A Little Piece of History

One of my all-time favourite gardens is The Butchart Gardens, located on Vancouver Island just near the capital city Victoria. It is sight I think every garden lover must see at some point in their life. I’ve travelled the world and seen the great gardens of Europe and the UK, as well as visited the biggest names such as South Africa’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, but I’ve never experienced anything quite as amazing as Butchart.

The sunken garden.

The sunken garden.

The story behind the garden’s creation started in the sunken garden. This was once a scarred landscape created by an exhausted limestone quarry. The quarry was the source of limestone for the concrete producer Portland Cement, a massive business success story. Robert Pim Butchart, a pioneer in the thriving North American cement industry, was attracted from Ontario to Canada’s West Coast by rich limestone deposits. In 1904, he developed a quarry and built a cement plant at Tod Inlet.

Jennie Butchart, his wife, became the company’s chemist. Close to the quarry, the Butchart’s established the family home. She had a genuine love of gardening and the beauty of nature and was determined to return the quarried area to a pristine garden environment. As Robert exhausted limestone deposits, his enterprising wife Jennie made plans to create something of beauty in the gigantic pit. From farmland nearby she had tonnes of top soil brought in by horse and cart and used it to line the floor of the abandoned quarry. Little by little, the quarry blossomed into the spectacular sunken garden.

Between 1906 and 1929, the Butchart’s created a Japanese garden on the seaside, an Italian garden on their former tennis court and a beautiful rose garden. Robert took great pride in his wife’s remarkable work and recognition of her gardening talents quickly spread. By the 1920s more than fifty thousand people visited her garden each year. The hospitable Butchart’s christened their estate “Benvenuto”, the Italian word for “welcome”.

Their house grew into a comfortable, luxurious showplace with a bowling alley, indoor saltwater swimming pool, paneled billiard room and a wonder of its age – a self-playing Aeolian pipe organ (still played on summer’s Firework Saturdays). Today, it houses the dining room restaurant, offices, and rooms still used for family entertaining.

Grandson Ian Ross was given the Gardens on his 21st birthday. After service in WWII, he worked hard to make his grandmother’s garden self-sustaining, transforming the mostly neglected home and gardens into an internationally famous destination. For 50 years he was completely involved in its operation and development. In summer months he added outdoor symphony concerts (1953-1967) showcasing young stars of the Metropolitan Opera; a variety stage show (1961); and the Ross Fountain (1964) for the Gardens’ 60th anniversary. In 1987 he initiated The Magic of Christmas. Ian died in 1997.

In late 2009, Robin-Lee Clarke, great granddaughter of Jennie Butchart and current owner, added a children’s pavilion complete with a large menagerie carousel and the team behind the gardens increased the number of events and activities. In 2004, The Gardens was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

resized trev and carlos

Trevor and Carloz.

Carloz Maniz is the head of horticulture and has just passed his 40th year working for the family-owned gardens. This is some commitment, yet even more remarkable given he took over from his father who spent 35 years working for the Butchart’s, creating and maintaining the stunning landscape. It says a lot about the Butchart family, that another family could work for 75 years and three generations in the one place.

My latest trip was in the summer and, as always, the garden was full of highlights. The dahlia display is something to behold. If you’re here in summer make sure you have your camera, as the flowers are simply spectacular and had thousands of pictures taken of them whilst I was there.

For me the best section of the gardens here has to be the Japanese garden. Mature maples and flowering cherries were collected and shipped from Japan and they are amazing in spring and autumn.

The only surviving portion of the original cement factory is the tall chimney of a long-vanished kiln, still seen from the sunken garden lookout. The plant stopped manufacturing cement in 1916, but continued to make drain tiles and flower pots until 1950. Some of the original flowering cherry trees, which extended from West Saanich Road to the Gardens’ entrance, may still be seen growing strongly today and their displays in mid-spring are a sight to behold.

The reputation of the family-owned gardens is widespread. Almost a million people visit annually for spring’s colourful flowering bulbs; summer’s riot of colour, entertainment and Saturday fireworks; fall’s russets and golds; the Magic of Christmas’ decorations; and winter’s peacefulness. Each year over a million bedding plants in some 900 varieties give you uninterrupted bloom from March through October. The Butchart Gardens is one of North America’s most popular tourism destinations and if you travel to Canada make sure you add it to your itinerary, I promise you will not be disappointed.

See more of this incredible garden: www.butchartgardens.com

Spectacular summer dahlias.

Spectacular summer dahlias.

About the Author – Trevor Cochrane
Trevor is a born-and-bred proud West Australian who grew up on a dairy farm in Mundijong, just outside of Perth, WA. He launched the media company Guru Productions in 2002 that has since produced over 750 episodes of television telecast on Channel 9 nationally and is now seen in over 100 countries across the globe in 14 different languages. In the years since creating The Garden Gurus he has created and produced over 50 hours of international travel shows, food and wine programs, local WA food program Our State on a Plate and the Destination WA travel series. All Guru Productions projects appear on Channel 9 and WIN Television, as well as nationally on the popular digital TV channel 9 Life.

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