In the shadow of Biltmore House, America’s largest private residence, are some of America’s finest formal and informal gardens. Here, too, is the birthplace of the first scientific school of forestry in the United States. And it is at Biltmore Estate that this country’s father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed his last and largest project nearly a century ago. Olmsted had completed New York’s Central Park and landscaped campuses at Boston University, Yale and Stanford before he was approached by young George Vanderbilt in the 1880s. Vanderbilt, grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, had already begun purchasing land which would eventually total 125,000 acres around Asheville, North Carolina. Vanderbilt had also retained architect Richard Morris Hunt to design Biltmore House, a 250-room French Renaissance château modeled after the great French châteaux of the Loire Valley. While Hunt began work on Biltmore House, Vanderbilt challenged Olmsted to transform the over-farmed, over-logged land surrounding the site of the house into a country estate, the landscaping equivalent of Hunt’s grand creation. Take a garden photo tour!
Olmsted, Hunt and Vanderbilt worked very closely with one another, recognizing the potential grandeur which could result in the harmony of land and architecture at Biltmore. At age 66, Olmsted began his last opportunity to create a great arboretum and park in the English tradition.
In keeping with Vanderbilt’s vision of a working estate Olmsted, laid out plans for a large farm. But more impressive were the planned woodlands, fields, and gardens, employing the European pastoral and picturesque modes of design, yet enhanced with Olmsted’s own naturalistic style. Included in the plans were several formal gardens—a four-acre English Walled Garden, a 16th-century Italian garden with three reflecting pools, and a dramatic rampe douce and esplanade lined by an avenue of trees at the entrance to Biltmore House.
In addition to these more formal touches, Olmsted also planned a shrub garden or ramble, pools, a lagoon and an elaborately designed three-mile approach road, implementing the best of Olmsted’s style.
A master of naturalistic landscaping, Olmsted found Vanderbilt’s estate provided him with an array of indigenous flora with which to shape the grounds -- rhododendron, mountain laurel, deciduous azalea, hemlock and pine. To these he added the rare and exotic, in true Victorian fashion, creating a unique horticultural setting.
A large-scale nursery was established to grow the millions of plants and flora that would be transplanted in the extensive garden throughout the next decade.
After George Vanderbilt’s early death in 1914, a large portion of the original estate was obtained by the U.S. government, forming the nucleus for Pisgah National Forest. Because Vanderbilt, along with German forester Dr. Carl A. Schenck, established the Biltmore School of Forestry here in America—this seems a fitting legacy to the man behind Biltmore Estate.
Today, Biltmore Estate’s forests, grounds and gardens reflect Olmsted’s plans from nearly a century ago. Estate staff manage approximately 5,000 acres of forest and woodland as well as maintain the estate grounds and greenhouses. Their jobs include pruning some 80 varieties of roses in the rose garden, planting 50,000 tulip bulbs in the English Walled Garden each year, raising and planting 20,000 bedding plants annually, and growing more than 1,000 poinsettias which decorate Biltmore House every Christmas.
In addition to routine gardening and groundskeeping, Biltmore Estate gardens staff are also heavily involved in landscaping restoration projects, implemented in an effort to maintain the integrity and intent of Olmsted’s original plans for Biltmore.
Recently, the staff was involved in the restoration of an intricate flume system beneath the Bass Pond planned by Olmsted. This enabled Vanderbilt to control silt buildup in the pond so that the water retained its clear, clean quality.