Robert Pim Butchart, a pioneer in the thriving North American cement industry, was attracted from Owen Sound, Ontario to Canada’s West Coast by rich limestone deposits. In 1904, he developed a quarry and built a cement plant at Tod Inlet (on Vancouver Island) to satisfy Portland cement demand from San Francisco to Victoria. Jennie Butchart became the company’s chemist. Close to the quarry, the Butcharts established the family home complete with sweet peas and rose bushes.
As Mr. Butchart exhausted limestone deposits, his enterprising wife Jennie, made plans to create something of beauty in the gigantic exhausted pit. From farmland nearby, she had tonnes of top soil brought in by horse and cart and used it to line the floor of the abandoned quarry. Little by little, the quarry blossomed into the spectacular Sunken Garden.
Between 1906 and 1929, the Butcharts created a Japanese Garden on the seaside, an Italian Garden on their former tennis court and a beautiful Rose Garden. Mr. Butchart took great pride in his wife's remarkable work. An enthusiastic hobbyist, he collected ornamental birds from all over the world. He kept ducks in the Star Pond, noisy peacocks on the front lawn and many elaborate birdhouses throughout the gardens.
Grandson Ian Ross was given The Gardens on his 21st birthday. After service in WWII, he worked hard to make his grandmother's garden self-sustaining, transforming the mostly neglected home and gardens into an internationally famous destination. For 50 years he was completely involved in its operation and development. In summer months he added outdoor symphony concerts (1953-1967) showcasing young stars of the Metropolitan Opera, including Teresa Stratas; a variety stage show (1961); and the Ross Fountain (1964) for The Gardens' 60th anniversary. In 1987 he initiated The Magic of Christmas. Ian died in 1997.
The summer show, produced by Ian and wife Ann-Lee Ross, included their children Christopher, a gifted dancer, and sister Robin, a popular folk singer. In 1968, Christopher took over production, taking a lead role in the ever improving choreography.
Beginning in 1977, until his untimely death in 2000, for Saturday nights in July and August, he designed, produced and executed intricate firework shows choreographed to music. Each year was a new and more exciting show which left a unique repertoire that continues to the present, thus carrying on the family tradition of adding unique, world class experiences to enhance The Gardens.
Late in 2009, his sister Robin-Lee Clarke, great granddaughter of Jennie Butchart and current owner added a Children's Pavilion complete with a large Menagerie Carousel.
The renown of Mrs. Butchart’s gardening quickly spread. By the 1920s more than fifty thousand people visited her garden each year. The hospitable Butcharts christened their estate “Benvenuto”, the Italian word for “Welcome”. Their house grew into a comfortable, luxurious showplace, with a bowling alley, indoor saltwater swimming pool, paneled billiard room and a wonder of its age, a self-playing Aeolian pipe organ (still played on Summer’s Firework Saturdays). Today, it houses the Dining Room Restaurant, offices, and rooms still used for family entertaining.
In 2004, The Gardens was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. (Related materials: Government of Canada news release. Backgrounder to the designation. Canada's Historic Places entry.
The only surviving portion of the original cement factory is the tall chimney of a long vanished kiln still seen from the Sunken Garden lookout. The plant stopped manufacturing cement in 1916, but continued to make drain tiles and flower pots until 1950. Some of the original flowering cherry trees which extended from West Saanich Road to The Gardens’ entrance may still be seen.
The renown of the family owned gardens is widespread. Each year over a million bedding plants in some 900 varieties give you uninterrupted bloom from March through October. Almost a million people visit annually for spring’s colourful flowering bulbs; summer’s riot of colour, entertainment and Saturday Fireworks; fall’s russets and golds; the Magic of Christmas’ decorations; and winter’s peacefulness.