By Karen Dearlove
Historic house museums and other restored living history sites provide visitors with firsthand experiences of what life was like during different periods of the past. These types of sites generally involve restored historic buildings filled with period furniture and furnishings, as well as costumed interpreters. Many of these sites now include historic gardens and other historic landscape re-creations as part of the visitor experience. Like historic houses and artifacts, historic gardens offer a glimpse into the past.
There is a wide variety of historic gardens and landscapes in Ontario. Fulford Place National Historic Site in Brockville, for example, is home to recently restored significant historic designed gardens. The original gardens were designed by the American landscape firm the Olmsted Brothers, known for their work on New York’s Central Park. Using archaeological evidence of the original planting beds, historic photographs and sources, the Olmsted Brothers’ garden was brought back to life at Fulford Place. Historic designed gardens range from restored elaborate designs like the Olmsted Brothers’ gardens at Fulford Place, to the whimsical “pocket garden” of McDougall Cottage in Cambridge.
Historic gardens take many forms, not just elaborate designed landscapes. Vernacular historic kitchen gardens, or vegetable gardens, provide opportunities to educate about agricultural history, culinary history and household economies of the past. In the Grand River watershed the living history site Doon Heritage Village, features several examples of historic vernacular gardens. The Martin Farm Garden is a restored “four-square” kitchen garden, rife with religious symbolism drawn from Mennonite life. In the nearby Sararas-Bricker garden a variety of heritage vegetables are grown that would have fed the family and supplemented the household economy. The Joseph Schneider Haus museum in nearby downtown Kitchener also features a kitchen garden representing the early pioneer family.
Another type of historic landscape is the restored tall grass prairie found at Chiefswood National Historic Site. Unlike vernacular gardens or designed gardens, Chiefswood’s tall grass prairie appears unplanned and wild. As part of the restoration of the historic house in the late 1990s a Historic Landscape Conservation Study was conducted that utilized historical photos and accounts, as well as archaeological evidence to document the history of Chiefswood’s grounds from 1856 to the present. The study concluded that during the period that Chiefswood was occupied by the Johnson Family, the grounds contained several distinct areas of use, including a productive nut grove (walnut, butternut and hickory trees), an orchard, a kitchen garden with a melon patch, cultivated grape vines and raspberry bushes, and a large grassy meadow. The results of this study outlined plans for the restoration and conservation of Chiefswood’s grounds to their historical state.
Complete restoration or rehabilitation of the grounds was deemed largely unfeasible, and instead, rehabilitation or adaptive re-use was considered the most appropriate course of action for Chiefswood. The study recommended rehabilitation of the meadow into a tall grass prairie featuring plants indigenous to the area. Tall grass prairies are natural grassland habitats that used to be found throughout the central United States, Ontario and Manitoba. Today, less than 1% of this original habitat remains, much lost to agriculture, development and invasive species. Common plants in Chiefswood’s tall grass prairie include Ohio Spiderwort, Wild Bergamot, Milkweed, Virginia Mountain Mint, St. John’s Wort, Yellow Coneflower, and the towering Indian Cup Plant.
At Chiefswood visitors can walk along pathways through the tall grass prairie, and with the use of seasonal brochures (Spring, Summer and Fall), can identify the different plants and learn about their traditional medicinal and other uses. The Indian Cup plant, for example, which grows to an astounding 12 feet tall at Chiefswood, was commonly used by different First Nations people for pain relief and to prevent vomiting. The sap from the plant was also collected and chewed like gum. Chiefswood’s tall grass prairie not only provides an important habitat for indigenous plants rarely found elsewhere in the Grand River watershed, but an opportunity to explore a historic landscape that demonstrates how First Nations people in the Grand River watershed interacted with their natural environment.