World-renowned Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island in Canada draw almost a million visitors each year, testament to the creative couple that transformed a limestone quarry and cement works – and the ongoing care from subsequent generations of the same family.
The million or so bedding annuals make this garden something of a rarity – an old-fashioned display garden. Packed with colour and immaculately kept, Butchart Gardens is a crowd-pleaser at any time of year – thousands of bulbs in spring, flowers galore in summer (including roses), maples in autumn and heathers and snowdrops in winter.
Attracted by rich limestone deposits, Robert and Jennie Butchart opened a quarry and cement works on Vancouver Island, off Canada’s west coast, in 1904 before building a home on the site two years later and beginning a Japanese garden. The property is 12 miles from Victoria, the island’s main city.
Robert was born in Canada, though his parents were Scottish migrants. He married Jennie Kennedy, who had been planning to study art in Europe, in New York state in 1884. She was an adventurous young woman who enjoyed ballooning and flying and later became a qualified chemist, working for her husband’s business.
As the limestone was exhausted, Jennie saw the potential for a sunken garden – in 1909 there was a 1.4ha hole left the bottom of which Jennie, with the help of quarry staff, clothed with tonnes of topsoil.
Between 1906 and 1929, the Butcharts created a Japanese Garden on the seaside (so visitors arriving by boat at the cove would have a pleasant walk to the house), an Italian Garden on their former tennis court and a beautiful Rose Garden. Robert collected ornamental birds from all over the world, keeping ducks in the Star Pond, peacocks on the front lawn and with elaborate birdhouses throughout the gardens.
It’s said that by 1915 Jennie had 18,000 visitors annually to Benvenuto (‘welcome’ in Italian), although refused to charge admission. She also served all her visitors – invited or not – tea, until the sheer number of people arriving made it impossible! On occasion, Jennie served the tea herself, sometimes not being recognised, and on one occasion received a tip from a visitor.
In 1930, in appreciation of her generosity, she was named Victoria’s best citizen.
The area’s Mediterranean-type climate made gardening a pleasure for Jennie, who continued to develop the grounds until the couple gifted the 22ha property to their grandson, Ian Ross, in 1939 for his 21st birthday. Ian spent the war years in the Royal Canadian Navy and by 1945 realised Benvenuto needed urgent attention.
He decided to turn the garden into a self-sustaining tourist attraction and for more than 50 years was involved with every aspect, including planting annuals, initiating outdoor symphony concerts, and devising a billboard campaign that attracted tourists from as far south as California.
Since Ian’s death in 1997 the property has been under the stewardship of firstly his son, Christopher (who produced elaborate summer fireworks shows from 1977 until his death in 2000), and now his daughter, Robin-Lee Clarke, with some 70 staff working at the property.
Butchart Gardens is regularly named one of the best gardens in the world and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada on its centenary in 2004.
In a 2011 interview, Rick Los, the gardens’ horticultural director, said:
“When people come here I want them to be overwhelmed by the beauty of what is possible in a garden. As soon as you turn on to our property, we want your first impression to be that the garden is clean and spotless and meticulous with lots of colour.
“If people go away happy and inspired, then I feel we have done a good job. But my first goal is to get them to say ‘Wow!’ We want them to have a wonderful experience from start to finish.”
All borders are planted at least twice during the year, some five times. A faded or decaying flower is not allowed to linger on a plant. Read more here, including his defence of the extensive use of “municipal” bedding plants.