Butchart Gardens, BC, Canada

It’s bad enough it’s barely rained in half a year or more, then so hot this month that mulch has become a fire hazard. And where was I when my garden was frying last week? Not huddled over an AC register. No, I was relishing benign weather in a garden that is almost always blessed with sufficient moisture. Lush, towering plants so tall I couldn’t see over them — well, the delphiniums were tall, but even the day lilies were a challenge. I was in Butchart Gardens, perhaps the finest garden in Canada, and to be honest, one of the finest I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s been on my list for a while and since I was on the west coast, I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to visit a garden where everything seems to grow as it’s meant to, to its full potential. I’m convinced southern Ontario is one of the toughest places to be a gardener — too hot, too cold, too wet and too dry. We’re battle hardened gardeners here. What must it be like to stick a plant in the ground and then jump clear?

Robert Pim Butchart left Owen Sound in 1904 for the west coast where he began quarrying limestone for a cement plant. He didn’t have gardening on his mind, but after the limestone was exhausted, what do you do with a big hole in the ground? His wife, Jenny, knew. She saw the potential and slowly began creating a sunken garden. To do this, she had loads of soil hauled in by horse and cart to cover the quarry floor — I dare say all the horses contributed organic matter too.

The craggy walls of the quarry are now a hanging garden, festooned with plants, while below are beds of remarkable healthy annuals surrounded by an astonishing range of lush shrubs — weeping sequoia, willows, Pieris, and Ceanothus, the latter adorned with blue flowers. The quarry also has a large fountain shooting 21 meters high, and a lily pond reflecting Japanese maples and rhubarb-like Gunnera in the still water. It brought to mind the garden of Monet at Giverny — perhaps Jenny visited it.

The lushly planted sunken garden is only a part of the 22 hectares (55 acres) at Butchart. After the factory buildings were removed, leaving only the old kiln chimney, still visible today, it freed up more garden space allowing Jenny to exercise her passion. After seeing other gardens on their world travels, she came home inspired to add more to this amazing place. She added an Italian garden, a Mediterranean garden, a magnificent rose garden and a Japanese garden. It lies on a gently sloping hillside, explored by way of a serene, winding pathway that continues on stepping stones across a shallow pond, then over a traditional red bridge.

On the approach to the gardens, Jenny Butchart imported cherry trees from Japan to line the driveway to the place she had now christened Benvenuto, meaning welcome. And welcoming it was when she opened up her garden to the public. By the 1920’s, over fifty thousand visitors a year were showing up at the gate.

Today, it’s so popular a million visitors arrive each year. Fortunately, they didn’t all arrive the same day as I did, but by midday it was busy, perhaps because it was the first sunny day in quite a while; a sunny day with a light ocean breeze, not a scorching hot, smoggy, humid day. In fact, it was a perfect day to stroll among spectacular roses at peak blooming time and be overwhelmed by the fragrance.

Butchart Gardens is still a family operation and employs about fifty gardeners who are willing to answer questions about the masses of plants growing there. Too often I was puzzled when something that might only grow to knee height in my garden is at eye level — with bigger flowers. Can’t be, can it? Butchart has to be seen to be believed and it’s on my recommended list of essential gardens to visit.

I’m back in my own garden now, trying to breathe life into plants that aren’t aware of what they could be if they didn’t have to fight to survive the blistering days of July. Rain, please.

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