UBC Botanical Garden

Jane Perrone’s account of her visit to the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden got me thinking about the last time I was in Vancouver, and also about the nature of university botanical gardens in general. I love that they are serious, brainy gardens, often organized according to some scheme (“Winter Foliage in Outer Mongolia”) that is not apparent to the rest of us. So unlike the more touristy gardens you might visit on a vacation, like…oh, I don’t know…Butchart Gardens?

I went to both places a few years ago and lived to tell the tale. Here’s the story:

I took Scott with me and before we went I told everybody that he would probably spend all his time in bookstores, and I would spend all mine in gardens, so in a way our vacation together would be no different than our weekends at home. Sure enough, Scott found every out-of-the-way rare book dealer in town, and I hit two of the best-known gardens in Vancouver: the Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, and the Botanical Garden at the University of British Columbia.

I tried to love the Butchart Gardens, I really did. I was sure that there was something elegant and highbrow about the manicured lawns and washes of bright annuals, planted in perfect symmetry just that spring and waiting to be yanked out and replaced come winter. I tried to be impressed by the complete lack of weeds, but felt instead a mixture of jealousy and contempt: as my favorite writer Anne Lamott would say, people with such perfect gardens probably dont have rich inner lives.

I spent an hour trudging through the marked paths with my patient yet very weary mate, attempting to look interested in the rows of pansies, impatients, and dwarf dahlias that carpeted the gardens. After all, we had travelled over three hours by bus, ferry, and bus again to reach this very popular tourist destination. Finally, though, I had to admit that I longed for the diversity and disarray of the wild; or at least the earthy, dirt-under-your-fingernails feel of a working farm, complete with rotting piles of hay and aging manure. The Butchart gardens didnt make me feel any closer to nature; instead, I felt like I had spent the last two hours strolling through a very sterile, well-landscaped theme park or shopping mall. I kept expecting some staff member with that clean-cut Disney Look to rush up in a starched pinstriped shirt and sweep away any seed pods or leaves that had fallen into the path. Even the gift shop was too upscale for me, featuring overpriced jewelry and china with floral themes. Like a visit to the false, glittering Great Mall of America, we left the Butchart Gardens feeling exhausted and unsatisfied. I resolved to hit only one more public garden on the trip: the University of British Columbias Botanical Garden.

We arrived at UBC after yet another long bus ride and trudged through campus. This time, though, I knew we had found the right place: the entrance to the Botanical Garden was flanked by a rich and varied perennial garden, full of native and hard-to-find species, and marked with labels that included not only scientific names, but the seed company source for each plant. I scribbled notes and snapped photographs as we paid our admission into the garden.

The UBC garden began in 1912 under the direction of Scottish botanist John Davidson. He spent years collecting 25,000 plants representing 9,000 species. When he retired in 1951, the entire campus was declared a botanical garden. The pressures of modern campus life, including the need for such minor accessories as buildings and parking lots, eventually infringed on the gardens objectives. Thirty-one acres were set aside for the present- day Botancial Garden.

I was so excited about the vegetable and the native plant gardens that I rushed past the largest segment of the garden, the David C. Lam Asian Garden. Still, a less impatient visitor would enjoy a lingering stroll through the cool, shady garden populated by a wide variety of Asian trees, shrubs, perennials, and ground covers. It is worth noting that the UBC Botanical Garden has a long-standing relationship with the Nanjing Botanical Garden, providing plant and seed exchanges between the two gardens.

Just beyond the Asian garden lies the expansive Perennial Border, as lush and overgrown and filled with west coast favorites as anything I might find in Santa Cruz. Im sure I broke all the rules of the garden by jumping right into the beds, parting flowering shrubs and herbs in search of plant labels. The border curves around one end of the wide, open garden, and leads to what was for me the high spot of the trip: the Food Garden. An incredible amount of food grows in this compact, ornamental space: squash, lettuce, and corn grew in raised beds, along with a highly decorative demonstration of effective companion planting, featuring herbs and vegetables planted densely together in long, wide beds. There is even a small composting demonstration occuping one corner of the garden (Rotting garbage! I thought. Im HOME!). Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Food Garden was the variety of fruit trees planted in cordons and espaliers. This garden proves that a small amount of space can yield a bountiful harvest, and all produce is donated to the Salvation Army.

Other highspots of the UBC Garden included the Winter Garden, planted with heather, bulbs, and winter-blooming shrubs and vines. Altogether unimpressive in August, this garden must be a real delight in the depths of a dark, cold winter. The Alpine Garden features mountain-growing plants from around the world, grouped by continent; and the Native Garden spans ten acres with trees, ferns, shrubs, flowers, and ground covers native to the region. A bog running through the center of the garden shows off native swamp plants. At the end of the trip, I visited the gift shop, which sells plants and seeds cultivated on-site, and schemed about ways to smuggle some rare specimens across the border.

I left the UBC Botanical Garden a better educated, and certainly more homesick, gardener. I returned to our bed and breakfast that evening in some sort of primordial gardening frenzy, ready to roll up my sleeves and start dividing irises right there in the front yard. Scott wisely pointed out to me that the inkeeper might frown upon guests digging through the flower beds late at night, so I managed to restrain myself and keep my hands out of the dirt until I returned home.