The gardens of Biltmore House, America’s largest privately owned residence, are grand, colorful, and a delight to explore.
Rustic Elegance in the Blue Ridge Mountains
At the end of a winding, woodland drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, a castle-sized chateau comes into view, framed by a striped, velvety lawn bull’s-eyed by a formal fountain. This “big reveal” approach sets the tone for a visit to Biltmore House, a palatial, French-style manor constructed in 1895 as a summer retreat by George W. Vanderbilt, heir to one of the country’s wealthiest families.
To make the grounds as stunning as his new home, Vanderbilt hired eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park, who transformed the degraded, post-construction landscape into a series of classical formal gardens, park-like strolling gardens filled with flowering shrubs and trees, and managed forests that today make up the estate’s 8,000 acres. With a view of the undulating Blue Ridge Mountains on one side and Olmsted’s gardens on the other, Biltmore embodies a rustic-elegant romance.
Lotus flowers stand tall above ruffled leaves in the Italian garden’s ponds.
Gardens for Promenading, Wandering, Relaxing
While still owned by the Vanderbilt family, the estate has been open to the public since 1930, and admission gives you access to both the house and grounds. A leisurely exploration of the gardens can easily take a half-day, or longer if you also want to hike some of the woodland trails. From the house, a terrace shaded by a long wisteria arbor leads to an elevated view of golden meadows and blue-hazed mountains. At intervals along the promenade, benches backed by a fern-studded stone wall offer cool places to rest and, in spring, enjoy the wisteria’s sweet fragrance.
Nearby, a formal Italian garden, walled on one side and hedged on the other, features three ponds abloom in summer with lipstick-pink lotus and pale-yellow water lilies. Colorful koi and goldfish flash in the water.
A weeping blue atlas cedar arches over a path in Biltmore’s shrub garden.
Contrasting with the Italian garden’s formal lines and sunny expanse, a 4-acre shrub garden laced with winding paths invites you to wander under stately shade trees and amid colorful Japanese maples and leafy, green shrubs.
Mass plantings of colorful annuals brighten Biltmore’s walled garden.
Color in All Seasons
Springtime visitors to the 15-acre azalea garden are rewarded with a kaleidoscope of pink-, red-, and white-flowering shrubs. Bedding annuals blaze with color in a formal walled garden nearly all year, but in spring (March through April) thousands of tulips steal the show. In summer, roses unfurl luscious, fragrant blossoms, and in autumn, jewel-toned chrysanthemums and salvias keep the flower show going strong. At all times of the year, an elegant conservatory offers a tropical escape with palms, ferns, orchids, and fragrant lilies. On the conservatory’s lower level, you’ll find A Gardener’s Place, a garden gift shop and nursery offering a selection of estate-grown plants.
White flowers and foliage glow in a summer perennial border in the walled garden.
In spring and summer, I suggest saving the house tour for midday or early afternoon and strolling the gardens in the cool of the morning. The mist of the Blue Ridge sometimes settles over the gardens, enhancing the romance of classical statuary, lotus-filled pools, and billowing flower borders. In autumn, when the mountains are ablaze with red, orange, and golden leaves, explore the gardens in mid-to-late afternoon to enjoy mellow fall foliage backlit by the setting sun.
When it’s time for a rest and refreshments, Biltmore offers plenty of choices with several on-site restaurants, including a bistro, tavern, café, bakery, and fine dining. There’s also a winery you can visit and a historical working village with blacksmithing and woodworking demonstrations, a farmyard, a play area for kids, craft demonstrations, and a smokehouse serving Carolina BBQ.
With so many offerings, admission to Biltmore isn’t cheap. Adult tickets cost $65-$75 per person. However, you can buy tickets online up to 7 days in advance and get $10 off. And special deals can be had at certain times, like Mother’s Day, when you can treat your mom—or yourself, ladies!—with admission priced at just $25 with the purchase of a second adult or youth ticket.
Pam Penick is author of The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone! and publisher of the blog Digging. She lives and gardens in Austin, Texas.