Butchart Gardens

Antirrhinum majus, bright red/pink snapdragons in the formal garden walk Butchart Gardens

Last summer, while in Seattle, Bill, the kids and I visited Victoria on Vancouver Island and Butchart Gardens. I was told I should visit, so I did, and I dragged ASW and Bear along. Poor things.

One of the formal ponds at Butchart. I like what I think is a type of umbrella plant within. As you can see, there were lots of crowds. It's a bus company's paradise.

This may make me very unpopular, but while I walked Butchart, I kept thinking about how it reminded me of the Disney World prototype of gardening. A riot of color and themed rooms all kind of plopped down around a winding path filled with visitors from every country. I think gardening can truly bring divergent cultures of people together in a kind of harmony so it was fun to hear all the different languages. But, I wondered how the Butchart gardeners kept all those annuals, roses and shrubs at their peak throughout the tourist season. Plants are living organisms. Annuals especially grow, bloom and die without constant tending. They must have a dead-heading crew like no other along with plants, like soldiers, waiting in reserve.

An arbor in the technicolor rose garden at Butchart Gardens

So, I’m trying to walk around and take photos while all of this is playing through my mind while trying to dodge people on the crowded paths. The numbers of people were staggering. Again, just like Disney. We rode a bus forever to get there from the docks, and I kept expecting Mickey and Minnie to come through an arbor waving. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit.

All of the formal gardens were in conflicting primary colors with a strong emphasis on fuchsia and cherry red. You know I like color, but in my climate, the colors aren’t quite so intense. Not really my thing, but I did like this rose pillar because of how it held the rose up off of the ground. The color of the rose was very pretty, but like everything else, it was bright.

Rose pillar at Butchart Gardens. I don't know the cultivar.
An exquisite tree in the Japanese Garden at Butchart

Finally, I made it through the Japanese Garden, the Italian room, the annual overload, and the rose parade. I stepped through some trees, and then, I saw one reason why Butchart is famous. The sunken garden, the remains of the limestone quarry planted by Jennie Butchart is wonderful, but I was mesmerized by the placards with photos of her in a bosun’s chair hanging from the sides of the limestone walls stuffing ivy in every crevice. I admire her spunk and spirit. She took the byproduct of their business, which was a supremely ugly hole in the ground and turned it into something extraordinary and beautiful. There’s a lesson there.

Some of the limestone was of an inferior grade and was not removed. Butchart used its raised platform to visualize her work as it progressed. A pair of arborvitae stand as sentries at the bottom of this platform. They are a signature of the garden, but not being long-lived trees, they have been replaced several times. I’m sorry, I didn’t get a photo of them that I can find.

Part of the Sunken Garden, the quarry planted by Butchart

You walk down and down further to the bottom . . . by this time I’d lost the men in our party . . . but Bear was trailing patiently behind me. Honestly, I think my family takes turns sending a watcher with me to make sure I return at a reasonable time.

Anyway, it was a very long walk around the former quarry, and at the bottom, the air was still, and the temperature hot.

Plants cultivars too numerous to mention in the Butchart Sunken Garden

Conifers, Japanese maples of every hue, evergreens, both variegated and cool green, or chartreuse bordered the path, and curves hid design and plantings behind every bend. This was the true wonderland, not the overdone annuals above. I bet a lot of visitors never make it to this part of the tour. The sunken garden is a hidden one, and many visitors were older making the climb out difficult. Not that the color of the formal gardens isn’t pretty. It is in sort of a Lady Gaga sort of way. Overdone, overblown, ever so over . . .

The more formal beds in the Sunken Garden

Part of the ravine garden was more naturally planted with fully mature specimens while another part was full of formal hedging and bulbs. I could have stayed in the natural section all day. That’s why my family sends a companion with me. Once Bear and I climbed back to the top, Bill was frantically worried because he couldn’t get cell service, and he didn’t know if I knew when our bus left. I laughed and said, of course I knew. I set my phone’s alarm to keep me on task. Otherwise, I would be lost in that kind of beauty forever.

A waterfall in the Sunken Garden at Butchart. Although there were still crowds in this part of the garden, the generous pathways and size of the space made viewing easier.

If you go to Butchart, take in the Disney-like rooms, but then make your way to the sunken garden. Also, get tickets to the restaurant beforehand, and don’t take one of the tour buses from the Victoria clipper ships. It took forever to get our party together and on our way, and we could have easily taken some other convenience. Our time was cut short because of those in our group who didn’t get quickly on the bus. Also, take an extra day in Victoria because you can’t see everything in one day especially if you visit Butchart.



  1. Claire says:

    I loved reading your description of Butchart! I was there about 5 years ago and was blown away by the riotous colors and combinations and loved it. It is gardening for the masses. I think that many experienced gardeners become garden snobs and look down on all those annuals and clashing colors but they must be doing something right, because it is always crowded. As a garden designer, I can relate to Butchard’s excessive use of color because that is the same theme that I hear from clients-they want more and more color! It doesn’t matter if they clash or war with each other, it just means that something fun and vibrant is happening in their garden. You are right about the sunken garden- that will take your breath away. I got a new appreciation for cotoneaster when I went there. It was cascading all down the sides and was beautiful!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Claire, I’m so glad. I was afraid I would offend someone. Clients always do want more and more color. I did love the sunken gardens. What a splendid place. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Been to these gardens and they are indeed lovely, but what captured my heart was that red dirt road rambling up in the corner… ya, I could walk down that for awhile. Reminds me of trips to Southern Utah. You garden in a beautiful place, Dee.

  3. Les says:

    This is the second time in a week that I have read or heard a less than stellar recommendation for this garden. Some of what you have shown looks highly contrived, which is not my favorite type of gardening (mastery of nature and all that). That said, I would still like to see it, and I would especially like to see Vancouver.

  4. Les says:

    This is the second time in a week that I have read or heard a less than stellar recommendation for this garden. Some of what you have shown looks highly contrived, which is not my favorite type of gardening (mastery of nature and all that). That said, I would still like to see it, and I would especially like to see Vancover.

  5. Phillip says:

    I have always wanted to see this garden in person. Too bad it is so overcrowded. Wouldn’t you love to have a private tour with no one there but yourself? That would be awesome.

  6. I have never had the chance to visit Victoria when I have been in Seattle…I agree that the other gardens were a bit overdone and too much to take in…I love color and they were a bit much and I also thought Disney…but that sunken Garden certainly had me wanting to visit…

  7. I went to Butchart a few years ago for my birthday. Get this — my VERY patient husband and I spent 8 — count ’em — 8 hours in the garden. We toured the gardens, then had dinner at the garden restaurant, then watched the fireworks display, then walked through the gardens again at night to see the illuminations. My husband got the hubby-of-the-year award that day for sure!!!! I remember when I came around the bend to the sunken garden, it took my breath away it was so beautiful. I guess I can see what you’re saying about the over-the-top color and all, but just to see all the vibrant colors (which we don’t have in our blistering summers) and to appreciate all the hard work that goes into maintaining the gardens (and yes, WHEN do they maintain it????), and to marvel at the beauty of the Japanese maples — it was just the most wonderful birthday present for me. I just loved it. It was difficult to get a picture, though, that didn’t have 10 people walking by, so I could have done with less people, but it is what it is. What is your favorite garden to tour??

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Toni, let me think on which garden is my favorite. I think part of the problem for me were the colors chosen, but yes, the Sunken Garden makes it worth the trip. Those Japanese maples and evergreens were indeed breathtaking. I loved the Bloedel Reserve which was so soothing to me because of the mature trees, but it’s definitely a garden of mixed greens. I also love The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center very much because of all the native plants. I also think the Missouri Botanic Garden, or MOBOT as it is affectionately called, is wonderful. I’d really like to see Longwood Gardens one day. Thank you for asking and making me think about it.

  8. Pam/Digging says:

    Thanks for the tour and honest appraisal, Dee. I chose not to go when my family joined me in Seattle after the Fling, because our time was short and I imagined, based on pics I’d seen, that it would be all raging annuals. Which is indeed what much of it appears to be. But it seems it has some subtle and interesting areas as well. Good to know. Thinking of the Bloedel though — what a contrast, eh?

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Pam. I think you would have liked the Sunken Gardens. They really were something once you got past the color-contrasting annuals. I think the pink and red together also wasn’t my thing. Perhaps, it’s a theme, and they change the colors from year to year. Yes, the Bloedel is by far my favorite of the two.

  9. Margaret (Peggy) Herrman says:

    Dee, I had family in Victoria (now gone) so had a great reason to visit several times. have not been back in over a decade. perhaps because I was there in off seasons, crowds were less of a problem.

    I understand that the colors come from the nature of the soil (volcanic ash). You see the same all over town. it is a magical place for anyone, but especially plant folks. yes, the sunken garden is special, especially given the origin, the vision and persistence it took to create the garden.

    stay for any length of time and you are over whelmed (at least I was), but it is still a fabulous tribute to a family and the pow of little annuals in mass. glad you saw it and commented. It reminds me of a dear aunt who will always be missed.

    hugs, peggy and the ladies

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hey Peggy, I think the garden would also be less overwhelming during the off season. Yes, the color in Victoria is intense. You’re absolutely right. I don’t think it was the intensity that got to me. It was the mixing of red with hot pink and no filter in between. I did love the Sunken Gardens. They were truly impressive. I’m sorry about your aunt.

  10. Gail says:

    That does sound like a Disneyland technicolor paradise…but, the Japanese Garden seems to have been a calm spot amidst it all. The photo of the exquisite tree really is exquistite. gail

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Gail, the Japanese garden was very pretty. The paths were super narrow though, and I felt very pushed along. I did love that exquisite tree though. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Kay G. says:

    As a former travel agent, I can tell you that the Sunken Gardens are one of the places that I always wanted to visit. “I’ve not been there, but I sent a lot of people there” has been my line about some of the most beautiful places in the world. Still, at least I am aware of them and I know that the Sunken Gardens is what you really need to see. I am glad you got to see them and appreciate them!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Kay, you should go. They were exquisite. You should also head down to Bainbridge Island and visit the Bloedel Reserve. It is so beautiful. http://reddirtramblings.com/?p=18454.

  12. Your family sounds like good sports. Robin’s comment makes me wonder how taste in gardens develops.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Kathy, they are very good sports. Thank goodness.~~Dee

  13. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Precisely what I thought about it. I do admire the lady in bosun chair. She must have had an adventerous spirit. We were there in early spring and it wasn’t so crowded. It was quite a few years ago too. I did see people working in the garden. They wore tan uniforms. I am sure if they had been working you would have seen them. It is something to see. I did notice the no bug thing too. Not many birds there either. hmmmmm

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Layanee, I probably missed all of them due to the crowds. It was all just so over the top in the annual gardens. Not my thing, but hey, a lot of people loved it. Yes, the lack of wildlife made me wonder.

  14. Robin Ripley says:

    Now that I have seen a few hundred gardens, I completely understand what you’re saying. It is not a garden connoisseur’s garden. (You’re the connoisseur, not me.) But I will say that when I visited Butchart Gardens as a naive 25-year-old with little or no experience visiting, much less growing, gardens, it was an amazing eye-opener about the possibilities. It was, in part, what made me want to put on some garden gloves and give it a go.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Robin, I don’t know if I’m a connoisseur. Really, my garden is just a simply, country one. I think you are right about being young and loving Butchart. My favorite plants were big, bright annuals when I first started gardening. It was only later that I enjoyed subtlety much, much more.

  15. Frances says:

    Having been to both east and west coast Disneys, I understand the over saturation of both color and crowds, Dee. Buchart looks to have some splendid areas, all so lush and healthy, too. I am glad you got to visit there, and with your family, too.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Frances, it was very pretty. Goodness, I dragged the family to Bloedel too. Bless their hearts.

  16. Layanee says:

    Yes, just like Disney World. I had to admire the perfection of the plantings as did you. No dead blossoms anywhere. I think the workers must have been dressed like the tourists, surreptitiously snipping as they walked by the beds in order to keep all pristine while remaining anonymous. I am sure you are glad you went. It is something to be seen.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Layanee, did you also notice there wasn’t a single bug either? I think that’s weird. Just sayin’. I am glad I went though. I loved the sunken garden.

  17. CurtissAnn says:

    I love seeing through your eyes, with your spirit. Thanks. Lovely armchair traveling, with a great tour guide.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Sweetheart!

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