Get tips from history to deal with a combination of dry and wet conditions in your garden

herb garden at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village
It’s hard to get water to the herb garden at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, but once the plants are established, they tend to take care of themselves. In the background is the Transit Road Church, circa 1854. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko
raised beds heirloom vegetables by blacksmith shop at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village
Raised beds were used in the 1800s. In the background is the blacksmith shop, 1899 replica. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

A combination of gardening problems faces Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, the 35-acre historical interpretive center in Amherst that showcases 19th century buildings set up like a village.

Much of the landscape is boggy, so gardens can be wet early in the season.

In addition, there’s no irrigation system, and hoses can’t reach all the gardens, so there’s no easy way to water plants during the dry summer months.

To deal with these conditions, Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village has built raised beds to deal with the boggy land and chosen native plants that don’t need much irrigation to deal with dry conditions.

We’ll talk a little about these techniques you can use in your own wet or dry yard in Western New York and give you a few insights on how gardening was done from 1840 to 1890.

I visited in August, but Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village is open year round. Visit their site or call 716-689-1440 for admission information. It is located at 3755 Tonawanda Creek Rd., Amherst.

The gardens that are in place were done in Phase 1 of a multi-phase plan of educational gardens and farm plots. Monetary support and volunteer assistance is needed to maintain the existing gardens as well as to create new gardens. You don’t need to be a Master Gardener to volunteer. If you would like to do­nate, volunteer or get more information, contact Jaime Brawdy at or 716-689-1440, ext. 7712.

Gardening on wet, boggy land

If your gardens are so splashy that you can’t work in them in spring, try building a raised bed.

That’s what the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village did for its kitchen garden outside the Elliott House. To keep the raised bed authentic to the time period of 1840-1890, they treated the wood with linseed oil rather than stain, said Kathy Slade, interpretation manager at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village.

Bonus tip on deterring deer and rabbits: Typically a vegetable garden during Victorian times was surrounded by fruit bushes such as raspberries, Slade said. The thorns on the bushes would help keep animals out of the vegetable garden.

pretzel bean heirloom vegetable at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village
Pretzel bean. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

The kitchen garden is filled with heirloom varieties of vegetables that might have been grown at the time, including pretzel bean. The curly-shaped bean can  be eaten from the vine when it is young, but when it’s mature, it is used in soups.

Other vegetables include Huberschmidt ground cherries, Seneca corn, deer tongue lettuce, Deacon Dan beets, Danver half-long carrots, white cucumbers, early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, red drumhead cabbage and pattypan squash.

Slade pointed out that during this period, most people had only vegetable gardens, not flower gardens.

“It was a status symbol to see how bountiful your vegetable garden was,” Slade said.

While the raised bed takes care of the problem of overly wet, boggy soil, the plants still need to be watered during the dry summer months. There are only three hose hookups for 35 acres of land at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, so the volunteer gardeners fill a trough with water, then use buckets to carry the water to the plants.

As cumbersome as that is, the water is still more convenient and plentiful now than it was for gardeners around here in Victorian times. Back then, they depended on wells, and they had to pump the water out by hand, Slade said.

“Water was a scarce commodity,” she said. “They didn’t use that on the plants.”

Instead, dirty dishwater would be tossed out the window onto the kitchen garden.

“They had to make the most of everything they had,” she said.

Not all buildings at the time had gutters, but folks who had gutters might have used rain barrels, she said. For field crops, a system used in Geneva, NY, which  involved a trench system and drain tiles, was probably used here as well.

dyer's garden at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village
Using native plants in other areas allows the Master Gardeners who volunteer at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village to concentrate on watering the many annuals used for making dyes in the dyer’s garden. In the background is Lavocat House, circa 1840. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

For dry gardens or hard-to-reach areas, choose low-maintenance plants

The gardens at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village are tended by Master Gardener volunteers, and with their limited resources for watering, they try to choose low-maintenance plants, said Rosalind Rivers, one of the Master Gardeners.

In the 1812 Peace Garden located at the front entrance, “all of the plants are natives because they will tolerate the water situation,” Rivers said.

Native plants are generally defined as plants that grew in North America before Europeans arrived. These have grown accustomed to our climate and can tolerate fluctuations in weather.

“These have had the test of time,” Rivers said. “They get little babies that you can spread around.”

Using native plants in many of the plantings means the volunteers can focus their time and energies on gardens that need more of their attention. At the Lavocat House, the dyer’s garden contains plants for making dyes for clothing. Many of those plants are annuals that need to be hand watered, Rivers said.

In general, flower petals are used for dyes, but with plants such as faux indigo, it’s the seed pod that is used. Faux indigo creates a light blue dye, Slade said. Other plants in the dyer’s garden are sunflowers, coreopsis, zinnias, Russian sage, madder, fennel, hollyhocks, marigolds and dahlias.

At the Bigelow House, there’s an herb garden. It’s a problem getting water there, but once those plants are established, they tend to take care of themselves, she said.

Many of the homes at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village are shown with foundation plantings of flowers and shrubs hugging the house. This came into style in the late Victorian era, Rivers said.

The style was developed to hide the bare concrete foundation of the house. When many of these earlier houses were built, they wouldn’t have had concrete foundations, Slade said. They were given the more modern foundations when they were moved to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village.

Before the era of foundation plantings, people wouldn’t have planted a shrub up close to the house, Rivers said; they would place it in a spot where they could see it out their window. Gardens were generally set away from the house, Slade said.

Many of the flowers used around the homes are low-maintenance native plants.

Native plants used at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village include:

Peace Garden at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village
The 1812 Peace Garden at the entrance to Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village uses many native plants, including liatris, the plant with the purple flowers at right. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko
  • River birch, tree
  • Ninebark, shrub
  • Summersweet or clethra, a flowering shrub
  • Fothergilla, a shrub that grows six feet tall. It gets white bottle brush flowers in the spring. The green leaves turn yellow, orange and red-purple in the fall.
  • Yarrow, a flowering perennial
  • Amsonia, a flowering perennial
  • Baptisia or false indigo, a flowering perennial
  • Tickseed or thread-leaf coreopsis, a short flowering perennial
  • White gaura, a flowering perennial
  • Coneflower, a flowering perennial commonly used in gardens
  • Gay feather or liatris, a flowering perennial
  • Bee balm, a flowering perennial
  • Beardtongue ‘Huckster’s Red’ penstemon, a flowering perennial
  • Goldenrod, a yellow flowering perennial
  • Lady’s mantle, a perennial
  • Black-eyed Susan, a flowering perennial
  • Daisy, a flowering perennial
  • Bearberry, a low-growing ground cover
  • Grasses, including switchgrass and little bluestem Pennsylvania sedge

A couple of native plants that need a little more water, Rivers said, are monkshood and turtlehead.


Learn more about heirloom vegetables in these posts:

Heirloom vegetables connect us with previous generations

Heirloom tomatoes aren’t pretty, but can be fun to grow

Learn more about native plants in these posts:

Here are some good native plants for rain gardens

Want something different? Grow native woodland plants

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