Butchart Gardens, Victoria, British Columbia

Weirdly wonderful

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Victoria is a very pretty small city on the nose of Vancouver Island. The population is about the same as the membership of the RHS on an island the size of Britain. It is warm and wet and rocky.

The most famous gardens on the island are the Butchart Gardens in the South. They consist of about 55 acres of intensively gardened grounds situated in a former quarry. The gardens were the brainchild of Jennie Butchart who wanted to beautify the worked out limestone minings which had supplied her husband’s cement works. She began this project about a hundred years ago and, by the 1920s, they had about 50,000 visitors every year. Today it gets about a million.

There is a sunken garden, a Japanese Garden, a Mediterranean garden (which is seldom visited as it is on the other side of the car park), an Italian garden and a formal rose garden. There are rocky mounds, walkways, serious fountains and a lot of plants. There is a good framework of trees and shrubs some gathered by the Butcharts on their travels and an awful lot of colourful fillers, most grown on site.

These are not gardens for the faint hearted or those offended by brashness. I visited in the autumn and there was a great fruit salad of dahlias. Loads of chrysanthemums, begonias, impatiens and all the similar suspects. Quiet good taste is not its style, nor is naturalism. This is gardening at its most intensive, edges are edged, spent flowers promptly deadheaded and weeds are swiftly expunged. Not only that but you seldom see a gardener: they must start terribly early. On a practical note this saves a lot of time as the gardeners are not being constantly asked the same question by inquisitive visitors.

Not to be missed

In Autumn the leaves are amazing (as are the Dahlias – in no way a shy or retiring display), in spring there are wonderful bulbs and all year round there is a proper carousel.

Quibbles

It is undoubtedly quite a weird garden which takes artificiality to the final frontier. Strange colour schemes and odd interpretations of garden styles abound. This is the horticultural equivalent of a big West End musical: loud, theatrical, popular, easy and with lots of catchy tunes.

Nearby

There are other attractions in Victoria which is popular tourist town, to say nothing about the wild temperate rainforest which takes up most of the island. The climate is mild and lots of things thrive. The Abkhazi gardens further into town are also well worth a visit. And there are whales.

Getting There

Ferry (1.5hrs) from Vancouver otherwise you could get a seaplane or a helicopter.  Flights from Vancouver or Seattle.