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Extreme Gardens - An Occasional Series

I have had occasion to write elsewhere about the two gardening extremes, which I refer to as BF and SF. BF stands for brute force, and refers to a garden that achieves its goals by the application of much labor and many resources. SF stands for survival of the fittest, where the garden is established with varying degrees of design and intention, and then allowed to go its own way. Most of our gardens fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but this past summer, I was lucky enough to visit a garden that definitely favors the brute force side of the equation.

On the east coast of lovely Vancouver Island in Canada's province of British Columbia, you will find Butchart Gardens, formerly the site of a quarry and various mining operations. These operations earned quite a bit of money for the Butcharts, the company owners. After the mineral deposits began to run out and the business became unprofitable, Mrs. Butchart persuaded her husband to allow her to transform the now-abandoned quarry into a series of gardens. Today, Butchart Gardens draws more than a million visitors each year from around the world. I had heard about it for years, but for some reason, I didn't think I would enjoy it, even though I paid a visit to Vancouver Island back in the beginning of this century. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Butchart is a very, very well-maintained garden. I don't remember seeing a single weed in the 50+ acre grounds. The plantings were colorful and showy without being tasteless. Much of the effects rely on sheer firepower, that is, the planting of hundreds and thousands of well-grown annuals, carefully selected for complementing colors and textures. It's also a well-designed garden, where vast numbers of tourists can experience some degree of peace and calm without always coming up against a wall of visitors heading in the opposite direction. I was pretty envious by the end of my visit, since the Gardens feature not only spectacular mass plantings, but many specimens that are of interest to the most dedicated plant enthusiast. I thought repeatedly, 'I wish we could do that at the Arboretum!"

So, what's stopping us? Among the many fascinating things about Butchart was the fact that during our 4-5 hour visit, I saw no one working in the gardens. No one. Nothing was planted, not a weed was pulled, no single one of their thousands of roses were deadheaded or pruned. I assume that maintenance is done outside of the extensive visitor hours. How do they do it? I did run one of the horticulture staff to earth, and he told me, among many other things, that over 50 full-time gardeners work at Butchart, with an extra 17 brought on during the season. That's over 1 gardener per acre. If we were to match their staffing level here at Reeves-Reed, we would have twelve full-time gardeners. In reality, we have two.

At Reeves-Reed Arboretum, we are definitely farther towards the SF end of the spectrum than Butchart. But that's fine. I'm glad I was able to finally visit Butchart Gardens, but I'm glad I get to work at the Arboretum.