ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The iconic image of Biltmore Estate is the gorgeous, stately front view of the main house, built by George W. Vanderbilt in the 1890s.
It looks like nothing else in America. The French Chateauesque mansion even now stands as a marvel of architecture and efficiency as well as a look back into everyday Biltmore life in the early 1900s, and it is the focus of attention during most visits to the estate.
For those who love gardening and nature, though, there’s much more to see than just the house. Quite often the Biltmore Gardens are overlooked, but they’re a whole separate attraction that can best be enjoyed, as chief horticulturist Parker Andes advises, if we see them much as Vanderbilt’s guests would have.
“You have to remember, they laid these out in the 1890s before cars,” Andes said. “People took the railroad to get here, then came in by horse and carriage. The gardens were meant to be enjoyed more at the pace of their time, and people would walk through the gardens at a pace our guests today don’t experience.
“Our challenge now,” he added, “is to give people as much as we can in the amount of time they’ve got.”
Many visitors may assume there’s only one “garden” area but it’s actually a progression of different levels, descending from the front lawn of the house to the Italian Garden, then down the winding, sloping pathway through the Shrub Garden, the legendary Walled Garden and its roses, the Conservatory, then into the woodsy, more natural Spring Garden and Azalea Garden. Below that is a nature trail to the picturesque Bass Pond.
Some of these gardens are formal and some informal. They were created by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, working with Vanderbilt and house architect Richard Morris Hunt. The idea was to let guests leisurely go from one themed area to the next, with each garden completely separate from the others, like walking through a door into a different room each time — creating multiple experiences.
Olmsted separated the gardens using manmade berms, hedges, walls and land forms. The paths are laid out according to Olmsted’s original plan, and the landscaping and planting plans are also based on those from 1893.
“We try to represent that as much as we can,” Andes said.
Here’s a quick look at each garden:
Italian Garden — This is the first garden people enter as they walk from the Biltmore House, with three formal water gardens, water lilies and classic statuary. It was designed primarily for moments of quiet reflection but was also used for recreation.
Shrub Garden — More than 500 varieties of plants, shrubs and trees grow here, and this serves as a transition from the main level of the house down to the rest of the gardens, about a 30-foot drop in elevation.
Walled Garden — This is the most well-known of the gardens, covering four acres and done in a “bedding out” style popular at the end of the 19th century. Brick walls surround it and two long arbors run down the middle.
Vanderbilt originally thought it would be used to grow fruits and vegetables, but Olmsted saw it as the perfect ornamental garden. It’s now legendary for its roses. Biltmore grows both modern varieties and old types that were available only before 1914 (when Vanderbilt died) and require more specialized care.
The Walled Garden is spectacular during the April Festival of Flowers, when more than 100,000 tulips and other spring bulbs bloom here (and throughout the estate.) The garden blooms with a progression of colors in spring with daffodils, hyacinths and tulips. Summer features dahlias, zinnias and globe amaranth, while fall is a beautiful display of chrysanthemums.
Conservatory — At the bottom of the Walled Garden is this extraordinary greenhouse. It was designed by Hunt and still functions as it did in Vanderbilt’s day, nurturing exotic and warm-weather ferns, flowers, plants and trees, with a central Palm House. There are water features, outdoor areas and trees that stretch high to the ceiling. The building has a glass roof and a jungle-like feel, aided by the natural light.
Spring Garden — Back outside, this forest area comes to life in the spring, with all kinds of flowers and blooming shrubs that burst out in white, yellow, purple and other colors. It was named for the two small springs Olmsted diverted underground to flow into the Azalea Garden.
Azalea Garden — At 15 acres the largest of the garden areas, it contains more than 1,000 azaleas, both native and hybrid, along with magnolias, dogwoods and conifers.
A horticulturist named Chauncey Beadle was hired temporarily to work here in 1890 and stayed for 60 years, developing it and also donating his own huge azalea collection. Beadle worked his way into managing the gardens and evenually became estate superintendent.
The trees — Although Biltmore’s trees don’t themselves make up a formal garden, they’re part of several gardens and make up a big part of the whole Biltmore experience, from the moment visitors enter the estate. Even the drive up to the house is planned — for its beauty along the way, and for concealing the main house until people arrive at the front lawn, making for a grand entrance.
Andes said he and his staff plan 10 to 20 years in advance when dealing with trees, and over the years Biltmore staff have fought the great Chestnut blight, then Dutch elm disease, and now the Wooly hemlock adelgid.
Maintaining the gardens — A crew of 60 is responsible for about 1,000 acres that require regular maintenance, from working on roads and drainage to mowing, planting, trimming and cutting trees or working in the gardens.
There’s not only maintenance but also experimenting to see what grows well and what goes together. And even though it’s such a famous garden on a spectactular estate, visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year, gardening is still unglamorous work.
“As one of my friends says, ‘Gardening is an annual repetition of monotonous tasks,’ ” Andes said with a laugh. “Mow, weed, rake, shovel snow, shear, make mulch.”
Their biggest challenge: “Mother Nature,” he said. “Things grow, change, die out. Olmsted and Vanderbilt, they didn’t keep it all the same. They changed it a lot. They trialed and errored a lot. Landscapes are dynamic.”
Tips for a visit — Biltmore.com has a great interactive map showing the main house and the garden areas, with descriptions of each one. There’s also a garden guide that lets people know what’s in bloom during each month of the year.
And Andes has advice for people once they’re at Biltmore.
“Try and put yourself in that time period, of the 1890s, 1900, as a guest of George W. Vanderbilt, and walk through at that pace,” Andes said. “Take it in like they did and see it through that lens, and try to appreciate their vision. And we’re trying to keep that vision going for future generations.”