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Maintaining the Gilded Age: The Biltmore Estate

By Kevin Burrows, regional editor




Annual change out on Biltmore Estate require coordination and teamwork. No area is left completely bare for guests. Careful planning coordinates when each section will be pulled, prepped and replanted. Crew leaders work together to provide additional labor, and the result is an efficient and quick transition. Most annual beds are changed out four times a year beginning with an early spring planting in April, followed by a summer planting in June, fall chrysanthemum planting in September, and finishing with a bulb planting in November.

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GMS Greenstar Grand Award Winner in the Parks, Recreation Area or Playground category, the Biltmore Estate is a privately owned, self-sustaining working estate near Asheville, North Carolina. Established in 1888 by George Vanderbilt, the estate today covers approximately 8,000 total acres and is split in half by the French Broad River. It is owned by The Biltmore Company, which is controlled by Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil, II. In 1964, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.






The great estates in England inspired Fredrick Law Olmsted, the father of Landscape Architecture, when he designed the lagoon and Deerpark below the house on Biltmore Estate. Today the 6-acre lake is maintained by a separate landscaping department at the Biltmore. Chemicals are used to suppress water weeds, invasive plant material is removed, mulch is applied and selected areas of the shore are kept open for fly fishing and scenic views. The Deerpark is located south of the house and is composed of groupings of oak trees to create a park like setting. Historically, the plan was to fence the park and stock it with farrow deer. Today it is a home to wild deer, turkey, and many other species of birds.





This area was originally designed by Olmsted as an English kitchen garden, which would have featured fruit and vegetable production. Vanderbilt, however, did not agree with Olmsted’s plan and instructed him to design instead, “a garden of ornament rather then utility.” This garden is approximately four acres, is symmetrical in design, divided in half by a free-standing, wooden grape arbor. The upper portion of the walled garden features two large annual pattern beds (which are changed out three times a year) and the lower half is a rose garden, which showcases over 250 varieties of roses.





Every spring beginning in April, Biltmore hosts the Festival of Flowers, celebrating blooming plants in the gardens. The highlight of the event is spring blooming bulbs, featuring tulips. In November, the horticulture staff plants 120,000 bulbs in preparation for these displays. However, in April of 2007 during the first weekend of the festival, Asheville experienced record-breaking low temperatures. In anticipation of lows being in the teens and with a chance of snow, the crew took precautionary measures to protect the tulip blooms. For three days, they covered the tulips each evening and then uncovered them each morning. Their efforts paid off and the tulip blooms were spectacular for weeks to come.


The Biltmore’s horticultural department’s mission is the stewardship of the estate’s historic and contemporary landscape in an effort to add value and pleasure to the guest experience. The estate’s expansive spread includes 3,000 acres of managed forest, 300 acres of pastures and fields, and 75 acres of historic gardens. More than 200 container gardens are used for seasonal color, and the estate’s historic conservatory provides production and display space.

Crew

Landscape Manager Susanne Woodell has been at Biltmore for over six years and leads a team of 62 full time landscape employees (plus 5 seasonal workers). The team members, 30 of which are licensed pesticide applicators, put in around 2000 man-hours a week. A 2.58 million dollar landscaping budget (which includes salaries) factors in $250,000 annually to purchase and maintain equipment, $240,000 to buy seed and plant material, and nearly $25,000 for chemicals and fertilizers.

Notable Gardens

There are a number of scenic areas found on the grounds at Biltmore. One such area is the spring garden, which get its name from the two natural “springs” that originate at the top of this garden. A space that is slightly off the beaten track, it provides adventurous guests an opportunity to experience an evergreen woodland garden, which features many Victorian era flowering shrubs such as Weigela, Viburnum, Forsythia and Spirea.

The Italian Garden is located in the south of the Esplanade and features three formal pools designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted. These pools were specifically designed to feature water garden plants, such as water lily and lotus, as well as serving as a mirror to reflect the image of the Biltmore house. The name “Italian Garden” is derived from the numerous Italian planters and classical sculptures featured in this garden.

The Hunt fountain located at the front of Biltmore was restored in the summer of 2006. The front of the house has large terracotta Italian potted plant displays featuring evergreen trees and shrubs in the winter. In the summer months tropical plants and colorful annuals are used extensively. In addition, every summer the estate’s Conservatory alley displays, located between the rear conservatory wings, are designed by one of the gardeners. This year’s theme was “The Ruins of Biltmore,” in which broken, historic terracotta planters and water elements were featured.






Above and below: With new plantings installed each spring and fall, and very few irrigated areas, watering can be a challenge. The crew has a 500-gallon water wagon that is equipped with a pump to fill it from streams and lakes. This piece of equipment was utilized five days a week this past summer to meet demand. There are over 500 containers on the property (above) used for seasonal display, and all are hand watered. All watering takes place before guests enter the estate to prevent any safety hazards with hoses. George Vanderbilt originally purchased the terracotta containers at the front of the house while traveling in Italy. Through the years, some have been replaced with new containers that have been created from molds of the originals.







Special Events

Biltmore Estate is a privately owned estate that operates for a profit. One of the ways they generate revenue is by hosting functions throughout the estate property. Many of these are outside events, sometimes requiring tents when there is a potential for inclement weather. Special events create challenges with maintenance scheduling as well as clean up. Tents create many challenges for the landscape department, beginning with marking water lines and repairing any that were damaged during installation. Despite the challenges, they try to strive to provide a high quality turf for not only the day guests, but also those attending the functions.

One of the most notable events at Biltmore is the hunter/jumper horse classic, which has been held for the past 8 years in mid-July. This is a 2-week event that features approximately 700 horses. Turf preparation begins in early spring with over seeding and fertilization of the fields. The fields are mowed on a weekly basis to create lush green grass. As summer progresses, an irrigation system is installed to encourage grass growth. Before the event, all fields are mowed prior to tent set-up and wood mulch is spread for walkways and to beautify around trailers and tents. Any horse manure produced at the event is hauled off and spread on other fields.

Lightning

With large trees scattered throughout the Biltmore Estate property, storm events always crate a challenge. Lightning protection can save trees from the destructive force of these strikes. The estate has lost 19 major landscape trees to lightning over the past few years. To prevent future damage, the crew has been installing tree lightning protection systems throughout the wooded areas.






In addition to over 100 acres of finely-managed turf, the horticulture staff maintains in excess of 200 acres of rough turf on open or semi-open hillsides and other areas. These are maintained through mowing with large tractors and Bush Hog type field mowers. Also, a side mount type mower (shown here) is used for mowing ditches, roadside banks and other areas not accessible with conventional mowers. The intent is to produce an aesthetically pleasing landscape, while controlling invasive plants.





The front entrance to the Biltmore estate sets the stage and builds the anticipation for the guests’ visit. Over 3,000 annuals are planted each year in late April for the summer displays. Summer annuals are planted in June and fall chrysanthemums are planted mid September.


Drainage

In the early years of Biltmore Estate, a subsurface drainage system was installed to provide drainage of agriculture fields and adjacent turf and roads. Over time, this system had begun to fail, and in 2007 in was replaced in one large open field area. This work consisted of grading to produce a grassed waterway for surface drainage, installing a grid of underground pipe for subsurface drainage and construction of concrete structure for collection and discharge of both the surface runoff and the subsurface water.

Drought

Last year brought severe drought conditions to Western North Carolina. During the month of July, the area was at a 12” deficit in rainfall for the year. Every new plant located in an area without irrigation was provided with supplemental water after planting. With new plantings installed each spring and fall, and very few irrigated areas, watering can be a challenge.

Movie roles

The grounds and buildings of the Biltmore Estate have appeared in a number of major motion pictures including: There Will Be Blood(2008), The Clearing (2002), Hannibal (2001), Patch Adams (1998), My Fellow Americans (1996), Richie Rich (1994), Forrest Gump (1994), and Last of the Mohicans (1992) to name a few.


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December 11, 2019, 1:14 pm PDT

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