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Flowers from cement: The Butchart Gardens

For the Week of Monday, October 9, 2017

On October 10, 1920, The Daily Colonist described the creation of Butchart Gardens in an article, entitled “Patient Art Transforms Utter Desolation to Scene of Perfect Beauty.”

Building the Sunken Garden on the site of a former limestone quarry
© The Butchart Gardens

In 1866, Jennie Foster Kennedy, founder of The Butchart Gardens, was born in Toronto, Ontario. Raised in Owen Sound, she attended Brantford Young Ladies’ College, where she excelled in art and science, earning a chemist’s certificate. She married cement producer Robert Pim Butchart in 1884 and, in 1903, they moved to British Columbia because of his interest in its rich limestone deposits. Robert established a cement works and limestone quarry at Tod Inlet, employing Jennie as the company’s chemist.

The area’s mild climate and Jennie Butchart’s creative inclinations inspired her to cultivate a garden on the grounds of the Butchart family estate. She benefited from the contributions of celebrated artists, gardeners, and landscapers at Tod Inlet. Between 1912 and 1921, she undertook her most ambitious project, the Sunken Garden, which beautified the exhausted quarry’s barren landscape.

Mature trees surround annuals and shrubs in the distinctive Sunken Garden, which still features the towering walls of the former quarry
© The Butchart Gardens

With the addition of walkways and staircases throughout the gardens, the public was welcome to visit, free of charge. Visitors came to the estate by car along a dirt road, or by boat to a dock at the base of the Japanese Garden, or by train, aboard the BC Electric Railway.

In 1939, the Butcharts gifted the estate to their grandson, Robert Ian Ross. Upon his return from military service during the Second World War, Ross revitalized the estate. He turned it into the self-sustaining commercial enterprise that his daughter, Robin-Lee Clarke, continues to operate today.

With seven gardens, each governed by an individual design theme, The Butchart Gardens exemplifies Edwardian gardening style, characterized by informal plantings contrasting with formal architectural features. Additionally, the use of the Victorian bedding-out system - raising flowers to maturity in greenhouses and then transplanting them into the gardens - keeps the estate in constant bloom from March to October. More than one million bedding plants of 900 different varieties are planted annually.

The Butchart Gardens is a designated national historic site. To learn more about Canadian horticulture, read Elsie Reford's Paradise, The Montréal Botanical Garden, and Victoria’s Mosaic of Landscapes! in the This Week in History archives.

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