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Best-kept secrets: Biltmore’s alley gardens

Posted on 07/15/2016 by Jean Sexton

With acres of vivid colors and lush plantings, the gardens of Biltmore are so breathtaking that some guests never venture inside the Conservatory during the summer months. According to Jordana Chalnick, Conservatory Horticulturist, however, those who stay outside are missing out on some very special displays in the “back alleys” of the Conservatory.

A working conservatory

“Biltmore’s Conservatory was originally designed to be a functional workspace for growing and nurturing plants as well as an indoor garden space for guests,” said Jordana. “We continue to use it for both purposes today, and we also create intriguing displays that draw visitors through the Conservatory and into the alleys behind it.”

A shady spot in one of the Conservatory alley gardens

Jordana has been with Biltmore since 2006, putting her horticulture degree to use first in the Azalea Garden and then in the Conservatory. She became Conservatory Horticulturalist in 2013 and has been instrumental in creating the displays that make the Conservatory a must-see during any Biltmore visit.

“In the mid-1990s, there were just a few hanging baskets and some of the larger trees in the alleys,” Jordana said. “Gradually, the staff began lining the alley walls with plants and then over the years adding under-plantings to the larger pots. The alleys have definitely evolved from what they were initially to the more designed and elaborate displays we do today.”

Heating up and keeping cool

Jordana noted that there are actually two alleys—one between the cool room and the sitting room and one between the hot room and the sitting room.

This year, the cool alley, which was designed by Conservatory Gardener Kathryn Marsh, features fragrant plants that create a shady respite from the sun during the hot summer months. Having all the different fragrances makes it a nice space in which to take break and relax for a while.

The hot alley features water plants using dwarf versions of many of the species in the Italian Garden.

A blue pot with water plants

“I’ve always liked the idea of displaying the water plants in a way that guests can have closer access to them than they do in the Italian pools,” Jordana said. “I took lots of inspiration from pictures of gardens in Bali and Thailand where they incorporate water plants seamlessly into the landscape as opposed to having a special area for them.”

Alley installation

As far as installing the alleys, the Conservatory crew does as much as possible ahead of time. They received most of the cool alley’s fragrant plants from Florida in March, and the dwarf lotus plants for the hot alley were stored in the Italian Garden pools until early June. 

Fiery yellow and red blooms

“We already have a general idea of which plants will go in which alley, so we will generally load up a truck load for one alley, haul it up and unload it,” said Jordana. “We have one reserve worker who helps us and we definitely get a lot of help from everyone in Historic Gardens, since our crew is pretty small and installing the alleys is a huge project.”

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Pink hibiscus in the cool alley behind the Conservatory

Now that the alley plantings are installed, the Conservatory crew will maintain them throughout the summer, watering, grooming and deadheading as needed. The alleys will stay in until around mid-September when the plants need to start transitioning back to the greenhouses for winter.

“I love my job,” Jordana said, “because I get to use my creativity in designing displays as well as using all of my horticultural knowledge to keep plants happy and healthy.”

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