Spring is a Special Time to Honor Olmsted

Spring is a special time to honor Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore’s landscape designer.

Bench by Biltmore's Bass Pond
A quiet spot near the Bass Pond highlights Olmsted’s landscape design

When designing Biltmore’s historic gardens and grounds, Olmsted knew that spring would set the stage for all the glorious seasons to come.

Today, the meticulously maintained landscape still stand as a timely tribute to Olmsted’s springtime birthday.

Born April 26, 1822, Olmsted is known as “the father of American landscape architecture,” with premiere projects including Central Park in New York City and the grounds of California’s Stanford University.

Olmsted designed this lagoon to reflect Biltmore House
The Lagoon is one of Olmsted’s many landscape designs for Biltmore

“There are many beautiful American parks and landscapes that reflect Olmsted’s genius,” said Parker Andes, Director of Horticulture, “but it’s the design for Biltmore that is considered Olmsted’s masterpiece.”

According to Parker, Olmsted had already worked on several Vanderbilt family projects when George Vanderbilt approached him in 1888 for advice on the North Carolina property he’d already purchased.

“Now I have brought you here to examine it and tell me if I have been doing anything very foolish,” Vanderbilt reportedly told Olmsted.

Olmsted’s frank assessment

Biltmore's Approach Road in spring
The Approach Road to Biltmore House is lined with azaleas each spring

“Olmsted was frank in his assessment, advising Vanderbilt that the soil seemed to be generally poor, with most of the good trees having been culled already,” Parker said. “He noted that the topography was unsuitable for creating the type of park scenery that characterized the English country estates that Vanderbilt admired.”

Olmsted planned colorful blooms for spring in Biltmore's Shrub Garden
Colorful spring blooms in Biltmore’s Shrub Garden

Plans for both the house and landscape changed in 1889 when Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt toured France together and the scale of Biltmore House and its surrounding gardens expanded.

Olmsted wrote that he was nervous, not sure how to “merge stately architectural work with natural or naturalistic landscape work,” but Olmsted biographer Witold Rybczynki says that the landscape architect achieved something completely original at Biltmore: the first combination of French and English landscape designs.

White wisteria blooming in Biltmore's Walled Garden
White wisteria blooming in the Walled Garden

“You can see Olmsted’s creativity and skill in the transitions between Biltmore’s formal and natural gardens, and his use of native plants, small trees and large shrubs, and color and texture year-round,” said Parker. 

Now that Biltmore welcomes 1.7 million guests each year, the historic gardens and grounds must be protected and preserved as carefully as Biltmore House and all other original parts of the estate.

Kids in Biltmore's Azalea Garden
Guests of all ages love discovering Biltmore’s “outdoor rooms” like the Azalea Garden

“In addition to the impact of so many visitors, the landscape has changed and matured over the past century,” said Parker, “and the challenge for today’s landscaping team lies in determining what Olmsted intended.”

Landscaping crew at work in Biltmore's Walled Garden
Landscaping crews at work to carry on Olsted’s vision for Biltmore

“The team uses archival resources such as early plans, original plant lists, letters of correspondence, weekly reports written during the construction of the estate, and information about Olmsted’s design philosophies to help them preserve the landscape style while remaining true to Olmsted’s vision,” Parker noted.

Plan your visit this spring

Prepare to be dazzled as the splendor of spring unfolds across Biltmore’s historic gardens and grounds and thousands of blossoms create a tapestry of color across the estate.

Featured blog image: A couple enjoys a visit to the estate’s historic gardens and grounds