Angelina and I had arrived in Victoria, British Columbia on the second leg of our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. We had crossed the border into Canada the day before and drove to the ferry landing at Tsawwassen, just south of Vancouver, for the 90-minute boat ride to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island followed by a short drive to Victoria. The BC Ferry was huge and we were amazed at how quickly they unloaded and reloaded hundreds of cars and trucks in less than 45 minutes. The weather was perfect and the island scenery was stunning, an unanticipated benefit to the trip. Since we only had a few days to spend here, our primary goal was to visit The Butchart Gardens.
The Butchart Gardens are located 14 miles north of the town of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula. Here is where Robert and Jennie Butchart settled in the late 19th century. They built a home and constructed a factory utilizing nearby limestone deposits to manufacture Portland cement. It was the quarry left from mining this limestone that would become the fabulous Sunken Garden, the premiere garden at Butchart.
As we entered the parking area on the morning we arrived, we noted that the parking lot was paved with thousands and thousands of pavers, not asphalt or concrete, the first indication of the standard of quality we would see throughout the gardens. Once inside, we saw hanging baskets, flower boxes and large beds of annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs everywhere; even the trash containers had pots of blooming flowers on top – the garden was a tsunami of color.
We headed to the rose garden first, hoping there would be at least some bloom – this was mid-May and still early for roses in BC. Arches of ramblers provided a dramatic entrance but unfortunately were still in bud stage. This was the case with most of the roses with only some varieties of shrub roses in bloom – peak bloom was still two weeks away. I noticed that a handful of alfalfa pellets were spread about the base of each rose and a gardener said this was to add organic content to the soil around each bush. The pellets quickly break down when wet and add some nutrients as well. I may try this in our gardens next season. (But I wonder if this might attract unwelcome rabbits.)
Another interesting feature here was the “tree roses” established throughout the rose garden. These standards were supported by wire frames that looked like big inverted “baskets” atop the four-foot interstems where the grafts were made. This allowed City of York, a white climber, to be trained by wrapping its long canes around and around the baskets creating an unusual pyramid shape when the laterals bloomed. We did enjoy the purple, blue and white delphiniums in full bloom planted among the roses that added early color to this garden.
The path from the rose garden led to the shady cloaked entrance to the Sunken Garden, the signature garden at Butchart. This amazing garden was created in the limestone quarry between the residence and the cement plant. Serpentine paths wind around bed after bed after bed ablaze with seasonal color that almost defies description. Each bed was freshly edged and surrounded by immaculate lawn. (One bed featured jet-black petunias. I had never seen this color before. I inquired about them at the information booth but no one could ID the variety.) The tall grey quarry walls have long-since been covered in ivy. This garden alone was worth the trip.
We wandered over to the Italian Garden, a former tennis court, transformed into a formal garden of symmetrical beds in a paved courtyard. These beds changed seasonally with an outstanding tulip display in springtime. Next to the Italian garden was a perfect lawn, a salute to turf, a meticulously mowed green sward that looked like Fenway Park.
Now it was time for lunch or should I say Afternoon Tea at the Dining Room Restaurant in the Gardens. This was our first experience with a formal Tea and we had reserved the meals weeks in advance. The best part was they had a gluten-free version of Afternoon Tea which meant I could have some too. In fact, my Tea was much the same as Angelina’s as the kitchen staff had developed excellent gluten-free substitutions for the bread and pastries. We enjoyed both the food and the experience in an elegant setting surrounded by beds of flowering shrubs and annuals.
After tea we roamed through the Japanese Garden and then stopped by a life-size chess set where Angelina played a game. The large gift shop was our last stop on the way out to buy something to bring home.
The Butchart Garden was on top of our bucket list of must-sees for the trip. Based on our research we had high expectations and we were not disappointed. The gardens were fresh and immaculate. A small army of gardeners patrolled the property – each with a rake, pruners and a wheelbarrow – weeding, raking deadheading, and chatting with visitors. The structures and hardscape were well maintained and we were especially impressed with the lofty standards of cleanliness reminiscent of the pristine environment found in Disney properties.
The Butchart Gardens in its own unique and special way was the equal of the best gardens we’ve seen both in Europe and the United States. We hit the road back to Victoria by mid-afternoon well satisfied with our visit.