100 years ago, this garden was a hole in the ground

The internationally renowned Butchart Gardens, on Vancouver Island about 13 miles north of Victoria, British Columbia, are celebrating 100 years in bloom this year. About 12 million visitors annually walk the elaborate pathways to admire more than a million flowers, hundreds of thousands of bulbs, and countless shrubs and foliage plants.

What a contrast with the scene in 1904 when Robert Pim Butchart and his wife, Jennie, arrived to open a portland cement operation to extract limestone from the property.

The Butcharts built an impressive, comfortable home on the 130-acre estate, but despite her best efforts, Jennie could not keep ahead of the dust that accumulated on her elegant Victorian furnishings. She did not complain, though; she was a qualified chemist herself. No way could one extract limestone without the dust.

However, an idea clicked in her chemist's mind: Limestone was a wonderful medium for growing greenery. To soften the increasingly large and ugly quarry, Jennie began to plant flowers and shrubs around the house and surrounding grounds.

The foundation of the gardens began with formal plantings to the north of the house toward Butchart Cove on Tod Inlet, the site of today's Japanese Garden. From there the beautification process spread and spread. Robert appreciated his wife's efforts and cheerfully supplied men from his cement operation to help with soil preparation and planting.

It's easy to picture Jennie out there in her long daytime dress and work gloves, a large hat framing her face. Probably she was not content just directing the workmen but got her hands in the dirt, as well. As a result, the gardens became lush and colorful, the envy of their friends.

Robert was proud of his wife's remarkable transformation of the grounds and helped enhance them. During the couple's world travels, he collected ornamental birds and turned them loose in the gardens. He kept ducks in the Star Pond, noisy peacocks on the front lawn, and a curmudgeon of a parrot in the main house. He enjoyed training pigeons at the site of the present Begonia Bower and stationed many elaborate birdhouses throughout the gardens.

All the limestone that could be practically removed from the site was depleted in 1908. After the adjacent quarry was exhausted, all the Butcharts had left was a big hole in the ground, softened a little by a lovely forest of native trees surrounding the property. No longer were the branches covered with gray dust. Jennie eyed the hole and planted a row of Lombardy poplars to hide the pit from view. Then she conceived the idea of creating a sunken garden. The massive project consumed 13 years and was completed in 1921.

Jennie ordered tons of topsoil from nearby farmers and had them hauled in by horse and wagon to cover the floor of the quarry. Then she planted vines and creeping plants to cover the quarry's walls and laid out the formal gardens as they are today.

By the 1920s, the gardens had become so popular that as many as 50,000 people a year visited them. In 1939, the king and queen of England stopped by on a trip to Canada.

More than a million bedding plants - 700 varieties of flowers in all - decorate the garden paths and flower beds, creating a seasonally changing panorama from March to October.

The various sections - the Rose Garden (with 3,000 bushes), the formal Italian Garden (planted on what was once a tennis court), a bower of fuchsias under latticework, and paths bordered by evergreen plants native to western Canada - all have their special charms.

When visitors tire of strolling the maze of paths, they can rest on stone benches to admire sculptures or listen to the quiet melody of a fountain.

Each July the gardens feature musical events that range from jazz to classical. This summer, commemorative concerts by the Victoria Symphony will feature Benjamin Butterfield and soprano Anne Grimm on Aug. 18 and tenor Richard Margison on Sept. 1.

Historical exhibits have been installed throughout the gardens to show the changes made over 100 years. Fanciful topiaries have been added as well.

In July and August visitors may watch First Nations (Canada's term for native peoples) artists carve totem poles, and they can stroll through the rose garden to enjoy a new display of old-fashioned roses, many of which are more aromatic than their newer cousins.

This month and next, fireworks displays take place each weekend. Not just a spate of rockets and blasts, the explosions are choreographed to tell a story. They dance across the pond and lawn at an open portion of the gardens like a fine stage production. In one set it seemed as if boats sailed across the pond powered by live oarsmen, but it was only an illusion created by clever fireworks.

The gardens' centennial celebration will continue into 2005.

For more information, see www.butchartgardens.com or call toll-free 866-652-4422.

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