Preparing Biltmore’s gardens for cooler weather

All Things Biltmore • 09/07/16

Written By Leeann Donnelly

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. 

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