Butcharts build garden paradise from pile of rocks

For most people, an old abandoned quarry and a bunch of rocks add up to little more than a mess. For Jennie Butchart, they amounted to much more.

Seeing past the remains of an old limestone quarry, Butchart envisioned a gardener?s paradise on the land near her house. Today, more than a million people are drawn each year to the beauty of Butchart Gardens ? located 21 kilometres north of Victoria, B.C.

Far from its status as a world-renowned tourist destination, Butchart Gardens got its start in more humble surroundings.

Butchart and her husband, Robert, originally moved west from Ontario where he had pioneered the manufacturing of Portland cement in Canada.

The discovery of lime deposits, which are essential in the production of Portland cement, proved to be too good of an opportunity to pass up, so the Butcharts moved to Vancouver Island in the early 1900s.

Bordering the waterfront on Tod Inlet, land was secured for the cement works as well as a home for the Butchart family. Construction began on the cement plant in March 1904.

From the beginning, business was booming. Increased demand soon led to expanded facilities.

Besides dollars, the cement plant also brought about plenty of devastation to the surrounding area. Although they only spent the summer months in the area, Jennie Butchart did not like looking out at the rubble from her home near the quarry.

She decided to do something about it.

Starting out with some sweat pea seeds she received from a friend, Butchart then bought some roses from a local nursery. Soon, a small garden appeared.

As she delighted in the impact of the British Columbia climate on the gardens, her hobby turned into a horticultural obsession. The small garden flourished and grew into larger gardens.

As the gardens grew, so did word of them. By 1914 the Butcharts had opened the gardens to the public.

Beginning in 1905, work began on the Japanese Garden in the area north of the Butchart home that led to the water. The first phase was completed around 1910.

In later years, other gardens would sprout up on the grounds. The Italian Garden was created on the site of a former tennis court, while the Rose Garden replaced a vegetable patch.

When the excavation moved to another part of the property, the Butcharts were left with an open pit near their home. While some only had a vision of the carnage, Jennie Butchart simply had a vision.

Thousands of tons of topsoil were brought in by horse and cart. Workers were brought in to plant gardens, build retaining walls and lay the foundation for flowerbeds and rock gardens.

The showcase Sunken Garden was completed in 1921. Among the spectacular blooms and lush lawns were a waterfall, stream, lake and pools.

Along with the gardens, the Butchart house ? dubbed Benvenuto, Italian for welcome ? also grew. It would eventually include a bowling alley, indoor saltwater swimming pool, billiard room and pipe organ.

By 1916 the cement plant no longer manufactured cement, but tiles and flowerpots continued to be produced until 1950.

After years of caring for the gardens, the Butcharts were faced with many obstacles in the early 1940s. Failing health prevented them from giving the gardens the attention they needed, while various obstacles prevented others from providing assistance.

The family finally found it necessary to charge admission in 1941.

Ian Ross, the Butchart?s grandson, took over the operation of Butchart Gardens from his grandparents. After years of neglect, he was able to restore the gardens to their former glory.

Today, more than one million bedding plants are used each year to ensure blooming continues uninterrupted from March to October.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net)