursery is a charming way to enjoy a drive into Amish country and also to see an unusual collection of miniature plants.

How to get there

Take Indiana Toll Road (I-80/90) to Elkhart exit 92. Take Ind. 19 south to U.S. 6 in Nappanee. Turn left (east) on U.S. 6. Travel east on U.S. 6 to CR 9. Turn right (south) on CR 9 to 1300 N. Turn left (east) on 1300 N to Benedict's Nursery.

For more information

Call (574) 773-2254.

What to bring

A good road map that shows county roads. Maps can be found at www.amishcountry.com or by stopping in the visitors bureau just off of exit 92. Because this is farm area, the roads tend to be ruler straight and numbered so it's fairly easy to find your way, but a good road map helps navigate the countryside. For more information, call (800) 262-8161.

You'll like

If you love antiques, the Red Geranium in nearby Honeyville is a must stop. European and American antiques reside in a lovely shop at 9440 W. 400 S. For more information, call (260) 593-3851.

Also nearby in the Checkerberry Inn, which has been rated one of the 10 best inns nationwide by the Inn Review, that has been featured in many national travel magazines. Their restaurant, Citrus, 62644 County Road 37, was featured in Gourmet Magazine. The menu includes items such as Coconut Shrimp with Passion Fruit Sauce and a Boneless Chicken Breast Stuffed with Ricotta Cheese and Spinach baked and served with Roasted Tomato-Garlic Crème Sauce and Garlic Whipped Potatoes. For more information, call (574) 642-4445.

Kids will like

The chance to see a different culture and the feeling of being transplanted back in time.

And don't miss

A great meal at Tiffany's Restaurant in Topeka, not too far away (pull out that map) on East Lake Street. Topeka is located just south of Shipshewana and is far less commercial about its Amish population. The hardware store in town advertises propane-run refrigerators, washers and dryers (remember the Amish eschew electricity) and across the street, the Topeka Pharmacy has been owned by the same family for generations and serves a long vanished, if not forgotten soda drink called Green River at its soda fountain. At Tiffany's, many of the diners are Amish men and women dressed in their simple clothes. There are horse and buggies parked out front and all the food is homemade. Because Tiffany's is a large place, it means the cooks start at 5 a.m. in the morning, peeling over 35 pounds of potatoes, making 30 to 35 pies a day including mincemeat, blueberry-cream custard, black raspberry and Bon Andy, a spicy custard pie. There's also freshly fried chicken and homemade dumplings. For more

information, call (260) 543-2988.

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