Fifty-five acres of blooming, trailing, creeping, climbing beauty -- this is the garden legacy left by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pim Butchart. Today's Butchart Gardens, some 15 miles north of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, is a world-class destination. Four major formal gardens boast over 700 varieties of flowers in a setting enhanced by seasonal lighting, and visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. What these flower fans find as they tour the famous gardens is that the story behind them is as interesting as the gardens are beautiful.
Inception Of The Gardens
Robert Pim Butchart began his long and prosperous career as a cement manufacturer in 1888, in Ontario, Canada. By the turn of the century he had become highly successful in this relatively new and expanding field. Looking for an edge, Butchart turned his sights westward. Canada's less settled western coast was rich in mineral deposits, particularly the limestone essential for cement production. Butchart purchased land on Vancouver Island and built a new factory at Tod Inlet. In 1904, he moved his wife, Jennie, and his family to this west coast home.
Over time, the limestone in Butchart's quarry became depleted. Rather than walk away from a scarred landscape or live with this eyesore near their house, Jennie Butchart decided to turn the pit into something potentially beautiful. She purchased topsoil from nearby farms and had it hauled to the quarry by the ton, all via horse and cart. Supervising a work crew, Mrs. Butchart personally directed the placement of the topsoil within the hole that was once a limestone pit mine, then supervised the planting of hundreds of spectacular flowers, ground cover species, shrubs, and trees. Soon, what might have been simply an abandoned quarry became a beautiful park known today as the Sunken Garden.
The Gardens Take Off
Mr. Butchart was proud of his wife's project. He became involved by incorporating his own hobbies of birdwatching and collecting. Soon his ducks, peacocks, and pigeons were an integral part of the garden project. And the gardens grew. A multi-pointed Star Pond was constructed. A Japanese Garden was designed and built. Later, the Butcharts decided their tennis courts had to go in favor of an Italian Garden as they continued to reflect their world travels in the gardens surrounding their home.
As the Butcharts traveled the world, they made hosts of friends while celebrating their successes in business, gardening, and life. Word of their garden project spread; by the 1920s, 50,000 visitors were coming to see their gardens every year. During this period, they began calling the estate and gardens "Benvenuto," the Italian word for "welcome." In 1929, the Rose Garden was added.
The Gardens Today
Through the Butchart's foresight and the careful and generous stewardship of subsequent generations, the gardens remain a treasure for Vancouver Island residents and the world's garden-loving tourists today. Indeed, without compromising the very best of the original gardens, the management of Butchart Gardens continues to gradually expand the scope of the gardens, providing an experience that can be enjoyed 12 months out of the year. There is always something blooming at Butchart Gardens, and changing seasonal and cultural programs make it a worthwhile place for a repeat visit. (I recently completed my fifth visit to the gardens.) From mid-June to mid-September, the gardens are illuminated at night, and musicians and other entertainers perform in the afternoons and evenings. Every Saturday night, July 2 through September 3, fireworks light the night sky in an exceptional display set to classical music.
Whether you have two hours or an entire day, a visit to the gardens is a "must-do" when visiting Victoria, B.C. You can do a cook's tour of the four main gardens in just a couple of hours, but stopping at the café, spending some time at the garden-and-gift shop, and taking time to sit and ruminate on a few of the many benches throughout the gardens can easily and pleasantly fill a day anytime from spring through fall. You'll rarely see a gardener -- they do virtually all their work before and after hours. The result is this magnificent display of horticultural excellence that gives the illusion of maintaining itself. Of course, anyone who has ever planted a pot of geraniums or nurtured a rosebush knows the fallacy of this, but for the casual gardener, 55 trouble-free, self-maintaining garden acres is a delightful fantasy indeed.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a travel writer, outdoorswoman, and amateur gardener who makes her home in Washington State. She ascribes to the garden maintenance theory that "if you're not killing your plants once in awhile, you're not really trying." She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.