I seem to be making a habit of visiting famous gardens in what most people would term “the off season”. Last week I had the good fortune to travel to Victoria, B.C. for my work, so seized the opportunity to add on a day to visit the Butchart Gardens.
From the time I booked, I reconciled myself to the fact that early March was likely a bit early to be looking for spring flowers, even in warm Victoria. In fact, during my first cab ride after landing the driver told me it really wasn’t worth visiting the Butchart Gardens so early in the season. But I don’t get to Victoria very often (this was my second trip ever) and I had such a fabulous time visiting VanDeusen Botanical Garden in late, late fall that there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity.
It turns out that if this had been a normal winter, it certainly would have been far too early for blooms. But it turns out that this was an especially mild winter for the good folks of Victoria. And even better for me, this was the earliest anyone can remember blooms starting! And it wasn’t just a few hardy things that were blooming, like witch hazels. No. It was full out spring!
What a sight for winter-weary Toronto eyes!
What impressed me especially were the camellias. They look like a big shrub/small tree smothered in very full roses. I had never seen one in full bloom as they are not hardy in Toronto (wikipedia tells says they are the state flower of Alabama, so that gives you some idea of the type of climate they like). The closest substitute we have in Zone 6 is Stewartia pseudocamellia I have one of these trees growing in my yard, but so far it doesn’t come even slightly close to putting on the show that I experienced at the Butchart Gardens. Not only is the flower on the shrub quite stunning, but even when the flowers are spent and drop to the ground, they retain their freshness for a long time. The effect is as if the shrub has been underplanted with colourful blooms. Camellias are very unlike magnolias in this regard, as their blooms are stunning on the tree but quickly decompose into brown mush once they fall.
Beyond the camellias, I noticed that the Butchart Gardens works hard to create a great visitor experience. They understand that “Garden tourism is the largest tourism sector in North America. The botanical gardens of the U.S. generate more revenues than the entire U.S. gaming industry — 10 per cent of all tourists visit the local botanical garden when they travel; two per cent of all tourists travel specifically to visit a botanical garden.” There are many clever touches throughout the site, including:
Butchart Gardens is a wonderful garden for people who like to look at pretty flowers to visit (i.e. even if you can’t tell a daisy from a lily, you’ll still enjoy what you see). If you have small children with you, there is a full indoor carousel and other kid friendly features to make even a rainy day trip fun. Most paths are wheelchair and stroller friendly. The gift shop has a souvenir for every taste and most budgets. The staff are cheerful and helpful. And everywhere you go there is the sound of water–soaring fountains, rushing falls, dribbling brooks–which is all very lovely unless you’ve just finished off a pot of tea and decided to take one last loop around the garden…
Truly, this is among the best publicly accessible gardens in Canada. However, I did not a couple things that would have made my visit to the Butchart Gardens more enjoyable for me:
1. Labels on all the plants. I was shocked to find out that the Butchart Gardens doesn’t label any of their plants, except, according to a plaque I read, in the rose garden. I enjoy learning the names of new plants, recognizing different varieties of familiar species, and sometimes jotting down the name as something to look for in the nursery for my own garden. When I commented to a staff member about the lack of labels she said “that’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be a pleasure garden.” She also pointed out that the pamphlet I was handed when I came in the gate contained photos with most of the plants of note for this season (i.e. the annuals and bulbs and the blooming shrubs/tress). It didn’t (couldn’t possibly) include all of the varieties of each plant of note, and didn’t include anything that wasn’t “in season”. Call me a plant geek but it’s a pleasure for me to see plant labels and a distraction when they aren’t present.
2. Mulch. I understand that, as a show garden, there is no tolerance for weeds. Also, there is a need to rely on a lot of mass planted annuals for continuous colour/wow; it’s probably not realistic to expect these types of plants, which are replaced throughout the season, to be mulched. But what was troubling to me was that I noticed that most of the beds with perennials and trees were scraped bare. As far as I could see, with few exceptions, there weren’t even any stray leaves (aka “organic matter”) or any other mulch to feed the soil, provide weed control, and assist with water retention. Bare soil bothers me. (NOTE: please see the response from The Butchart Gardens at the end of this post)
These points probably wouldn’t distract from the pleasure of most garden visitors (although I think they could enhance their enjoyment) and their lack is certainly not a reason to avoid visiting the Butchart Gardens. If you’re in Victoria, especially if you hail from colder climates and you are craving a spring that will not come to your home garden for many weeks, if not months, I’d definitely recommend that you make a point of visiting.
If you need accommodation in the area, you may wish to check out the Brentwood Bay Resort and Spa. It’s beyond my snack bracket in peak season, but was a complete delight and worthwhile investment for my March visit.
UPDATE: A RESPONSE FROM THE BUTCHART GARDENS TEAM
I was surprised and pleased to receive a lengthy response from The Butchart Gardens team with regard to my concerns about mulch. The Director of Horticulture, Rick Los, shared: “Each year we add literally hundreds of cubic yards of our own compost back to the garden in the forms of soil additives and mulch. We also import a very large volume of composted leaf mulch from the city of Victoria on a regular (almost annual) basis.”
He and the Integrated Pest Management Specialist, Tracy Ferreira, explained that leaves are left on the ground in some of the shrub and tree borders (and thank you Tracy for pointing out that I mislabeled a rhododendron as an azalea–that has been corrected). They do admit that they are fastidious about cleaning leaf debris in the rose garden in order to prevent pests and diseases, and thus use less fungicidal sprays. (Note: growing such a large number of roses so closely together, I can see how this would be a necessity in the rose garden).
Rick ends his comments with the following, “We won’t deny our practices of garden cleanliness as this is both an expectation of our visitors and has proven itself to be beneficial to the overall health of the garden as the last 111 years has proven. We monitor our soil health very closely for nutrient levels and levels of organic matter as we realize how critical healthy soil is to the long term success of each and every plant in the garden.”
Thank you to the folks at the Butchart Gardens for taking the time to share some of their practices regarding mulch and soil health.