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Gardening | A trip to Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens

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A few weeks ago during a trip to Seattle, I visited renowned Butchart Gardens, a regular on the lists of great public gardens in the world. It is located on Vancouver Island, 14 miles north of Victoria, British Columbia.

The excursion was particularly interesting because the site is in climate Zone 8B, just as we are in our area of coastal Carolina.

Robert Butchart made his fortune supplying Portland cement from San Francisco north to Victoria at the turn of the century. His base of operations was a limestone quarry and cement plant he developed on Vancouver Island just north of Victoria.

In 1904 when the limestone deposits were exhausted, Butchart’s wife, Jennie, set about beautifying the ugly pit by turning it into a garden. She brought in tons of topsoil by horse and cart from nearby farmlands. With that she transformed the floor of the mine, 50 feet deep, into a sunken garden and the core of what would be designated a National Historic Site of Canada 100 years later in 2004.

During the next 35 years, Jennie Butchart added an adjacent Japanese garden, a rose garden and an Italian garden, all connected by paths and transition areas. She also oversaw building Star Pond, a 12-pointed, star-shaped pond, which is among the various water features that enhance the gardens.

The gardens form different rooms, a design principle characteristic of Edwardian landscaping. The gardens are set against the naturalistic backdrop of forested areas. They are laid out and planted to offer controled viewscapes outside the gardens. These design characteristics reflect important aspects of Canadian gardening history and are important to the Gardens’ designation as an historic site.

Subsequent Butchart family generations added a concert lawn and stage for a broad range of entertainment, a fireworks field with Saturday-night displays and a children’s pavilion with a Menagerie Carousel. The Gardens is a year-round destination that also includes a show greenhouse and the de rigueur restaurant and gift shop.

Butchart Gardens is exceedingly colorful with more than 1 million bedding plants alone installed each year. Staff members grow many of the plants, both annuals and perennials, for the gardens in 26 greenhouses. The 550 peak-season and 290 off-season staff makes Butchart Gardens a five-season destination. The fifth season, of course, is their Christmas display.

Climate Zone 8B at Butchart Gardens is not quite 8B as we know it. The Gardens is in a sheltered valley, which provides some protection from prevailing winds. The climate is Mediterranean-like with warm dry summers and wet cool winters.

Daylight during the summer growing season is about two hours longer than ours. Typical summer high temperatures are 72 to 79 degrees, rising above 86 degrees an average of two times per year. The typical high temperature in winter ranges from 41 to 50 degrees. It drops below 23 degrees an average of two times per winter.

Butchart Gardens’ staff takes every environmental initiative possible. The Gardens is self-sufficient with regard to water used for irrigation. Water comes from a series of wells, reservoirs and tanks of stored rainwater that has runoff from parking areas. Drip irrigation is used in the gardens where possible.

Garden staff uses compost made from garden and restaurant scraps and cite good results from compost tea. In addition, the staff monitors the soil with regular soil testing.

The staff practices Integrated Pest Management to control pests and disease in the gardens. The method uses cultural, mechanical and biological controls to manage problems preventively. The staff starts with healthy, well-developed plants that are properly spaced to provide good airflow and sufficient light. Weeding is done by hand, and plants that are beleaguered by insect problems and disease are removed. Millions of beneficial insects are released each year to provide biological control – for example, in spring, 800,000 predatory mites are introduced into the rose garden to check thrips and rose midges.

It is a tribute to the gardeners and good gardening practices that a mined-out limestone pit was turned into a world-class, thriving garden. It’s something to think about as we work on our own small gardens.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.

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