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Best-kept secrets: Biltmore’s alley gardens

Posted on 05/15/2019 by Jean Sexton Comments(1)

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.

The back of the Conservatory includes shady seating and lush plantings

According to Todd Roy, 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 Todd.

“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.”
Flowering hibiscus trees in the alleys

Todd has been with Biltmore since 2016 and in that time, he 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,” Todd 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.”

A water feature in one of the alley gardens

Alley themes and designs

Todd noted that there are actually two alleys—one is located between the Cool Room and the Sitting Room; the other is between the Hot Room and the Sitting Room.

In past years, the alleys have showcased specific themes such as "warm and cool" in which one alley featured fragrant plants that created a shady respite from the sun during the hot summer months while the other featured water plants using dwarf versions of many of the species in the Italian Garden.

“Much of the inspiration came 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," said Todd.

"It was interesting to display the water plants in a way that guests could have closer access to them than they do in the Italian pools." 

A replica of All Souls' Cathedral in one of the Conservatory alley gardens

Biltmore Gardens Railway installation

This year, the entire Conservatory—including both alleys—offer landscape designs and plantings that complement Biltmore Gardens Railway—a beautifully executed botanical model train display featuring a variety of Biltmore area structures.

Each charming replica is handcrafted in meticulous detail from such all-natural elements as leaves, bark, and twigs, much of which was gathered on the estate. With 800 feet of rails and trains traversing six separate lines at different eye levels, this is a one-of-a-kind, fun-for-all-ages garden experience.

One of the tiny trains traveling through the lush landscape of the Conservatory

While Todd and other members of Biltmore's gardening team normally prepare the alley plantings as far ahead as possible, they had to wait on the installation of Biltmore Gardens Railway.

Only after the botanical models and railroad tracks were in place could Todd really begin to fill in around them with plants and trees, creating a lush landscape to enhance the miniature buildings and the tiny trains that travel in and out of the Conservatory.

Biltmore Gardens Railway train and trestle in one of the Conservatory alleys

“Although we had a general idea of which plants we might need,” said Todd, "it was a massive effort to have everything in place and ready for the start of the exhibition.”

Now that the everything is installed in the Conservatory and the two alleys, Todd and other gardeners will maintain them throughout the summer, watering, grooming and deadheading as needed.

The alley plantings will provide a lush botanical show until the end of Biltmore Gardens Railway on September 29; after that, staff will need to start transitioning them back to the greenhouses for winter.

“Working with the two alleys is a fun part of my job,” Todd 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.”

A train travels past a replica of the Gardener's Cottage in the Conservatory alley

Savor summer at Biltmore

Plan your Biltmore visit now to enjoy the Conservatory alley gardens—and Biltmore Gardens Railway—while they last!

Featured blog image: yellow Cassia blooms (Cassia didymobotrya) in one of the Conservatory's alley gardens

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Posted on 08/14/2019 By Mary P

The Gardens Railway was one of the most fascinating and enjoyable exhibits. I really liked the way we were allowed to walk through so we would not miss anything. Great job!