Preparing Biltmore’s gardens for cooler weather

The task list is long in Susanne Woodall’s weekly planner this time of year. Susanne is Historic Gardens Manager at Biltmore. At summer’s end, she and Travis Murray, Walled Garden Crew Leader, focus on putting the gardens to bed after the spring and summer seasons have delighted our guests in tribute to Frederick Law Olmsted’s original landscape scheme.

The ever-changing gardens require meticulous note-taking and calendar-minding to stay on track for the next season…. and the next and the next. It’s challenging for Susanne and Travis to summarize what they do to get the gardens ready for fall and winter, but they did offer a few points. 

Fall tasks at hand

After Labor Day, crews have been busy pulling all of the tropical plants. That means the massive terra cotta planters filled with elephant ears that line the front of Biltmore House and other areas are being emptied and stored for next summer.

Crew members suit up in waders for a walk into the Italian Garden pools where tropical lilies and enormous Victorian lily pads are finishing out their seasons. The crew is weeding out the remains and cleaning the ponds.  

Height pruning in the floral pattern beds and borders of the Walled Garden is a priority in order to keep leaf drop manageable as the winds pick up with seasonal change. Perennials are cut back.

Dalia bulbs in the Walled Garden’s Victorian border are lifted out of the ground to allow the soil to dry naturally. The bulbs will be placed in a cool dry place to store over winter to be replanted in the spring.

Biltmore’s signature fall color flower display of mums are being planted in the Walled Garden pattern beds. They’ll start showing color late this month and into early October, with peak full bloom somewhere near the second or third week of October.  A warm-toned color scheme is planned with shades of orange, lilac, golden yellow and deep purple.

Fall leaves become a part of Biltmore soil

As temperatures fall, and the leaves begin to change colors, just like at your house, there’s leaf management to consider. The horticulture crew embarks on several leaf clean-ups throughout the season to minimize final clean-up at the end of the season.

Crews collect the leaves and use them for compost, or they put the leaves in to a tub grinder with woody debris and grind everything to use for soil. Any leftovers are used in a compost that made with herbaceous debris, which is broadcast in the field crops and food plots throughout estate property.

Christmas and Winter

Poinsettias used in Biltmore’s Christmas displays are grown in the production house near the Conservatory. Planted in July, sprouts are emerging now. A selection of the full-grown plants will be placed in Biltmore House, while the others will decorate the Conservatory.

In early October, the Conservatory team will plant tulip bulbs in pots in order to have tulip bloom and color “under glass” by the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day in February.

Looking ahead to Bitmore Blooms

And then, there are the tulips which herald the start of our springtime Biltmore Blooms celebration. Yellow, white, orange and purple tulips will bloom in late April, but are planted in November just before Thanksgiving. Actual planting days are based on temperatures to avoid planting when the ground is frozen. This year crews will plant 56,000 tulips; 14,000 daffodils; and 1,000 hyacinths for a total of 71,000 spring blooming bulbs in the Walled Garden. 

To keep track of every plant from seed to taking them out of the production house to putting them in the ground, all of these timetables and tasks are organized on paper. It includes a “priority matrix” that Susanne developed to determine which tasks to focus on first depending on factors such as guest-facing locations and type of plant.

Otherwise, “It’s all a jumbled mess in your head,” Travis says. He’s quick to add that when you’re working in the gardens season after season, the memory naturally retains the details. Gardeners are constantly thinking several steps ahead of the task at hand. “In horticulture, everything effects the next thing,” says Travis. “Perennial-wise you have to make allowances now to have success in the spring. Everything has the continual life span of birth and rebirth almost.”

Top photo: Mums in the Walled Garden are an annual sight at Biltmore.

Middle photo: Poinsettia plants growing to maturity in the Production House. They'll move to Biltmore House in time for Christmas at Biltmore.

Bottom photo: Crews plant thousands of tulip bulbs across the estate in November to ensure springtime flowers for Biltmore's annual Biltmore Blooms. 

How does our garden grow?

If something edible is being grown at Biltmore, chances are you’ll find that Eli Herman had a hand in it. Now serving as the estate’s Field to Table Production Garden Manager, Eli has spent more than 30 years coaxing a variety of produce to flourish in the fields of Biltmore.

Green Tower lettuceFor events such as our Taste of Biltmore celebration each September, Eli plans well in advance to bring in a bountiful harvest. In addition to the microgreens and lettuces that grow year-round in the greenhouse, the Production Garden offers a seasonal wealth of delicious fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers to grace the plates of estate restaurants as well as taking center stage in culinary demos.

Blackberries ripening on the vineOur fruits and vegetables taste as good as they look,” said Eli, “and nothing beats the taste of something that was grown right here and only traveled across the estate to your table!”

This season was particularly favorable for both acorn squash and fingerling potatoes, both of which will find their way onto estate menus this fall. Eli is particularly pleased with this year’s potato crop, and he has special plans for the tasty tubers.

Eli Herman with hydroponic lettuce“We planted three different types of fingerling potatoes this spring,” Eli said. “Russian Bananas, which are a yellow-fleshed, banana-shaped potato, red-skinned Papa Chacos, and Magic Molly, which is a round, blue potato. They all came in well and I’m saving some of them for our special Taste of Biltmore events with Chef Vivian Howard of the PBS series A Chef’s Life.”

To sample the bounty of the Production Garden, look for estate-grown ingredients on our menus any time, or join us for special Taste of Biltmore events throughout the month of September.

Best-kept secrets: Biltmore’s alley gardens

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.”

Springtime Project: Tussie Mussie

Learn how to create your own tussie mussie, inspired by fashions and the language of flowers during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). During this era, flowers were considered a more modest adornment than jewelry for a young woman. A tussie mussie was sometimes tied with a ribbon, but could also be carried in a cone-shaped, decorative silver holder. They're still used today for some bridesmaid bouquets.

Creating a Tussie Mussie

1. Start with the bushiest flowers first and add in additional flowers in a crisscross pattern. Rotate arrangement with each new flower added. 

2. Vary the height of each flower and remove excess greenery along the stems. Cut long stems for a petite and feminine look. 

3. Measure ribbon at 18-24 inches, cut and wrap around base. Tie a traditional bow and cut tails by folding the ends of each ribbon in half.

4. Find the perfect spot to display your arrangement! Whether used at a placesetting, or as an accessory, these simple arrangements are a beautiful way to incorporate fresh spring flowers into your decor.

Springtime Project: Olmsted Basket

Biltmore's gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as his last great commission. Gentleness, charm, and naturalness are keynotes of Olmsted's style. The picturesque and pastoral elements of Olmsted’s gardens can be recalled in our miniature landscapes, which our Floral Team uses throughout Biltmore House and other areas of the estate as a way to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside.

Creating an Olmsted Basket


1. Choose your container. This can be a basket, ceramic bowl, brass dish, or wooden box; anything deep enough to hide the pots and give you room to create. Line the container with polyfoil or a garbage bag to protect from leaks.

2. Choose your plants. The size of the pots are determined by the size of your container, but 4″ pots are most commonly used. It's best to use plants with similar requirements such as light, water, humidity, and temperature. Use some tall and low plants, some upright and some spreading to add depth. Ensure the pots should have drainage holes to protect from soggy roots.

3. Be creative! Use natural materials such as moss, rocks, twigs, gourds, and berries to create interest with different textures. 

4. Choose the perfect spot in your home to display your creation. From room accents to tabletop centerpieces, these long-lasting designs are a perfect way to brighten up your space. 

A Vigilant Garden Rescue

Early spring often brings unpredictable weather patterns, and 2016 is no exception. On the evening of April 9, forecasted temperatures in the mid-20's generated concern among Biltmore's garden crew. Fragrant, colorful wisteria draped across Biltmore's Pergola is an iconic view that our guests have come to love each year and with the early buds just beginning to form and bloom, Garden Crew Leader, Clare Whittington, knew they had to act quickly.

Borrowing patio heaters from Biltmore's Engineering Services department, Clare and crew-member Steven Ayers moved the heaters into place around 12:30 a.m. With only 6 hours of gas, they worked with forecasters from Rays Weather Service to ensure they turned on the heat in the most critical hours. Steven stayed throughout the night to monitor the heaters and keep watch — demonstrating the amazing commitment our employees have to their work.

“We were not only worried about losing this year’s bloom, but we were also afraid of the wisteria reacting with a burst of vegetative growth. This happened after the freeze of ’07, and it took many years to get the display back to where it is now. Vegetative growth is the long whips that don’t bloom, and create a bad tangle every year,” said Clare.

Clare expects this year's wisteria to be in full bloom the week of April 18. Many of our guests enjoying Biltmore Blooms and the Pergola wisteria will be unaware of these above-and-beyond efforts of our garden crew, but for those who are, we hope it makes you appreciate its beauty even more!

Biltmore wines capture the essence of spring

Each year, inspired by Biltmore's gardens bursting with dazzling tulips and other spectacular blooms, our winemakers carefully handcraft a special release to celebrate the season. For 2016, this special seasonal release is a semi-sweet white with a touch of fruitiness—ideal for outdoor picnics and sipping while soaking up the sunshine. 

“This wine is aromatic, with hints of peach and honesuckle,” said Jill Whitfield, Biltmore Wine Marketing Manager. “It tastes as if we'd bottled the essence of spring, and we're excited that our guests can find it in their own neighborhood grocery stores and wine shops.

In addition to handcrafting this delicious wine, we also create a beautiful new label for the bottle. “We want the label to convey the expectation and sense of celebration inspired by our gardens and the return of warmer weather,” Jill said.

Sketchbook with ideasTo illustrate the idea of sun-kissed gardens and rebirth, Jill works closely with Biltmore's Assistant Art Director Lisa Vogel. The two collaborate on what the label might portray, and Lisa creates a series of sketches that will evolve into the final concept. 

“For the past few years, I've created variations on a theme based on the soft blooms and buds that herald the return of spring in Biltmore's gardens,” said Lisa. “I add layers of botanical texture and color for a sense of richness, and then I add a slightly whimsical note like a bee or a bird that makes the design more distinctive and light-hearted.”

Sketches of roses for spring labelThis year's seasonal release label features a charming butterfly amidst a bouquet of glorious old-fashioned roses. “Jill wanted to draw the attention of our customers and reinforce the connection between Biltmore Wines, spring blossoms, and the welcome return of warmer weather,” Lisa said of her initial drawings. “So I drew roses, buds, and greenery as a backdrop, and focused on bringing out the playful little character of the butterfly once we knew where the text would be positioned on the label.”

Seasonal Release wine labelAfter Jill approved the label design, Lisa worked with specialty printers to ensure that the colors and detail of the artwork would be preserved in the printing process.

“There are so many options to make the design pop out on the shelf,” said Lisa, “from papers and varnishes to metallic inks and embossed patternstoday's wine label printers can really help bring the finished product to lifeand we certainly want everyone to see the bottle and think 'spring!'”

Featured images: pages from Lisa's sketchbook paired with finished wine labels; Lisa displaying a bottle of our 2016 Seasonal Release White Wine for which she designed the label


Our favorite outdoor rooms

Biltmore’s Landscape Designer Frederick Law Olmsted had definitive ideas about landscape design—you can see many of them in New York City’s Central Park and here at Biltmore, which was his last professional project before his death in 1903.

Approach Road to Biltmore HouseFor the magnificent estates he landscaped, Olmsted preferred longer-than-usual approach drives and separate garden spaces or “outdoor rooms” that were distinct from one another with no blending of styles.

The methods Olmsted used for creating special spaces are very noticeable in spring when the gardens and grounds begin to bloom with color. When estate employees were asked to share their favorite outdoor rooms around the estate, their answers were a tribute to all that Olmsted envisioned to enchant the Vanderbilts and their guests more than a century ago.

Parker Andes, Director of Horticulture, has a favorite spot tucked away in the Italian Garden. “There's a terra cotta cherub fountain in the last little turf area near the end of the garden,” said Parker. “Most people miss this treasure because they don’t walk all the way down there.”

Azalea Garden stepsAnother special location mentioned by several staff members is a bench at the top of the Spring Garden. From this vantage point, you can look down into the Azalea Garden and also have a view of the distant mountains.

“The Spring Garden is like a little valley that opens up off the beaten path. The grass gets green there first and flowers bloom early,” said Cathy Barnhardt, Floral Displays Manager. “It’s a great place to spend time with your family.”

Another not-to-be-missed favorite outdoor room is the Azalea Garden with all its varieties, colors, and sweet fragrances of azalea to enjoy. “Although the Azalea Garden wasn't part of Olmsted's original plan, it makes perfect use of a wooded space,” noted Parker. “The blooms are spectacular in late spring, so be sure to take time to walk down the stone steps—another technique Olmsted used to divide outdoor rooms—and stroll down the path there, noticing the stream lined with wild flowers and unusual conifers.”

Boathouse on the Bass PondBelow the Azalea Garden, Hope Wright of A Gardener's Place loves walking down the path to the Bass Pond. “I stop on the bridge going toward the Boat House and sit on the bench,” Hope said. “This is a favorite spot of mine in the spring as I look back upon the stunning beauty I have just witnessed.”

An outdoor statue comes clean

From the iconic marble lions in front of Biltmore House to terra cotta figures, bronzes, and more, the estate features 37 pieces of outdoor sculpture and historic plaques. Each piece is carefully examined and photographed every six months to determine its “health” and what type of cleaning, stabilization, or repairs might be needed. The following photos illustrate how important this process is and what a difference cleaning and preservation make:

Sphinx statue in need of cleaning

The sphinx statues guarding the entrance gates at Biltmore House were in need of a thorough cleansing to rid them of biological growth. Scaffolding was built around them so Museum Services could clean the statuary in place.

Sphinx statue is half clean, half dirty to show the difference

Our preservation experts worked on half of this sculpture at a time to illustrate how it appears at different stages of the cleaning process. Note how much detail is revealed when the dark biological growth was removed from the hindquarters of the sphinx.

Now beautifully clean once again, this classic sphinx sculpture has been returned to the regal appearance she enjoyed during the Vanderbilt era. 

Learn more about our extensive process to document, clean, and preserve our outdoor statuary collection.

The Art of Biltmore’s Open-Air Museum

Frederick Law Olmsted selected the major plantings at Biltmore with the utmost attention. Each had a specific purpose: to provide a certain color, texture or function, such as shade or height. But the manmade features of the gardens−statuary and planters−are more like the icing on the cake, hitting graceful notes throughout the landscape. So, what do we know about the artwork in Biltmore’s open air museum?

“To our knowledge, Olmsted did not specify any statuary at Biltmore,” says Bill Alexander, Biltmore’s Landscape and Forest Historian. Research shows most of the statues were purchased in the late 1800s in France and Italy by George Vanderbilt and Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect. It’s likely that Olmsted did play a role in the placement of the statues because the three men worked so closely on every aspect of the design of Biltmore House and Gardens.

Classic Influences

Walking through the gardens, you’ll notice a number of statues featuring characters from Greek myth. The four terra cotta figures on the South Terrace—Faun, Adonis, Venus, and Hamadryad—are modeled after originals created by Antoine Coysevox, a prolific sculptor from the 17th century. If you look closely at the figure at the far right end of the Terrace, you’ll see Coysevox’s maker’s mark.

In the Italian Garden, you’ll find several variations of late-19th-century putti—winged figures that were popular in both statuary and painting during the Italian Renaissance. The small terra cotta angel located at the end of the Italian Garden is based on a work of art that’s housed in the Louvre. Although there’s a fountain bowl in front of this putto, Kara Warren, Preventive Conservation Specialist, says there is no record that water was ever used in the fountain.

Aging Naturally

Whether made from bronze, marble, limestone, granite, or terra cotta, each outdoor statue has to weather the elements. Storms and environmental pollutants have taken their toll of them over the last century. According to Kara, some repairs and restorations date back to 1934.

“Reading the descriptions of repair work from our archival records is like having a mini history lesson. Each repair documents the care the statue received over the year. Today, we occasionally need to repair the repairs, replacing corroded iron elements with stainless steel or replacing mortar that has crumbled over time,” she continues.

Near the stairway leading from the house to the Italian Garden, you’ll notice the Italian white marble statue that’s known as “The Dancing Lesson.” The original, made of terra cotta, was replaced by this copy in the 1970s after it was damaged in a storm.

Perhaps Biltmore’s most famous statue, Diana, goddess of the hunt, located on the hill overlooking the house, met a similar fate. The original terra cotta work, based on a marble housed in the Louvre, was replaced with today’s marble version carved by H. Whinery Oppice in the 1970s.

In Harmony with Nature

As you walk through the gardens, statuary sometimes plays a supporting role to the ever-changing natural beauty that takes center stage. But each garden element is an important part of this living landscape that has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark.