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.

Reford Gardens -- Les Jardins de Métis

Drive thirteen hours just to look at a garden? Are you crazy? Some might think so, but not serious plant and garden lovers. Sooner or later they all add this one to their list of gardens to visit. It’s been on my own list for years but I never got around to it until last week when I suggested a road trip to fellow gardener, Mat. The garden in question is Reford Gardens, also known as Le Jardins de Métis, an English-style garden on the banks of the St. Lawrence near Grand-Métis, Quebec.

This historic garden, on the site of a family fishing camp, was created in the 1920s by Elsie Reford, and has been open to the public since 1962. The twenty acre garden, now under the care of her grandson, Alexander Reford, has become a magnet for gardeners intent on seeing this remarkable place. Many are attracted by the hope of seeing the famous blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia — and of course, a sublime garden filled with thousands of other notable plants.

This is why Mat and I were on the road at 4:30 a.m., with a 1200 kilometer drive ahead of us. After a stop to see the roses in the Montreal Botanical garden, we arrived in Metis-sur-Mer just in time to watch a beautiful sunset over the St. Lawrence. We hoped that it portended a sunny day for our garden tour. Alas, daybreak brought torrential rain and thunderstorms. There was little to do but wait in our hotel, Domaine Annie Sur Mer, for the weather to clear. It didn’t, but we hadn’t travelled all that way to sit around looking out on grey skies and grey water, so after reminding (or maybe convincing) ourselves that gardens always look best on cloudy, even rainy days, off we went.

Our somewhat damp enthusiasm was rewarded when, as we entered the garden, the rain eased then stopped completely — what a gift. There was no sunshine but we were beaming as we walked through a still dripping spruce forest along puddled pathways and over the wooden bridges that crisscross the small creek.

It was here that Elsie Reford created the heart of her garden. The pathways wind by the moss covered stone walls she built to stabilize the steep slopes. Azaleas of yellow and orange lit up the forest as masses of candelabra primula spilled down to the edge of the creek. Everywhere, forest-dwelling ferns gently softened the colourful plantings. Okay, I could go on about countless gorgeous plants — and of course the amazing blue poppies, but there’s so much more to this garden, including a lupine filled meadow.

A major attraction are the twenty-seven other gardens currently in place as part of the annual garden festival that makes Reford Gardens a unique horticultural tourist destination. These conceptual gardens, many of which are permanent, are created by designers from around the world. Artistic and sculptural, they’re designed to amaze, evoke, and puzzle over — ever seen trees other than in of Lord of the Rings that move across the forest floor? We did.

There was even a place for that blight of gardens everywhere, pink flamingoes. At Reford they were delightfully displayed in The Veil Garden as a flock advancing through ferns. I may have to consider finding room in my own garden for a few — or maybe in Mat’s garden.

I could attempt to describe our visit in endless detail, but I wouldn’t be able to capture the magic of Elsie Reford’s dream, enhanced impressively by talented designers. It’s the kind of place that simply has to be seen, but only if you’re up for a long road trip and willing to take a chance on having perfect garden viewing weather, as we did — the kind of rain we dearly need around here. Learn more here: Le Jardins de Métis See images

Whistling Gardens

This summer I again made my way down to Whistling Gardens, Canada’s newest botanical garden. Located just south of Brantford, it’s the creation of former outdoor education teacher and tree propagator, Darren Heimbecker.

After visiting many of the finest botanical gardens in Europe, Darren was inspired to create his own, practically on our doorstep. Nine years ago he bought a farm which up until four years ago was still growing corn. He then began converting the land from agriculture to horticulture. He readily admits it was an immense challenge and a struggle at times, but this unassuming man fulfilled what many would consider the wildest of dreams.

This is only the second year the gardens have been open and word is already spreading rapidly about this unique property. Currently, eighteen acres are cultivated and now contain the largest public collection of conifers in the world. Over 2,400 species, hybrids and cultivars are planted and thriving. Ideally situated within the Carolinian forest region of the province, the garden is perfectly suited for growing unique species, some among the rarest in the world.

Among them is Abies beshanzuensis, a fir tree that was only discovered in 1963 in China. Today, only three survive in the wild, although a limited number have since been propagated. Another unusual tree, a larch from Japan — Larix kaempferi ‘Diana’, has branches that twist and contort as it grows. Pine trees from Mexico, a variegated oak from Britain, there’s a whole forest of fascinating trees.

In the rock garden, with the 2,000 or so bulbs that flower there in spring, including a blue river of grape hyacinths, there is a collection of dwarf conifers that are more suited to the suburban garden than the potential giants planted around the property. The rock garden features equally rare perennials, including Dianthus freynii, the first one I’ve seen. It’s the smallest of pinks with tiny leaves that form a mossy, tufted mound that invites you to reach out and pet it.

The rock garden, with a section dedicated to fossils found locally, is just part of the landscape. Did I mention the hundreds of varieties among the 3,000 perennials? The huge clumps of Asiatic lilies, unsullied by the pesky red lily beetle, were prominent. Complementing the perennials, Darren manages to slip in 5,000 annuals to add to the show.

Besides the conifers, Darren’s collection of deciduous trees is on the increase with 40 varieties of Cornus (dogwood) and thirty, yes thirty magnolias. A new addition is Acer capillipes, the snake bark maple with its strangely patterned bark. This, like other introductions are undergoing evaluation as they are being grown for the first time in Canada.

At every turn there is something unique to see. Almost four kilometers of pathways take in the Temple Garden where wedding ceremonies are held, and a fountain amphitheater where over 100 jets of water perform to music (composed by Darren). Water features abound and include a lake with swans, a hidden pond, and a Marsh Garden based on one that existed at Versailles.

A garden on this scale and with this number of plants requires multiple visits throughout all seasons to see different plants at their best. In many ways it is a work in progress and it will be years before some of the tree specimens reach their full potential, but what a place to see now and witness the birth of one man’s dream.

Hampton Court Flower Show

From the 4th to the 9th of July, 2023 is the Hampton Court Flower Show, and I had the opportunity to attend the show a few years ago. I’ve been to the rival Chelsea Flower Show a number of times with groups, but never Hampton, so I took the opportunity while visiting family in the UK in Yorkshire to zip down the M1 motorway to London for the show. Given the traffic jams the show generates, the zip kept sticking, but thanks to a 4:00 a.m. start, my daughter and I made it for opening time.

Up at 4:00 a.m. to see flowers? Yes, but these shows, despite the name, are about much more than flowers. They’re like Mecca for gardeners, top of countless bucket lists. They feature gardens designed by the world’s best, the very latest in new plant introductions, and more garden paraphernalia to purchase (including buckets) than one could possibly imagine.

The shows, both presented by the Royal Horticultural Society, are similar in content though held at different times of year — Chelsea in spring and Hampton in summer — which means the floral content differs, and at 25 acres (10 hectares), Hampton covers an area more than twice the size of Chelsea. The latter is in the heart of London where it’s easier to access by public transportation, and with a capped attendance it does seem easier to get around. Due to the sprawling nature of Hampton and the afternoon crowds streaming in, we did leave uncertain that we’d seen absolutely everything, but we did see plenty.

As expected, the display gardens were immaculate; colours divinely coordinated in the most surprising combinations that looked perfectly matched. Never again will I say two particular colours don’t look well together. One group of gardens used colour effectively to interpret a specific theme, that of the seven deadly sins. The theme of anger was indeed blazing mad with Japanese blood grass inter-planted with reds and oranges of yarrow and echinacea pierced by golden spikes of kniphofia, all in a bed of smoking lava. 

Gluttony was amusingly represented by giant food cans used as planters, the sardine can appropriately a water garden. The concept for envy was depicted by a grassy meadow in shades of brown. On a mound in the centre, enclosed by a screen of green Perspex, a lawn of artificial grass clipped to perfection — the grass is always greener . . .

These were the conceptual gardens while others were categorized as summer gardens, large show gardens (Australia took a gold), and smaller ones described as your garden, your budget. These modest
gardens were designed to demonstrate how a high quality garden can be achieved on a budget; the budgets for these ranging, ahem, from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. I may never look at a cell pack of annuals the same way.

Those attending the show with a far less restrictive budget than me had plenty of opportunity to spend wildly. I was tempted but had to pass on the giant bronze statue of a snail and the huge stone horse trough planter due to my flight baggage limit. I left the show with only a freebie packet of seed (Ammi majus).

Beyond the gardens and marketplace of the show, there were wonderful learning opportunities. A number of plant societies were present offering their specialized knowledge, while a display by the RHS called the invisible garden contained a number of interactive displays with microscopes. It encouraged visitors to discover the fascinating unseen world of insects, fungi and the myriad of other creatures that are invisible, yet so essential to a garden.

There was so much to see and so little time as the zippy motorway home awaited us. It was worth the drive.

Visit The Royal Botanical Gardens

It’s not far, only a half hour drive away. Maybe you’re a regular visitor. It’s hugely popular, although for many it’s one of those back of the mind, been meaning to visit places. And there will be others who’ve never heard of it, but they should. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington is the largest botanical garden in Canada, a national historical site, and a jewel of Ontario that we can enjoy year-round.

There are distinct areas to discover there: Hendrie Park on Plains Road holds the main cultivated gardens. It’s beside the RBG Centre, which holds the Mediterranean Garden. It's the RBG's only conservatory and it’s filled with tropical plants, a toasty warm place to visit on a winter’s day. Nearby is the Laking Garden, and around the corner along York Boulevard is the newly restored Rock Garden and the Arboretum. Beyond are natural areas with miles of trails that meander along the watery shores of Cootes Paradise, the marshy bay at the western end of Lake Ontario.

The gardens have been around for a hundred years and became “Royal” in 1930 when King George V gave the nod of approval. The place may be historic, however, it is thoroughly modern and there is a timeless quality to the plants and trees in the cultivated gardens and in the 1,100 hectares of the nature sanctuary. The Royal Botanical Gardens is a place of large numbers, in size and range of plants.

Visit in spring when 600 varieties of lilacs flood the lilac dell with that lovely familiar fragrance. Wander through the arboretum and you might finally identify that tree down your street that everyone argues about. Follow the Anishinaabe waadiziwin trail featuring indigenous plants or visit the Nature Interpretive Centre.

If native plants especially interest you, do see the Helen M. Kippax Wild Plant Garden in the Grindstone Creek Valley that adjoins Hendrie Park. Helen Kippax was of the Stedman family (a household name thanks to the hundreds of familiar, eponymous department stores located in communities across the country. She was one of the founding members of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and Town Planners and was a frequent visitor and supporter of the RBG. In the 1940s, Helen would often take her nieces Mary, Margaret, and Ruth Stedman to visit the gardens where she passed on her love of horticulture to them. These visits resulted in a generous donation to the RBG by Mary Stedman and her late sisters and in 2008 the Helen M. Kippax Wild Plant Garden opened.

Inspiring and educational, this one-acre garden features six unique, native ecosystems filled with 15,000 plants, including 135 species of native trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses. The setting includes a band of richly diverse Carolinian forest characterized by trees and shrubs typically seen in the more southerly Carolinas. The other zones in the garden are Ontario prairie, oak savannah, woodland edge, and wetlands, all of which provide lush habitats that attract a range of wildlife. The gardens not only celebrate the life and legacy of Helen Kippax, but also offer visitors ideas and examples of balanced, low-maintenance ecosystems that can be adapted to their own landscapes.

There are more landscape ideas for the gardener in the adjoining Hendrie Park with its twelve themed garden areas where there are thousands of individual plants. Renowned is the Centennial Rose Garden which reopened in 2018 following a complete restoration. After fifty years, despite the best efforts of RBG's horticulture team, the original hybrid tea and floribunda roses were suffering from the same problems many rose growers face — damage from insects and disease. Appearance is everything in such a prestigious location, so the decision was made; they had to go.

The complete rose garden was replaced — including the soil. Half a metre was excavated and trucked away, and with it the residue of years of pesticides and fungicides use. After the soil was replaced and a trickle irrigation system installed, pathways were upgraded and made fully accessible. Gazebos, obelisks, and a reflecting pool went in, and an array of new informative signs installed to tell the story of roses.

Ah, the roses — 3,300 gorgeous, hardy, and disease resistant ones, 300 cultivated varieties in all. To deal with pests, the roses were interplanted with four thousand companion plants selected to repel pests and attract beneficial insects. This represents a modern, environmentally conscious approach to growing roses.

It’s also the ecologically sound approach the RBG that began in the Rock Garden which underwent a $20 million facelift in 2016. This has to be my favourite area, now named the David Braley & Nancy Gordon Rock Garden. Their generosity with donations from the local community and a $14 million commitment split between the Federal and Ontario governments funded a stunning restoration.

The Rock Garden was first created in 1929 with ten thousand tonnes of limestone quarried from the Red Hill Valley on the Niagara Escarpment. Originally an old gravel pit, the rock garden transformed a place of hard labour into one of natural beauty and relaxation. For decades it was a place for people to escape from the city and connect with nature, and a playground for kids who loved to clamber up and over the huge rocks that are still in place today.

Originally, 45,000 perennials grew in the garden. About half of these remain, and almost all the trees, fully grown now and towering over the garden. During the renovation, almost as many new plants were added and there are now more than 2,000 species growing there among the rocks and in the park-like setting below.

Hovering above is the magnificent new visitor centre constructed with arching Douglas fir beams and a glass wall that looks onto the gardens beyond. The centre is a multi-use building that wedding planners love. From there, undulating pathways and steps descend through the massive rocks and into the gardens below. For the physically challenged, alternate routes follow fully accessible pathways with gentle grades, which continue along and through plantings of rare trees and beautiful specimen plants. Drifts of grasses and flowers line the paths and border the pools that are fed by a waterfall cascading from the rock face. As the seasons change, so do the swaths of colour.

Across the road from the rock garden is the Laking Garden. Long ago this area, bigger than a pair of football fields, was a market garden, supplying produce to the neighbouring cities. Today, it holds the RBG’s collection of almost 40,000 perennial plants. Here, you can walk among a small forest of steel “trees”, sculptures that provide support for unique varieties of clematis selected from the thousands of hybrids. They climb and twine and when in bloom the trees become jaw dropping columns of colour.

Across the way are the iris and peony collections. When viewed in June and July from the belvedere at the head of the garden, the serried plantings become a multicolored carpet. Up close, it’s like walking among row after row of bouquets, every flower a gorgeous hue.

Other flowerbeds are brimming with a couple of thousand varieties of other perennials. The Laking Garden is where to discover plants that could feature in your own garden, and see them growing at their best, which is just one of the many roles of a botanical garden. The RBG connects people with plants and nature, it introduces them to the beauty and diversity, and helps preserve species and habitats that are vanishing.

It also provides courses, workshops, camps, and school programs year-round. There’s so much to see and do at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Maybe this is the year pay a visit and discover all it has to offer. It’s only a short drive away.