Beautiful Victoria, our provincial capital, is a joy to visit winter or summer, in fact at any time of year. It offers better weather, a slightly different climate zone and the wonderful structural Garry oak trees. To get the real flavor of Victoria one has to bike or walk around the historic neighborhoods, areas such as Oak Bay, Fairfield, Rockland, James Bay and of course the downtown core. Stops are mandatory - Victoria is filled with charming and quirky coffee shops and pubs and very cute individual shops.
My obsession with Victoria started over 30 years ago when I fell in love with the Garry oak trees. I also enjoyed the drier climate and the historic feeling of the gardens. Over the years I have worn out several maps trying to get my bearings because Victoria doesn’t have a “Grouse Mountain” to keep us anchored and it is not on a grid system like Vancouver. While it makes for a more interesting city with lanes and byways it is definitely harder to navigate – a good map or GPS is essential. I make a yearly pilgrimage to see the gardens in the spring, I try to time my visit when the Camas lilies are blooming in the Garry oak meadows.
All the gardens I mention here are open to the public. Of course Victoria is filled with many more gardens but for a week-end tour these gardens offer a variety of styles and locations.
Government House in Rockland
The site covers 36 acres but only 14 acres are intensely gardened, the rest of the site is covered with rare and endangered Garry oak trees and old growth trees which makes it a unique and beautiful property. It is also home to our Governor General with splendid views out to the Olympic Mountains. When the garden was laid out in the1950s it was set in an English design and at one point there were 17 gardeners employed. Times changed and now friends of the garden play a very important role in maintaining the garden which is open to the public and free.
The herb garden which is I think one of the best in western Canada was designed and laid out by Noel Richardson. The lovely rose garden was copied from the famous garden at Warwick Castle.
These gardens are good to visit any time of year. There is a winter garden with shrubs blooming from November to March, it makes for a lovely and uplifting winter walk to see life in the garden with blooming witch hazels, fragrant lornica and Cornus mas. Primulas and bulbs carpet the ground. Heathers are another mainstay of the winter garden and government house has replanted and extended the heather garden.
Hatley Castle now part of Royal Roads University
Hatley is one of the last remaining Edwardian gardens in Canada. It was the home of the Dunsmuir’s family of coal mining fame. It is situated on a magnificent site overlooking Esquimalt lagoon. The gardens at Hatley are stunning and full of surprises. There are actually three gardens quite separate from each other and require some walking. The famous Italian garden is beautifully laid out and surrounded by a wall offering a sheltering location to the superb collection of perennial plants.
A walk through the lawns lead into the serene and well established Japanese gardens with its historic tea house and ponds and rare plants – don’t forget to check out the irrigation system – very advanced for its time. The maples and shrubs here are unusual and each path leads to a different scene. Keep walking through to the rose garden – a huge traditional rose garden at its glorious peak in the summer months and a joy to visit. During my last visit the Edwardian glass houses were being painstakingly restored with money provided by an American benefactor. They are quite beautiful and well worth seeing.
Finnerty Garden at University of Victoria
Finnerty has one of the best collections of rhododendrons on the Vancouver Island, many of which were planted from seeds brought over by the famous plant explorers. In 1974 Finnerty was given an important collection of rhododendrons from the Simpson estate at Cowichan Lake. Some of these plants were over 50 years old (seed collectors) huge in size and very difficult to transplant. They survived and thrived and are now the back bone of Finnerty. This garden is one of my own favorites in all seasons. There are well chosen perennials under planted to give interest to the superb collection of shrubs and rare trees. Finnerty is an immaculate garden without a weed and the plants are very well signed for those of us with memory problems. It is always open and free.
Playfair Park off Quadra Street
This garden is really a park, George Radfor – (A well known Victorian gardener now deceased) designed and planted the perennial garden and at one time Playfair was to become a botanical garden but funds fell through and instead it became a jewel of a park. The rhododendrons here are outstanding. In the spring the wild Camas lilies are a sight to behold. My interest in Playfair is the famous Garry oak grove – I think it might be one of the best in Victoria. I make a pilgrimage every year to see the camas meadows. Best viewing time late April/May – it does depend on the spring weather.
Beacon Hill Park
The oldest city park in British Columbia, it contains many cultivated gardens and a stunning collection of heritage trees, Giant Arbutus and Garry oaks and Garry oak meadows. Visit here any time of the year, drive or bike up the Arbutus Drive to enjoy the trees and the situation close to the city centre and continue on out to the Dallas Road.
Abkhazi Garden on Fairfield Road
One of the very easy to find gardens and another historic gem. This is a small romantic garden built because of a love story between the Prince Abkhazi and his wife Peggy. It is packed with choice plants set in a beautiful location. Buy the book at the gift shop and read the story of this garden. There is a most delightful tea shop with a patio overlooking the garden and out to the straights of Juan de Fuca. Stop here for a break and enjoy the tea and views.
Glendale gardens off Quayle road – off the Old Saanich Road
I’ve watched this garden grow and develop since I’ve been coming to Victoria and it is without exception a must see for any keen plants person. The actual garden is only 6 acres, there are 28 different areas and The Doris Page winter garden is brilliant with a marvelous collection of hellebores and the best winter heather collection anywhere. There is a delightful Japanese garden adhering to the Japanese design and yet it is brilliantly situated in the middle of our great Canadian Cedar trees. There are always plants for sale and many garden workshops are offered during the week-ends., Volunteers run this garden with a panel of renowned Victoria gardeners who offer their expertise – very unusual plants here and also well labeled. I enjoy this garden in winter and summer and if I lived in Victoria I would be a weekly volunteer.
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