If not for the pluck of Jenny Butchart, one of Canada’s most popular gardens would have remained an exhausted limestone quarry. Although Victoria’s Butchart Gardens has expanded beyond its founder’s vision, Jenny Butchart laid the ground work of this Edwardian era estate, transforming the quarry that fed her husband’s booming cement business from stone dust to blossoms and from smoke stacks to the magnificent beech trees, sequoias and Lombardy poplars that stand here today.
Where Jenny would have climbed ladders and swung down the steep walls of the gravel pit on a bos’un’s chair to green the slopes with groundcovers and vines, today a staff of 50 gardeners and 20 more seasonal workers report for work every morning at 6 a.m. (earlier in the summer months) to start planting the almost one million annuals, 300,000 flower bulbs and 500,000 perennials and shrubs that bloom in the display gardens. Yesterday, I was one of them.
Punching in at 6 o’clock (more or less on time…) I reported to supervisor Michael Turgeon. He treated me like any new recruit, providing an orientation to the gardens where he has worked for more than 20 years. As we climbed the path overlooking the Sunken Garden, one of the most colourful and impressive areas at Butchart, he explained that crews of gardeners were working flat out to catch up with the unseasonally hot weather that caused the thousands of flower bulbs to bloom and fade before their time. As we walked, we passed cheerful young men and women clad in rain gear (this is Victoria…) digging out tulips and readying the beds for summer annuals.
My job for the day was to lend a hand in the greenhouses, planting up some of the many hanging baskets that greet visitors throughout the grounds. My trusty tutor was Dave Sledzinski. Working side by side, we lined the bottom of our baskets, then following a design recipe, planting each layer, from bottom to top, with shade-loving annuals. I learned how to shape the root balls into “torpedoes” that would fit through the wires of the frame; I replaced my gardening gloves with the more tactile neoprene ones worn by the greenhouse workers so I could get the feel of the moss that I tucked between the layers; and I learned how to roll down the rim to create an absorbent mossy barrier that would catch excess water that otherwise might spill over the edge of the basket when watered.
But most of all, I learned how much fun, dedication and comaraderie goes into creating Butchart Gardens!
Dave Sledzinski’s Big Tip: Make a well in the centre of the basket so that water pools inside the basket, percolating through the soil.