From stone quarry to lush garden – The story of The Butchart Gardens

A weekend on Vancouver Island is not complete without a visit to The Butchart Gardens. As stated on their website, The Butchart Gardens is a must-see oasis over 100 years in the making. And what a privilege it was to take in the beauty of this place that stands as a testament to what is possible when one has a grand vision. The story of The Butchart Gardens is also one of the most interesting family business success stories never told…

It all began with one woman’s vision and passion

In 1904, husband and wife, Robert and Jennie Butchart moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island in pursuit of riches through the mining of limestone deposits. With a quarry for their backyard, they built a cement plant at Tod Inlet, and Robert soon built a successful cement business. At the time, the West Coast was exploding with development, and cement was in constant demand from San Francisco to Seattle. The first sacks of cement sailed out of Vancouver Island aboard the “Alexander” in 1905.

Jennie Butchart busied herself around the estate by planting flowers and shrubbery in an area between the house and Butchart cove. As time passed, Jennie’s efforts increased, and her husband often supplied workmen from the factory to assist in the ever-growing project of gardening. By 1908 the limestone ran out, leaving a gigantic pit near the house.

The limestone quarry pit in 1912. Source: https://www.butchartgardens.com/our-story/

In an attempt to hide this hideous excavation, Jennie decided to expand her garden. The concept of a sunken garden formed, and Jennie had massive amounts of topsoil imported by horse cart to form the garden bed. The rubble on the floor of the pit was pushed into tall mounds of rock on which terraced flowers were planted. Mrs. Butchart dangled over the sides of the bare quarry wall in a boson’s chair and carefully tucked ivy into any discernible pocket or crevice in the rock to hide away all the gray.

In 1921, the project was completed. It had become a garden of immense interest to the surrounding community. Tales of Mr. and Mrs. Butchart’s fabulous gardens spread as fast as the gardens themselves. From the beginning, friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers were welcomed, as they came to marvel at the horticultural masterpiece. At one point Mrs. Butchart found herself serving 18 000 cups of tea per year – or so the story goes…

1929. The garden taking shape. Source: https://www.butchartgardens.com/our-story/

The most interesting family business success story never told…

In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Butchart gifted the gardens to their grandson Ian Ross on his 21st birthday. Ian Ross transformed them into the world-renowned attraction we know today, adding outdoor concerts and night lighting in the summers, and the Magic of Christmas in the winters.

The gardens were then handed down to their great-grandson Christopher in 1997. Christopher began producing a choreographed firework show every year. Unfortunately, Christopher suddenly died in 2000 and the gardens landed in the hands of his sister Robin-Lee Clarke (63), who is the current owner of the gardens.  In 2009 Robin-Lee added the Children’s Pavilion and Menagerie Carousel to the gardens.

The sunken garden today. It’s hard to believe this was an old limestone quarry pit.
Rows and rows of flowers in the sunken garden
Robin-Lee’s Menagerie Carousel
Staircase to a lookout point
In 1964, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Gardens, Ian Ross created and installed the Ross Fountain. The water rises 21 m (70 ft.) in the air.
A rare sight in the gardens. The Himalayan Blue Poppy. It was imported to the gardens and only blooms for two weeks a year. We were lucky enough to see it in bloom…

The Butchart name has remained prominent in Victoria for over 10 decades and the gardens have been handed down from one generation to the next. The next in line to inherit the gardens, is Barnabas Butchart Clarke (34), the only child of Robin-Lee and David Clarke, and great-great-grandson of the founders. He currently lives in Victoria and produces dance shows.

Today, The Butchart Gardens is a National Historic Site of Canada. You can still find remnants of the original cement plant and over a million bedding plants in over 900 varieties awaiting you as you wander The Butchart Gardens. It is worth it to take a boat trip in Brentwood Bay around the gardens. Your guide will tell you about the history of the gardens as well as some amazing stories about the Pacific Ocean.

Walking through these gardens got me thinking about life in general. Often, we find ourselves in situations that are less desirable or sometimes even downright frustrating. And we can choose to sit and cry amid the chaos. We could even get angry at the dust and decay underneath our feet. Or we can decide that we want to build a garden instead and create a more desirable future. We possess the power to either fall into dismay along with the chaos around us or to choose to create something beautiful out of it. And through our focus and effort, we might just inspire others, much like the gardens have inspired people for over 100 years…

References:

Butchart Gardens. (2018). Our Story. Available online from: https://www.butchartgardens.com/our-story/

Birds of a Feather. (n.d.). Butchart Family History – Robert and Jennie. Available online from: https://www.birdsofafeather.ca/butchart-family-history

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