“It looks like a fairytale!” gushed my co-worker Ellen Curtis as we surveyed the Sunken Garden in early fall bloom. From the lookout, a path winds through the flora, each flower and branch meticulously landscaped as the tiny tourists below, surprisingly numerous given it's near closing time, wade from statue to fountain. Tall stonewalls line the perimeter, lending to a secret garden vibe, and a smoke stack rises from behind the trees on the east side — both relics of turn-of-the-century industry that once dominated the landscape.
The Sunken Garden is just one of six displays that comprise Butchart Gardens, a National Historic Site spanning 55 acres of pristine land on Vancouver Island’s Tod Inlet, just outside of Victoria. More than a century ago, the land was the site of Robert Pim Butchart’s limestone quarry, cement factory and family home, the latter of which now serves as a gift shop and restaurant for the world-class gardens. After the limestone deposits were exhausted, Butchart's wife Jennie decided to make something of the abandoned pit and smothered it in fertile soil from a nearby farm. Thus began the Sunken Garden, and from there Butchart Gardens took off.
On the seaside of the Butcharts' land, a Japanese garden gives a spectacular autumnal display of reds, oranges and greens. Bamboo and Japanese maples emerge from the spongy moss-covered beds and water bubbles in a nearby pond. It’s just one of the sanctuaries the Butcharts built between 1904 and 1929, including the Italian Garden, on their former tennis court, and a comprehensive Rose Garden with bushes from across the globe.
Today the family-owned gardens boast more than a million bedding plants in 900 varieties in constant bloom from March to October and are visited by almost a million people each spring. In 2004, Butchart Gardens earned a National Historic Site designation from Parks Canada as a remarkable example of early 20th century estate gardens, the period’s beautification movement and Victorian gardening techniques.
As the gardens approach their 110-year in 2014, you can see the personal touches added by each generation of the Butchart family — a carousel here, a fountain there. What remains constant is the preservation of Jennie’s original vision to restore natural beauty to an industrial patch of land for all to enjoy.