How to create a beautiful garden like the Biltmore Estate


A view of summer in the walled garden — Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

At Biltmore Estate, the location of the largest privately owned home in the United States, visitors pour into the property to tour the majestic house.  But there’s one rule of real estate that cannot be ignored: Location, location, location.  

In fact, the house itself was constructed with intentions to complement the surrounding Blue Ridge scenery, allowing the natural splendor of the encompassing 8,000 acres to shine.  And you can see how much love went into cultivating that environment in the many beautifully designed gardens.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who you might know as the designer of Central Park and the “Father of Landscape Architecture in America,” was asked to evaluate the property in 1888, prior to construction of the home.  With his wealth of knowledge and guidance, the enormously complex task of blending the natural with the architectural was completed over several years.

Nowadays, the skilled horticultural team at Biltmore works tirelessly to maintain Olmsted’s designs and translate his visions into workable plans for the changing environment.  We were lucky enough to chat with the Director of Horticulture, Parker Andes, about what makes the Biltmore gardens so special and how you can create that magic in your own backyard.

What it’s like to work in the Biltmore gardens

Blankets of blooms in springtime — Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

10Best: Is it daunting to uphold the legacy of Frederick Law Olmstead?

Parker Andes:  It is. What we really try and do is – and I’ll give you a couple examples – is work within that design intent.  So, let’s look at the approach road. We have a lot of good landscape drawings for sections of the approach road, but Olmsted and Vanderbilt,  they didn’t know about vehicles when they were building the Biltmore Estate. They knew railroads and they knew horses and carriages.  So the design for the approach road was that a guest would come into Asheville, or the town of Biltmore at the time, on a train at maybe 25 or 30 miles an hour, and then get on a horse and carriage and would take this three-and-a-half-mile carriage ride or horseback ride to the house.

So everything was slower and from a [different] perspective; things were viewed from higher.  So on the approach road drawings, there are sightlines to waterfalls or ponds. and they may be very narrow.  They may only be 10 feet wide, and it’ll say on the [drawing] “sightline,” and it’ll show a little horse and carriage, where you’re up six-plus feet in the air, you look over and think “Oh, that’s nice” and keep on going. 

In a car, you’re going 20 miles an hour – hopefully no faster than that – and you’re probably closer to 4 feet off the ground.  So the views – both the speed and the angle – are different.  So if we recreated it exactly like Olmsted drew it, the guests wouldn’t appreciate it.  I’m using an extreme example, but that is the case.

10Best: In your opinion, what’s the best time of year to visit the grounds?

Andes: For me, personally, I love tropicals and I love really full gardens that have soft edges and that are exuberant. I tend to like our gardens from the approach road all the way through to the winery. I like them towards the end of the summer, and in fact, in September when we get those couple of cool nights – I mean, everything sort of picks up a little bit. 

The colors get a little more vibrant, and I think some of the gardens are at their peak actually around Labor Day.  But that’s a personal opinion.  If you came in the middle of May and drove up the approach road, with the mountain laurel and the Catawba rhododendron hybrids, you would go “Oh, this is just gorgeous.”

We get all these wonderful mountain laurels – one of my favorite plants – so mid-May, for me, at the gardens and around Western North Carolina is one of my favorite times.  In fact, I think it’s almost magical. For whatever reason, it’s special to me. 

And the roses, they peak that last week of May or first week of June, and our rose garden is exceptional.  I mean, it is really one of the best rose gardens in the United States. 

Enjoy serene scenes like this one in the Italian garden — Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

10Best: Is it a challenge to keep up with the changing weather and environment?

Andes: Yes, today’s weather is a challenge for us.  We’ve had more heavy downpours in the past decade than I can remember; we’re not getting [a greater amount of] rain, but it’s coming shorter and harder.  Some of the issues with maintaining streams and ponds, things like that, become a little bit more difficult.  And, the last couple of years, the spring [seasons] have been warmer. 

We used to be able to say that tulips would peak on the 15th of April, and you could pretty much count on it.  Well, now we’re peaking 7 days ahead of that. So, we’re selecting plants that bloom later and earlier to stretch out a length of bloom for our guests.  We’re working within what we’re given. 

10Best: What’s your favorite part of your job?

Andes: The favorite part of my job is watching what the gardeners create.  If you have been through Biltmore, you’ve been to the conservatory, the walled gardens, some of the areas down around the azalea garden, and even over at the village and the winery; [in all of those locations] we work with design intents. 

What is an area supposed to look like?  The shrub garden was designed as a shrubbery, and we’ve got Olmsted’s original designs…and the gardeners work within those concepts to create what our guests see today. The best part of my job is that sort of thing. You know, almost without exception, it’s “Man, that is exactly…you know, Vanderbilt would’ve loved that.”  Or, in some cases, Olmsted would’ve loved that. 

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How to create your own magical space

The Biltmore gardens are home to several quite hideaways — Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

10Best: What should people look for when trying to create their own garden? What would your best advice be?

Andes: There are 10 design principles that Frederick Law Olmsted worked with…when I get these questions, I kind of go back to those principles. And the first one is called the genius of a place, and I just call it the sense of place. For me, it’s [the question of] if you’re living in, let’s say, Tucson, Ariz., why would you do an azalea garden?

You sort of celebrate what you have, and so that keeps it from feeling too contrived.  One of his other thoughts was concealing art; basically making things look natural even though you’ve spent a lot of time on it.  So, you try not to have things too contrived; softening edges is really important.

Another idea is repetition. If you look at any of our gardens, there’s a certain amount of repetition…as you’re coming up the approach road, those mountains laurels and rhododendrons from the very start all the way through to where you see the house.  And once you get there, you don’t see them anymore. For a homeowner, that repetition might not be 50 plants, it might be 3 plants of the same type.

Say you had 50 different things, but in those 50 things, you had 5 or 7 very strong, cohesive same things…could be a tree, a shrub, any number of things – all of a sudden, it becomes more of a cohesive design, [giving it] more of a natural feel because nature does that.  If you look out and you see copse of trees that are all the same type, openings of meadow and they’ll have wildflowers in them that are similar throughout; if every flower were different it would look jolting.

10Best: What about size and scope?

Andes: Just go smaller.  The scale is so important, and we deal with that a lot here.  Instead of a standard dogwood, maybe you can get one of the dwarf dogwoods.  Instead of a red maple, get a Japanese maple.  You keep an eye and thought to the scale of the area.  Olmsted would talk about the width of a walkway or width of a road, and what the gutters on the side of the road would look like and how big they would be because he wanted to make sure that the scale of all that fit within the area. 

What I would suggest, and I do this quite often with people, is they’ll say, “You know, that seems too big,” and I’ll take a garden hose, lay it on the ground in that shape, and put a couple of things out before you dig up an area, and [ask] does that feel right?  Does that feel too big, too small?  Something to help you see that scale. 

10Best: What would you suggest for those that have a small outdoor space, or perhaps no outdoor space at all?

Andes: You want to find something that matches your interior.  How much sun do you have?  How much shade? You know those phalaenopsis orchids that you can buy in almost any grocery store? What a wonderful plant.  But don’t buy one.  Buy five.  Put them together.  Put three over there, and one there and one there. Maybe you can work with it, and re-bloom them in a year.

Container gardens on patios – the challenge there is you’ve got to go up.  Patio space is at a premium, so by the time you have a table and four chairs,  it’s hard to grow something that’s gonna be big and sprawling, so that’s one where you’d really think about having some vertical accents that don’t go beyond the container itself.

Blooming wisteria makes for a storybook backdrop to your afternoon — Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

Tips on caring for plants

10Best: What’s the best advice you could give to someone who feels like they have a black thumb?

Andes: People talk about green thumbs.  And if you went up to every gardener here on the estate today, you would not see one green thumb.  They would be brown and calloused, not green, because they work at it.  So, you know, if you don’t have a passion for something, it’s okay.  If you’re not going to think about, “How much water does this poinsettia need?”, that’s okay. 

Plant succulents, and when you forget about them for a month and they do finally die, throw them away.  Put some more out there.  Plants have been put on this earth for us to use and enjoy, and whether it’s a mop or a phalaenopsis that just blooms for weeks with one or two waterings a week, you can forget about it. 

[Plants are] there for us to enjoy and not to waste, not to treat harshly, but to use and enjoy.

10Best: We’ve always heard that you should talk to your plants. What do you think?

Andes: Where do I stand on talking to plants?  There’s a lot of science that is being worked on right now about how plants react to their environment and how plants work…nutrients will move from one plant, and within several growing seasons, that same compound – the exact same one – will end up a hundred yards away on the other side of another tree.  How did that happen? 

It’s a very complicated – wonderfully complicated to us – world. I guess if you want to talk to your plants, that would be fine.  We know plants react to stimuli, and if it makes you feel better, talk to your plants. It’s when they start to talk back that we’ll all worry.

The gardens at Biltmore Estate can be enjoyed year-round, with the purchase of a daytime ticket which also includes a admission to Biltmore House, Antler Hill Village and a complimentary wine tasting at their very own Winery.

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