Butchart Gardens

Credit: courtesy of The Butchart Gardens Ltd

Little did Jennie Butchart know, when she began gardening in 1904 on her family property at Tod Inlet, some 21 km (13 mi.) north of Victoria, that 100 years later her first plantings would have blossomed into a world-famous garden that attracts more than one million visitors every year.

The Butchart Gardens, as we now know it, was originally created by Jennie and her husband Robert Pim Butchart, who ventured to the west coast from eastern Canada where Robert had manufactured Portland cement. They purchased the property at Tod Inlet for its considerable clay and limestone deposits, essential for cement production, and because ocean transport was available at the site’s doorstep. In 1904, the cement plant began operations, but not for long – once the limestone was exhausted, it moved to Bamberton, on the other side of the inlet. What had once been a vast limestone quarry was now a gaping abandoned pit. Rather than discouraging Jennie, however, this abysmal sight prompted her to literally get down on her knees and begin planting.

Having already experienced the dazzling results of one garden planted on the site of what is now the Japanese Garden, she conceived the idea of the Sunken Garden, which proved to be an enormous – though inspired – undertaking. Massive amounts of topsoil were brought in by horse and cart from local farms to form beds on the floor of the excavation, and massive plantings began under her supervision.

The impact of the Sunken Garden, completed in 1921 and viewed in 1939 by Their Majesties King George and Queen Elizabeth, is best described today by public relations and media coordinator David Clarke: “By the first day of spring at The Butchart Gardens the result of the fall planting is making itself visible! In some cases it is the fresh green growth of the thousands of tulips waiting to bloom. Elsewhere, daffodils – many of them naturalized into the background – are already nodding their heads in the late March breezes. Crocuses, delicate irises and anemones are blooming along the pathways and rockeries. As the warmth of the sun increases in April, the forget-me-nots and English daisies, planted over the bulbs last October, are showing their colours – as are the sweet-smelling hyacinths and wallflowers! The mass of colour is a glorious shock to visitors standing at the lookout over the Sunken Garden.” As each new season beckons, different blooms appear, thanks to one million bedding plants of hundreds of different varieties planted annually to provide a stunning and continual display.

Over the years, further additions by Jennie included the Italian Garden, which replaced the original tennis court in 1926, as well as the Rose Garden planted in 1929. Changes were also afoot outside the property, and in 1927, the aptly named Limekiln Road was renamed Benvenuto Avenue (the Italian word for “welcome”). Two years later the avenue was officially opened, with Robert Butchart – naturally – supplying the cement. In 1939 he and Jennie also supplied 400 Japanese cherry trees to line the street, and that same year gifted the Gardens to grandson Ian Ross for his 21st birthday.

Although developed originally as a private garden, The Butchart Gardens were unable to carry on in that vein after 1945. Returning home after serving in the war, Ian explored various means of making the Gardens self-sustaining, eventually settling on a summertime admission of 25 cents per person to cover expenses.

Moving forward, new events would be launched to attract a growing number of visitors. The first outdoor symphony concert was enjoyed in 1953, as was the premiere Christmas lighting show. Spectacular night illuminations were switched on in 1954. The Ross Fountain, also lit, was installed 10 years later. The tradition of complimentary teas for those celebrating 80th birthdays began in 1974, and three years later the Gardens hosted its first summer fireworks show. Commemorative stamps featuring the Gardens were issued in 1980 and 1991.

The Gardens are now open every day of the year with the aid of 250 full-time staff, the number doubling to 500 with the addition of summer help. Visitors often ask the more than 50 full-time gardeners how they manage to keep the weeds out of such an expansive site. “With that many gardeners,” laughs Paul Turmel, Butchart’s educational gardening coordinator, “we don’t expect weeds!” Spectacular creations abound in the beds and borders each season. “We use sequences, or waves, of complementary colour combinations,” Turmel says. “On the scale with which we have to work, it would look very confusing if we mixed all the colours together.”

In preparation for summer, 6-8-6 is used around the beds as a complete fertilizer. The army of gardeners is kept busy performing continuous deadheading, monitoring insects and checking on the health and vitality of the plants. “The care given to the trees, shrubs and flowers astounds the visitor!” reflects Clarke, “If there is a secret to this accomplishment of some 50 or more gardeners who care for nearly 24 ha (60 acres) of gardens it is the constant replacing of the soil with each new planting. The compost heaps and soil shed, where the fresh and sterilized soil is made to ensure a constant supply, are always active. All plant material is recycled, rotted, mixed with peat moss and sand – and sterilized by steam.”

The gardening experiment that inspired Jennie 100 years ago continues to be lovingly tended by her descendants. Following Ian’s passing in 1997, the Gardens’ management passed on to his son Christopher Ross until his sudden death in 2000. Christopher’s sister Robin-Lee Clarke then took the reins, and no doubt the legacy will continue with Jennie and Robert’s great-great-grandson, Barnabas Butchart Clarke.

Throughout this centennial year, The Butchart Gardens has a number of special events and displays planned, including a permanent new display of artifacts and photographs telling the story of the development of the Gardens from its days as a defunct quarry. In addition, a special-blend 2004 birthday tea, available in the Dining Room Restaurant (the original family residence) and gift shop, animal-shaped topiary displays throughout the garden for the delight of children, and totem poles, to be carved onsite by two First Nations artists through July and August and raised in a special ceremony this September, all add to the celebrations. And, naturally, all the regular attractions continue, including the following must-see highlights:


Jennie’s pride and joy is now world famous for its skillful combination of rare and exotic shrubs, trees and plants, many personally collected by her and her husband during their extensive travels. Atop the nearby lookout, the Sunken Garden spreads out some 15 m (50 ft.) below, its steep sides hung with ivy and Virginia creeper. From the lookout over this garden, view the only surviving portion of Robert Butchart’s cement factory – the tall chimney of a long vanished kiln.


In 1964, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Gardens, Ian Ross created and installed the Ross Fountain. The water rises 21 m (70 ft.), providing an unforgettable sight at night when its spectacular sequences are illuminated.


A short walk through traditional perennial borders, covered by rose arches, leads into the Rose Garden with its many varieties of hybrid tea roses, marked with their country of origin and the year they were selected by the American Rose Society. Fronting the former Butchart residence, the Rose Garden is at its peak in July and August.


This non-traditional Japanese Garden is a charmer, developed in 1906 by Jennie with the expert assistance of Japanese landscaper Isaburo Kishida. During June, look for the spectacular blooms of the famous Himalayan blue poppy.


Close to the Japanese Garden is the Star Pond, originally designed for Robert Butchart’s collection of ornamental ducks. Now, between the points of the star shape are beds of colourful annuals, with a frog fountain rising from the centre.


Between two arched entrances to the Italian Garden stands a bronze statue of Mercury. The long narrow wing of the house running the length of this garden once housed a bowling alley! For more information and updates, visit www.butchartgardens.com or call (866) 652-4422.

Betty Campbell is a freelance photojournalist based in Victoria.