The July heat storms in and drives me inside. Putting away my gardening gloves it is time to engage in some fantasy gardening. I imagine a garden where the plants stay in optimum health; the blooms unfold in predictable order of color and quality assured by a perfect feeding schedule and ideal watering. Such a garden is always orderly, where any storm damage is minimized and cleared promptly by industrious garden gnomes. Yes, a fantasy I realize and yet since children may escape the day-to-day world by visiting a magic kingdom why can’t a gardener escape to a magic garden?
George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is the ultimate fantasy garden complete with an enormous castle! Fredrick Law Olmsted considered the father of American Landscape designed the gardens and worked throughout the original 400,000 acres in 1895. The magnificent home today open to the public now occupies 8000 acres and the remaining grounds are a gardener’s delight.
Simply arriving at the great house is a pleasure. The 3 mile long entrance curves through a remarkable landscape “of rhododendron, mountain laurel and azalea, passing from woods to open meadow . . . At every turn is a new surprise: a stream, a pool, a blanket of wildflowers, a thicket of river cane.” (A Guide to Biltmore Estate) Looking back from steps of the house you see a front lawn rolling down a gentle incline to the limestone bridge. The view then draws your eye back up the hill to a gazebo placed before a double grove of hemlock trees that form the letter “V” for the Vanderbilts. That exceeds all my fantasies, a stand of trees grown to form the initial of your family name!
Olmsted designed a 250 acre pleasure garden around the house. There are walled gardens, terraces, pergola, a conservatory; water gardens and an Italian garden there are grand views of the gardens from any window of the majestic home. For a gardener it is a hard decision to choose where to linger when touring, outside in the gardens or inside the home?
Mr. Vanderbilt envisioned a self-sustaining estate and organized farms to yield fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, dairy and honey. There was a lumber mill and a 300-acre nursery to supply the estate. He and Olmsted began the “Biltmore Forest School in 1898–the first institute for scientific forestry in America.” Vanderbilt was doing organic and sustainable gardening in 1895!
Wandering through these grounds today is to step into a fantasy garden. The Biltmore name is a combination of two words, “Bildt” the name of the Dutch town from which the Vanderbilts originated and “moor” the old English word for “open rolling lands.”
Arizona has our own Biltmore! A grand piece of architecture, it opened in 1929 not long after the original Biltmore. It too was once a private estate with extensive lands outside the city. A grand drive into the now public hotel still exists though the landscape is less uniformly designed today. Here too a gardener can fantasize! I visited on one of our hot July days and wandered through the manicured grounds of blooming hibiscus, portulaca, lantana, and pentas. Annuals that provided bursts of color all around accent lush green shrubs. Even when building the AZ Biltmore the focus of the building materials was local organic use of sand and copper. Our current interest in sustainable green actions may not be such a new concept but one perhaps lost over the years since these two great structures were built.
So if you need a fantasy garden experience to tide you over until our cooler temperatures return, you may travel far or travel near and explore the grounds, the grand ideas and architecture of an earlier time. For a brief time you can stroll what seems to be perfect garden spaces. Though I did have my fantasy brought back to reality just a bit when as I was leaving the AZ Biltmore I noticed a few brown spots in the lawn just like I would find when I returned home to my own garden.
originally published in Roots & Shoots,