Spring astonishes in a 100+ year-old garden

Down an unassuming lane in the countryside of Vancouver Island, a half-hour’s drive north of Victoria, is an extraordinary feat of landscape design. I’ve been wanting to visit this garden for a long, long time and then, just a week and a half ago, we finally made it there. I knew we were going to be in for a special treat but I wasn’t prepared for how this venerable garden, more than a century old, could electrify the senses. Spring–such a sweet, pretty, happy time of year–in The Butchart Gardens is a time of complete astonishment.

Covering more than 55 acres, this masterwork began with an idea Jennie Buchart had to turn an ugly quarry into something beautiful. Her husband, Robert Pim Butchart owned a cement plant and the nearby limestone quarry he had used had been worked out. Mrs. Butchart decided that the deep, broad, lumpy pit had loads of potential.

One hundred years later, in 2004, the gardens became a National Historic Site of Canada. Still privately owned and operated by the family, the gardens are now internationally renowned. The gardens spread to includes several themed gardens as well as a “piazza”, greenhouses, and four places to eat. By the 1920s, over 50,000 people visited each year. Now, that number is more like a million people.

The Sunken Garden

Spring garden through folly window

A window in the tiny log cabin-inspired folly perched on the lip of the old quarry frames a spectacular view of the Sunken Garden.

I have to stop here for a moment and reflect. I’ve been so impressed with so many gardeners, professionals and amateurs alike, who have looked at a yard or a ditch or even an acreage and thought to themselves, ‘Sure, I think I can make a garden out of this!’ But I’m floored by the thought that Jennie Butchart sized up A HUGE HOLE IN THE GROUND and thought to herself, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it!’ That takes a huge amount of imagination, confidence and, let’s face it, audacity. By the way, it took 9 years to complete. When the project began, the topsoil had to be delivered by horse and cart.

The quarry, covering 5 acres, had been dug out but not in a smooth, bowl-shaped way. A tall mound of undesirable limestone had been left in the middle of the pit. This now works as a surprise element in the otherwise flat, albeit sunken, garden providing a dramatic backdrop for the ornamental trees around it and as a towering lookout point you can get to via a spiralling staircase that clings to its side. (You can just make it out in the photo above, to the right of the bright mauve flowering tree in the upper centre of the photo.)

Two views of flower beds in the centre of the Sunken Garden.

There are over 65,000 bulbs planted for spring here. And not one flower bulb bed is a monotone carpet of a single type of flower. The gardeners here have mastered the art of creating beds of mixed bulbs and annuals that do a variety of things:

  1. Create a harmony rather than a single note of colours
  2. Add loads of interest with differing flower shapes and sizes
  3. Use some flowers to provide support for others
  4. Provide non-stop colour as some flowers bloom earlier and others later
Easter colour bulb blooms

Mixed beds of bulbs and spring annuals.

Blossoming shrubs and trees have been chosen to add even more colours and lift those colours up, up and up.

Two views of the many flowering trees in the Sunken Garden.

Pathways and staircases lead visitors around the garden, allowing the untrodden grass to frame the abundant flower beds in a smooth blanket of eye-searingly brilliant green as only spring in rain-soaked Vancouver Island can deliver.

A spring willow and other trees

The quarry also came with large crevices that were perfect for accommodating a pond, as seen in the photo above, and a small lake, seen below.

A 4-second video of the dancing Ross Fountain.

In the deepest section of the water feature, the Ross Fountain pushes water 21 metres into the air and makes the spouts dance. The video above gives you a quick glimpse.

The Rose Garden

As we were visiting in mid-April, we were way too early to see any roses in bloom. But an impressive aspect of The Butchart Gardens is that it didn’t matter. The entrance to the Rose Garden is guarded by a Weeping sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), seen below right. Walk past this mournful giant and you feel like you’re entering yet another Oz. Baskets bursting with jewel-coloured pansies and beds filled with blooming annuals and bulbs take your attention entirely away from the fact that bare rose vines and stems are creeping, twisting and poking up everywhere.

Two views of the Rose Garden’s arched pathway.

Thirty climbing rose-covered arches help support a portion of the 2,500 rose plants that bloom from summer into early autumn. To get an idea of how gobsmacking the rose-explosion effect is at its height go to the Rose Garden page on The Butchart Gardens website.

The Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden and the Rose Garden were both projects that expanded the gardens between 1906 and 1929. Although I assume that all the gardens have grown and evolved over the century to be what they are today, they strike me as having been designed in a very modern way from the get-go. There’s a very definite reuse-recycle-reduce philosophy–the quarry being a prime example of reusing. The Italian Garden, which we didn’t get to during our visit, was formally the Butchart estate’s tennis court.

The Japanese Garden, in particular, has a real ‘reduce’ vibe to it. This may be because it feels as much West Coast British Columbian as it does Japanese. The concept may have been imported but the star of the show here is moss (at least in springtime). Anyone who has ever visited this part of the world in spring will know that, because of the damp yet mild climate, moss is everywhere on everything and practically glows. Stand still long enough and you’ll be covered in the stuff (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion).

The bright red Torii Gate marks the entrance to the Japanese garden.

Every square inch of soil in the one-acre-sized Japanese Garden is covered in moss like a lush, green rumpled velvet carpet. And then there are all the other plants–buds and leaves at mid-level and tall, dense evergreens like those in the temperate rainforests elsewhere on Vancouver Island.

Moss as ground cover

The fountainhead of a burbling stream in The Japanese Garden is a fiercesome metal dragon (above, centre right) emerging from his moss-upholstered den.

Yet, as every great garden does, this garden will transform itself as the season progresses. How delightfully shocking would it be to come back here later in the spring when the garden’s wall-to-wall green is zapped by Himalayan Blue Poppies that bloom throughout the garden? And fall is even more spectacular, when the garden’s 74 Japanese Maples light up with autumn colours of red, burgundy and gold.

Pathways and raised stepping stones (above left) meander in loops making the one-acre garden feel much larger.

Details making a very big difference

Everything is beautful here. Even the garbage cans. I wonder if I could take inspiration from the containers shown below to build a small tool shed with a living roof. Or maybe I should start with a dog house.

Litter receptacles do double duty as flower containers. The above container features pansies, evergreens and heather.

Special care has been taken to make the railings and stairs wonderful, too, using pretty humble materials. The stairs and railings shown below were fabricated to mimic Garry Oak.

Cement stairs and railings

Concrete railings and stairs are molded for a faux bois effect.

If you have been to this extraordinary place, I’ve love to hear about your experiences. And if you have ever thought of going, I urge you to go at your first opportunity. I guarantee you will be very inspired and also a little awestruck.


#1: Try to arrive as early as possible. We visited the garden on April 12th–a typically very rainy month in this part of British Columbia. Despite the odds, the one day we had to visit was a miracle of sunshine and mild breezes. Seemingly a thousand other people had the same luck. But they arrived an hour after us. By the time we were ready to leave (just an hour and a half after arriving which is a very speedy tour), the photos you see would’ve been impossible. The place was teeming with busloads of visitors.

#2: Use a GPS or other navigation aid to get there. I was surprised at how little signage there was on the way to the gardens. You could easily miss the turn-off to get there. If you’re driving, avoid the stress of searching for signs and let the soothing monotone voice of your real-time GPS navigation app guide you there.

#3 Check out The Butchart Gardens website thoroughly to help you plan your trip. The gardens offer some surprising opportunities and services. For instance:

  1. If you love the idea of doing a little souvenir shopping but not crazy about hip-checking the crowds in the gift shop’s aisles to snag your purchases, you can shop online and you can pick up your items at the Admission Gate. You can also buy your admission tickets in advance through the site.
  2. If you’re arriving by boat rather than car (yes, seriously) you can tie up your craft at their wharf. Everything from kayaks and boarders to yachts up to 40 feet can be accommodated, all on a first come, first served basis.
  3. Consider making a full day of it. There are events happening throughout the season from afternoon teas to live outdoor concerts (summer concerts are included with your admission ticket).
  4. If you can’t come early, consider coming late. From June 1 to September 15th the gardens can be viewed as dusk descends thanks to thousands of small lights that “transform The Gardens into a magical wonderland”. In the summer, the gardens are open until 10 pm Wednesday to Sunday.

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