If you are searching for spectacular gardens in North Carolina, the number one attraction is Biltmore. The estate sits on a green island near Asheville, North Carolina under the shadow of a blue-tinged mountain range.
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Gardens in North Carolina
The Eastern Seaboard is home to many beautiful gardens in North Carolina, including Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Tanger Family Bicentennial Gardens and North Carolina Botanical Garden. Ultimately, I hope to explore all these places. But the Biltmore ranks at the top of my list in 2020 to visit.
Blue Ridge Gardens
Additionally, western North Carolina offers so many diverse places to visit, including the Botanical Gardens of Asheville, Craggy Gardens and the Blue Ridge Parkway. You need at least five days to see all the sights. I also highly recommend a day to tour Asheville.
Not surprising, the Biltmore is one of the top ranked attractions to explore near Asheville. George W. Vanderbilt built the estate in the 1890s as his family’s grand retreat in the North Carolina mountains.
“Biltmore is as magnificent today as it was when it was built more than a century ago.” (Explore Asheville)
My tour occurs in late June. Staying in an AirBnb in Saluda, I only have a 30-minute drive to reach Biltmore. Soon I will explore a French castle on American soil.
I feel like I flew to Germany’s Black Forest in my winged BMW 328i convertible when I taxi down the runway of its 3-mile entrance (known as the Approach Road). I can’t see my destination—the Biltmore mansion—as it is cloaked by mysterious dark groves of trees.
Not dissimilar to the pilot who must navigate through a mass of clouds before breaking through the fog and mist to see her destination below, I can only guess at what lies ahead. So I reduce my speed from 35 mph to 9 mph. Then I barely press my foot on the accelerator. Slowly my BMW glides along the avenue of trees. I am in no rush to brake.
But arriving at Parking Lot A, I locate a spot in the shade, pull on my face mask and alight from the car. Although I have a reservation for 10:30 am to tour the Biltmore castle, my real desire is untimed. I want to simply lose myself in the “new” forest (now 125 years old) and wander among the Biltmore gardens.
Long Ago Era
Like the 250-room mansion, Biltmore’s landscape consist of airy garden “rooms.” They create a pervading sense of time gone by. Looking at a marble statue of a cherub near the lily pond, I can also imagine an elegant coiffed woman clipping a rose.
The sense of intimacy gained touring the grounds at Biltmore is a signature of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. He considered his plan for the Biltmore as “the most permanently important public work” of his career. (This living landscape that has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark.)
Frederick Law Olmsted
Indeed, Olmsted designed parks to look natural and unplanned, which was an unusual strategy in the early 20th century. But this is why George Washington Vanderbilt approached Olmsted in 1888. He wanted Olmsted to advise him on what to do with the 2,000 acres he had purchased near Asheville, North Carolina.
Olmsted was frank in his assessment in how the land had been ruined by farming and clear cutting. He said the soil was poor, the woods miserable. Only “runts” were left because all the good trees were cut out and culled. The topography was unsuitable for park scenery.
“My advice would be to make a small park in which you look from your house, make a small pleasure ground and gardens; farm your river bottoms chiefly and…keep and fatten livestock with a view to manure and…make the rest a forest.”—Frederick Law Olmsted
His plans for the formal gardens dictated a four-acre Walled Garden, a 16th-century Italian Garden with three reflecting pools, and a Shrub Garden. He also designed a Rampe Douce and Esplanade. A forest surrounds the formal gardens, plus a Bass Pond and Deer Park Run. The estate also includes a lake with a bridge and a waterfall. You can see the reflection of the Biltmore mansion sometimes reflected on the surface of a lagoon.
Visiting Biltmore is like seeing a dozen gardens in North Carolina on a single visit. The estate features acres of formal and informal gardens as well as a conservatory and walled garden.
First, I start at the Italian Gardens. They are designed as an outdoor extension of the baronial estate. Instead of a 12-foot ceiling with elaborate crown mounding, this garden room is domed by a pale blue sky. I see two teenagers engaged in an intimate chat at the far end.
A small terra cotta angel oversees this celestial abode. It is modeled after a statue in the Louve. Toddlers giggle as they playfully escape their parents’ hands. They are living cherubs who cavort around the pools. Meanwhile, their marble cousins (late-19th-century putti-winged figures) look affectionately down upon them.
Next I exit the walled enclosure and turn left off the path to explore the nearby forest. These venerable old woods create a green moat that rings the castle and formal gardens.
To be honest, I am more of a fan of the untamed groves of woods then the manicured lawns and flower beds at Biltmore. But, to be honest, I am also an unabashed tree hugger.
Effect of Nature
I think that is why I respond so emotionally to any time spent in the forest. It always moves me to listen to birds trill, bees buzz and insects chirp. Their voices rise together like an orchestra beginning a concert.
“Landscapes move us in a manner more analogous to the action of music than to anything else. Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; the beauty has entered our souls; we know not exactly when and how.”—Frederick Law Olmsted
I detour back to the shrubs garden which lies below the Italian Gardens. The curving path snakes around the robust bushes that form mini courtyards.
Moreover, I could wander here for hours. I sniff the flowers then rest against a tree trunk in meditation.
In addition, Olmsted slows us down by placing artificial steps within the landscape. He achieves this goal by designing open-air rooms within the formal gardens. This natural staircase slows me down. I stop midway in descent to examine the carpet of emerald lawn rolled out below.
For those willing to make the hike from the mansion, the Walled Garden is a gardener’s paradise. The Conservatory is only a backdrop during the pandemic, as its doors are closed to visitors.
A great drama plays out in this wild and romantic garden, just like a stage set. I can imagine Vanderbilt’s famous guests strolling at nightfall through the gardens, pausing to sniff a rose bud. In late June, an aroma akin to tea leaves steeping in a pot perfumes the air.
I take more than an hour to roam through the Rose Garden, taking photos of 50 different roses. This is a rose rainbow, blending shades of yellow, coral, pink and burgundy. The roses clamor for my attention. Some roses wilt on the stem, while other roses burst in buds.
I can see why poet Robert Burns described his lover like these willowy flowers that languidly wave in the wind:
“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.”—Robert Burns
The Rose Garden also features a trellis house with windows. I like this room-within-a-room motif.
It allows me to look at my world like a framed painting by Rachel Ruysch or Jan van Huysum. (These two Dutch masters are world-famous for still life paintings of flowers).
It is certainly no surprise to me that the young Vanderbilt, who was only 25 years old when he purchased this land in western North Carolina, would consider the outdoors as well as indoors suitable for staging his art collection and statues.
But Art is also found in the natural world, as my framed view of the Biltmore Rose Garden demonstrates.
Finally, I end my outdoor tour at the South Terrace. I have roamed the Biltmore gardens for three hours. This is triple the amount of time spent on my indoor tour of the mansion. Families mill around in groups. But visitors do keep six feet distance.
I end my sojourn at Biltmore on the Library Terrace which seems appropriate for an English major. Did Vanderbilt give it this name because he would retreat here to read? I can’t imagine a more intimate place to read a book of poetry or novel.
Choosing a bench, I sit down and gaze at the statues shadowing the stone wall. In front of me lies the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am in awe of Vanderbilt and his mentors who left this estate as their legacy.
Olmsted’s vision of a restored or “new” forest would become a reality. Vanderbilt purchased 1,000 additional acres that he christened Pisgah.
Then Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot. He created the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the U.S. Pinchot also recommended that Vanderbilt hire German forester Carl Schenck to manage the creation of the Pisgah Forest.
After Vanderbilt’s death, his widow Edith sold the land at a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” her husband’s conservation legacy. The forest then became part of the Pisgah National Park. It is now known as the “Cradle of American Forestry.”