The 120,000 acre Biltmore Estate in North Carolina is the last landscape design done by Frederick Law Olmsted. Now, with only 8,000 acres left, it is up to Parker Andes, the estate’s Director of Horticulture, to keep Olmsted’s plans alive and well and flourishing into the twenty-first century.
If the land Olmsted had to work with was flat, then he constructed berms to make hills and ridges. If he couldn’t find bedrock, then he brought in boulders by mule team and made his own. And that kind of ethic, “We can do it!” is still functioning today with Parker Andes and his staff. They just have much newer tools to help them and mule teams are a thing of the past.
A sixteenth century terraced Italian garden has three reflecting pools with water lilies and lotus. “In addition, we have kitchen gardens and angus beef cattle production,” says Andes, “as well as sheep production. Estate raised beef and lamb is served in the hotel restaurants along with estate raised vegetables and wine. It’s a working estate.”
There are 60 full time employees on the grounds crew, which include arborists and gardeners. In addition to grounds maintenance, they also grade the gravel roads and maintain the drainage systems and the kitchen garden for the restaurant. With an 8,000-acre estate, one thousand acres of which need in-depth maintenance, a lot of machines are required as well. “Efficiency is very important on a site of this size with this amount of turf,” says Andes. “We generally prefer Toro and John Deere mowers and have some of both.”
Lots of trees means lots of leaves, so naturally blower attachments are very important. Leaf mulch made from the leaves they collect is used primarily in herbaceous and annual beds. Some is used on the shrub beds, but for the most part, they use chips on shrub beds. They use one other mower, which has a blower attachment (they tested quite a few), a Ventrac with a 60-inch deck. It mows steep slopes very well and gives a decent finish cut. “Although it doesn’t get as many hours as the other mowers,” says Andes, “and it broke down a couple of times when we really needed it, when it’s running it’s a great machine, In addition, it has every kind of attachment—blowers, brooms, etc. But the best thing about the Ventrac is the way holds the slopes.”
“The paths are still laid out with Olmsted’s original plan, and we have a landscape planting plan from l893 for the area,” says Andes. “We try to represent that as best they can. There are plants in here from the turn of the century. We also use the latest cultivars, plus the latest version of Scotch broom, and every year we put in 40,000 tulip blossoms.
There is a centralized maintenance shop on the property and most of the vehicle maintenance is done on site. They also have eight tractors, two bulldozers, one of which is old, and a new one with a track hoe. In addition they have dump trucks, pick-up trucks, salt spreaders and snow plows. The fleet of eight tractors includes Mathew Fergusons, Bobcat 300s, a back hoe loader (not a skid steer) and a 4-wheel steer with an auger, trencher and forks that’s used all over the property.
“We approach everything with an IPM focus,” says Andes. “Basically, that means we use the least toxic, most targeted chemicals to get the job done. We also use a lot of horticultural oil.” Recently, they’ve discovered an infestation of Wooly hemlock adelgid, which is worrisome since they have some of the largest Carolina hemlocks on the East coast. “These hemlocks are truly huge, so we’re gearing up to protect them,” says Andes. “First we’ll use an application of horticultural oil, ‘Merit’, created by Bayer. We do soil injection as well as tree injection depending on the location. We are also, however, very concerned about leakage of this stuff into water. We’ve tried soil sterilization, but not with a lot of luck.
The azalea garden was first planted on the estate in 1901. Chauncey Beale, the original nurseryman (he worked there for over 50 years, and was originally hired by Olmsted) helped Olmsted and his son plan it. All three of them have layers in this garden, and the 1907 estate catalog listed Chauncey Beale azaleas for sale.
“Part of what drives us is the fact that we have 900 thousand guests a year, maybe more. They are what keep us working so hard and so carefully. It’s imperative that we maintain the historic preservation. That’s why they come here. They want to see what it looked like in 1900. They want to see big trees. That restricts us somewhat in what we can do. We don’t do anything here that we wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the paper. This is a very conscientious organization. The great grandson of George Vanderbilt, Bill Cecil Jr., is the CEO, and the Biltmore Estate is a conservative, quiet, intelligently run family organization.”
Olmsted wanted a completely natural feel to this land, so he used a lot of native plants—tens of thousands of them, in fact. He planted a lot of white pines that grow well on exhausted soil. However, he didn’t necessarily use only native plants. Olmsted put in a lot of Multiflora roses, autumn olives, as well as Japanese honeysuckle for ground cover, oriental bittersweet and other invasive exotics. Andes and his crew spend a lot of time and effort controlling all the invasive plants around the property.
Olmsted was a nature lover, and so his designs—ones that look as if they were acres of naturally towering forests, craggy cliffs, tumbling streams, island studded lakes, hazy valleys and the rambling shrub gardens seen here—are all actually man-made.
All the lakes on the estate are man-made. The French Broad River and Four Mile Creek run along the border of the estate, and the town water works is downstream. The four-mile-square Bass Pond is on the historic grounds adjacent to the house. Bass Pond actually has the original flume designed and installed by Olmsted to keep the pond water clear. A huge underground pipe made of brick runs under the lake, which allows them to shut off one of the valves, and release water to the bottom of the spillway. Four Mile Creek then takes the runoff to the French Broad River. The recent restoration of the flume system under Bass pond was headed up by Bill Cecil Jr.
Sterile grass carp have been released into the lake to help control the growth of vegetation. Known as tetraploids, these fish have extra chromosomes, caused by irradiating the eggs. They are expensive, but they eat weeds, keeping them under control. The lake was stocked two years ago, and now the number of fish is maintained at a level of about 11 to15 fish per acre.
The rose gardens consist of two principle areas: the all-American section where they display the best varieties for western North Carolina that have been grown from 1940s and 50s to the present. In the core of the garden they display roses that were only available prior to 1914, which is when George Vanderbilt passed away. In the fall, Andes and his staff also plant chrysanthemums in the walled garden.
Olmsted started the first model of scientific forestry on the estate, the Biltmore School of Forestry. Though still in existence, the school is no longer on the property. It was donated, along with 80, 000 acres of forest, to the Pisgah National Forest in l916 and is now run by the Forest Service. They still have a forestry program because there are four thousand acres of forest under their current forestry plan with selective harvests each year. Andes and his forestry crews do continuous stand improvements although there have been no controlled burns lately. “We have always operated off a central focus that the forest is worth a lot more than the trees,” says Andes, referring no doubt to Olmsted’s fascination with, and high regard for forests and the forestry programs he started in the United States.
There were a number of devices Olmsted used to create a sense of “infinite distance”, and they try to maintain those vistas. Olmsted also built into his plans the similar but opposite device of not being able to see things on the home grounds. There are 60 acres of developed gardens adjacent to the house, which include four acres of walled gardens and the Ramble, which is four to five acres of shrub garden. When you’re in any of the garden areas you can’t see the other gardens outside of it. Each individual garden area is distinct, with its own time period and feeling, however all have views to the mountains in the distance. Olmsted separated each of the gardens using man-made berms, hedges, walls and land forms.
Designed by Olmsted in 1894, the recently restored flume uses gravity feed, no pumps. After heavy rains or when the water is high and muddy, the manually operated release valve is opened and the muddy water is carried through the bottom spillway and pipe into the creek, and from there, into the French Broad River.
The original designs and planting plans created by Olmsted are still used as a guide for Andes and his crew. For example, as you come up the three-mile approach road to the house, Olmsted’s original plans called for it to be very closed-in, visually, with a natural wild feel. He planned that the house could not be seen from the road. He wanted it completely hidden until you came through the gate and saw it all at once. “The house breaks suddenly into view,” Andes said, “which is exactly what Olmstead wanted.”
Recently, a pine stand was redone to maintain the visual block of the house. Near the house there was also an allee of four rows of 13 tulip poplar trees that had to be replaced entirely. Over the years, trees had died—they’d already lost 25 percent—and another 25 percent would need to come out in the next five years. The decision was made to replace them all rather than planting trees in the spaces. However, it took 15 years to make that decision. “Important decisions can brew around here for awhile,” says Andes. “If a decision needs to be made quickly, it will, but they don’t rush into things. We work 10 to 20 years in advance to keep the stands according to Olmsted’s plan.”
The 11-acre Lagoon was designed, but not completed, by Olmsted. Eleven small man made islands, rather than crowding it, make the lake look larger. A big challenge of the lakes and the lagoon is the proliferation of a noxious weed called, hydrilla. They occasionally use an aquatic herbicide, however, they have also released sterile grass carp to help eat vegetation.
The original estate was 120,000 acres, which included 80,000 acres of forest (the majority of which was given to form the basis of the Pisgah National Forest), including the acreage of the gardens and lawns. Nowadays five thousand acres is forested and three thousand acres are open farmland, pasture and gardens. Only one thousand of those acres need regular maintenance such as mowing alongside the roads, fields and gravel roads. Much of that property was originally tennis lawns, bowling lawns and croquet lawns. Now, Andes and his staff maintain the trails and dirt roads as well.
“The challenge of dealing with both the formal and the informal gardens is matching people with their talents and skills, and with the kind of garden they love,” says Andes. “Everyone sort of gravitates to what they love. We have some of the greatest people in the world working here—they are talented and intelligent.”
Inside the four-acre English walled garden they maintain and display plants that were popular during that period of flower gardening, and include Victorian plants, border plants, large pattern beds and annual beds. The rose gardens are in the English walled garden.
Andes’ staff includes a full time arborist crew that uses a Ford 8000 high ranger bucket truck with a chipper, a chip truck, a stump grinder, a winch truck and a log loader with a Prentice 120 grapple.
All roses require a little more care than plants such as azaleas or Viburnum, but the historic varieties take a lot more care. The older varieties of roses are, however, a very big draw because of their history, look and feel, Arcadia has just published a book “Biltmore Estate” by Ellen Rickman, their Director of Museum Services and the estate Collections Curator. The book has thousands of pictures of estate roses. “We have tried to maintain the feel of a period garden, even to the banana plants growing in beds outside, along with many other Victorian period sorts of tropicals,” says Andes. “But we often use the latest, greatest varieties of them.”
Of course, the estate has quite a lot of wildlife that needs dealing with, but visitors love seeing them on the grounds.
They have built an eight-foot deer fence to control the deer, and there are geese, rabbits, groundhogs and turkeys, too. “As garden pests, they’re not loved,” says Andes, “but guests love the experience of seeing wild life. So, yet again, the forest is worth more than the trees.”
The Biltmore Estate
- 8,000 acres of grounds—including forests, gardens, lakes, lagoons, trails, farm and pastureland—means a lot of management, machines and intelligence is required.
- Olmsted’s original designs are still used as guides, as well as his original planting plans.
- 900,000 guests a year come to see the historic varieties of plants and trees that are maintained, as if Olmsted had planted them just last year.