It began as a labour of love over 100 years ago – an abandoned mine and the eye-sore it left behind was too much to bear for one woman.
Determined to transform the desolate landscape, she started a beautification project that would transform her barren back-yard into one of the world’s great gardens – The Butchart Gardens.
At the turn of the 20th century, North American cities were booming, as they continued their outward and upward expansion. Vancouver, on Canada’s Pacific coast, was one. As the key element spurning this growth, cement became an increasingly important product to a world expanding fast.
Returning to Canada from his honeymoon in England where he studied the process of manufacturing Portland Cement, Robert Butchart set his sights on a property 12-miles north of Victoria on picturesque Vancouver Island.
What lured him there was the huge deposits of limestone; the main ingredient in Portland Cement.
Teaming up with his brother David, the entrepreneurs spent the next two years refining and advancing their unique cement blend. Having found the recipe for success, the demand for their product exploded.
The brothers also found their packaging practically sold the cement itself. Delivering it in sacks, rather than the standard wooden barrels of the day, construction workers were able to carry the cement across building sites by hand making it easier to handle and more efficient.
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While business was booming, Robert’s wife Jennie was left with an ugly mine site for a backyard. While she busied herself around the estate planting flowers and shrubbery, the unsightly mess left behind from the mine bothered her.
By 1909, the limestone deposits on their property had run dry, leaving a gigantic pit near the house. Jennie set to work planting lombary, white poplars and Persian plums between the gaping pit and the house in an attempt to hide the excavation site from view.
It wasn’t long before she conceived the idea of a sunken garden and with work commencing in 1912 the garden, like those giant cities of cement, began to grow.
Over the following years, Jennie had acres worth of topsoil brought in by horse and cart, often by a team of her husband’s workers from the nearby cement factory. The beginnings of the giant garden bed to house a huge variety of flowers, shrubs and trees began to take shape.
The rubble on the pit floor would be pushed into large mounds where terraced flowers were planted. The largest of the mounds was turned into a viewing platform, with steps to the top providing a view across the entire sunken garden.
Not one to shy away from a bit of hard work, Jennie set out to cover the grey quarry walls with fast-growing ivy, planted mostly by herself. Dangling over the quarry in a boson chair, she would poke the ivy into rock crevices, allowing it to spread naturally.
Soon, a Japanese Garden was added on the seaside, along with an Italian Garden on the former tennis court, and nearby, a fragrant Rose Garden.
Naturally, Jennie became the talk-of-the-town as whispers of her work rippled through the community. The hostess that she was, Jennie invited friends and family over for tea, with her gardens providing the beautiful setting.
It wasn’t long before complete strangers began dropping by, and by 1915, the gardens had become so popular, that the gracious and generous host was serving complimentary tea to 18,000 annually.
By 1929, tens of thousands of garden enthusiasts began pouring into the gardens each year. That same year, Jennie would be awarded Victoria’s citizen of the year for her dedication to not only her garden, but for the generosity shown to her community.
By the early 1940s, with a world war raging in Europe, manpower in the area declined and the gardens began to suffer. Robert’s failing health saw the couple move to Victoria, leaving their two daughters to manage the property and gardens.
Before their deaths, Robert in 1943, and Jennie in 1950, the couple had gifted the gardens to their grandson Robert Ian Ross, who eventually handed them down to his own son, Christopher, in 1997. Christopher would hire a staff of 240 caretakers, as he began the task of rejuvenating, and expanding the much-loved gardens. Today, a staff of up to 550 workers care for the gardens during the peak summer season.
Christopher also added outdoor concerts, colourful night-time lighting, and for winter, a magical Christmas display. During summer months, there is a weekly choreographed fireworks display. In 2009, a children’s pavilion and Menagerie Carousel were also added.
Today, over one million visitors from around the world enjoy the 55-acres of gardens, along with the over 900 bedding plant varieties.
The Butchart Gardens seasons
Over 300,000 spring bulbs begin to bloom into brilliant colours. Some of the spring favourites include:
- Ornamental Cherry
Over 900 varieties are grown for summer with the stage set for the stunning rose garden. Favourites include:
A rich collection of Japanese Maples produces vibrant fall foliage with a diverse collection of dahlias and vivid biennials. It’s also the time where the 300,000 spring bulbs are planted in the greenhouses. Expect to see:
- Japanese Maple
- Glory Bower
Winter at The Butchart Gardens is split into three. October through November, Christmas, and January through March. The Christmas display sees thousands of poinsettias line the gardens and main house with over one million light bulbs adding to the festive cheer. January to March is when the gardens are tended to for alterations and upgrades to the landscape. Winter favourites include:
- Witch Hazel
The Dining Room is in the original Butchart family residence where you can enjoy the same views of the family over their private garden, or overlook the Italian Garden and Tod Inlet while dining on the award-winning fare.
The Blue Poppy Restaurant is an indoor garden in the winter months, with the conservatory-style space transforming into the restaurant in warmer months. Sunlight pours in through the skylights and overlooks the gardens while a casual, fresh menu is the order of the day.
The Coffee Shop is located in Waterwheel Square, near the entrance of the gardens serving snacks and beverages all day.
Seasonal specialities are available throughout the year pending the season. From hot dog stands to popcorn served from the 1904 popcorn cart, plus soft-serve ice-cream and authentic Italian gelato which is available year-round.
Annabelle’s Café is available near the children’s pavilion for a quick-bite or beverage from May through September.
Gourmet Picnic Baskets filled with fresh salmon, prawns, charcuterie board, local cheeses, pickles, salads and dessert, are available every Saturday from June 30 to September 1 from the Italian Garden. Be sure to book ahead as baskets are limited.
The gardens are open year-round, with summer being the peak months to visit. If visiting in summer, 11am to 3pm are peak times, so consider arriving early at gate opening times or visit later in the afternoon.
How to get there
Several transport options are available from public buses running from Victoria (approx. 30-min) to ferries daily from Victoria, Vancouver and even Seattle, to floatplanes and organised tours. There is a large carpark also available.
Address: 800 Benvenuto Avenue in Brentwood Bay