SOUTH FEATURES


Protectors of the Gilded Age

The award-winning grounds staff at The Biltmore Estate maintains the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted
By Mike Ingles


The Biltmore House, the 179,000-square-foot former summer home of the Vanderbilt family in Asheville, N.C., attracts slightly more than a million visitors to Asheville, N.C., annually. But it's often the estate's 8,000 acres of manicured turf, gardens and sculpted landscape that ends up capturing their hearts.

The new Antler Hill VIllage & Winery is a relaxing place
for dining and shopping at the Biltmore Estate.
Click photo to enlarge.

The new Antler Hill VIllage & Winery is a relaxing place for dining and shopping at the Biltmore Estate.
PHOTOS COURTESY THE BILTMORE ESTATE.

Famed Landscape Architect Frederic Law Olmsted provided the design and inspiration for the estate (then an incredible 125,000 acres) in the 1880s. It was his last great project. Thankfully, much of the grounds, surrounded by the forested Blue Ridge Mountains, survive very much as he envisioned it.

Bill Quade oversees much of the high-maintenance
turfgrass on the sprawling Biltmore Estate.
Click photo to enlarge.

Bill Quade oversees much of the high-maintenance turfgrass on the sprawling Biltmore Estate.
The job of managing these tasks falls to Parker Andres, director of horticulture, and his five managers. They oversee 55 full- and part-time employees in the horticulture department. The staff includes a certified arborist, gardeners, groundskeepers, equipment operators, conservatory display and plant production specialist, general landscape crews and even vegetable production gardeners producing food for use in the estate's restaurants. One of the top managers is Bill Quade, who oversees much of the high-maintenance turfgrass operations.

"We're very proud of our heritage and our mission statement reflects that view: to preserve Biltmore as a privately owned, profitable working estate. Biltmore is the largest privately owned home in America and a National Historic Landmark," says Quade.

The department has more than 8,000 acres to maintain. This includes fine turf and large areas of less intensively maintained areas. Crew leader Dwayne Schmidt manages more than 80 acres of roadside turf in addition to 16 acres of high-maintenance turf in guest areas, 200 acres of field mowing in the historic Deer Park and other fields maintained for their aesthetic qualities.

Quade describes the 16 acres of high-maintenance turf as the gateway to the estate, which includes a four-star, four-diamond luxury hotel and The Inn on Biltmore Estate. Turf Specialist Scott Wilson keeps the turf there looking its best. Poor turfgrass could negatively impact the Inn's rating. It sits above the estate's Antler Hill Village, where guests dine and sample wines. Guests can also visit the outdoor adventure center, rent a Land Rover, view the property by raft, canoe or kayak, and tour the property on a Segway or by horseback. It's the part of the estate where many guests spend the most time and build memories long after they've gone.

"So, it's got to be perfect - we've got to be perfect every day," says Quade.

The grounds staff relies on several models of Toro commercial mowers and also a
multi-functional Ventrac 4200 with a variety of attachments and work tools.
Click photo to enlarge.

The grounds staff relies on several models of Toro commercial mowers and also a multi-functional Ventrac 4200 with a variety of attachments and work tools.

Turfgrass at the estate is a mixture of tall-fescue and bluegrass, which best survives the incredible foot traffic the area receives. "We do a lot of social functions on the turf, such as weddings, and any one particular section of the grounds may get an inordinate amount of traffic over a short period of time," says Quade. "Because of this, it can be a challenge to ensure the turf meets the high standards for functions as well as for regular everyday use. The tall-fescue and bluegrass mixture is drought-resistant. When it's properly mowed it saves on watering."

The lawn areas are typically mowed at 3.5 to 4 inches and are irrigated with water from a reservoir on the property. Rain Bird controllers dispense water to 200 irrigation zones on the estate. The property is irrigated with Rain Bird, Toro and Hunter sprinkler heads, depending on the size and shape of different areas of the estate.

Keeping nice turf

The turfgrass staff builds its fertilization program around the results of soil samples sent to both a private testing facility and North Carolina State University. "We're looking at pH levels, but also the understanding of not only what's in the soil but what may be missing before deciding on fertilizers and a course of action," says Quade.

"The turf needs to be healthy and green, that's what our guests expect from Biltmore. So, depending upon what soil tests reveal, lime and/or sulfur may be added to a particular section, and nitrogen levels are monitored carefully." Preemergent herbicides go down in March and May, with most of the season's fertilizer applied in the late summer and fall. "We'll evaluate and spray weeds in summer. Everything is subject to facilities scheduling," says Quade.

The grounds staff mows with four Toro 4000-D Groundsmaster wide-area mowers, several 60-inch Toro zero-turns and a Ventrac 4200 that sees most of its duty at the Inn. The Ventrac 4200 can be fitted with a large selection of work tools and attachments. "It's an indispensable tool in our operations," says Quade.

Not all the turf at the estate is fine turf. Some areas are less intensively maintained and are mowed with Woods and Bush Hog batwing mowers pulled by John Deere tractors. All turf areas are aerated once a year to relieve compaction, and twice a year at Antler Hill Village and at The Inn on Biltmore Estate due to heavy foot traffic.

April is usually the best time to see the incredible spring display at the Biltmore.
There are stunning floral displays for spring, summer and fall.
Click photo to enlarge.

April is usually the best time to see the incredible spring display at the Biltmore. There are stunning floral displays for spring, summer and fall.

The Biltmore staff also maintains 30 miles of gravel and soil roads, along with planting and maintaining 135 acres of wildlife food plots, using John Deere 6430 and 5525 four-wheel drive tractors and Ford 3910 and 4630 utility tractors with a John Deere model 7000 Max-Emerge planter.

The estate also operates permitted sites where green waste material is composted, leaves are collected for mulching and woody material is ground for use as mulch. In addition, the staff each year applies about 1,700 bales of pine straw to flowerbeds and landscaped areas.

Quade's crew also maintains 8 acres of plantings around the Inn, Antler Hill Village and auxiliary buildings on the estate as well as all interior plantings within the winery, Inn and restaurants."

If the Gilded Age in America demonstrated how these affluent industrial barons of the time immersed themselves in lavish lifestyles, this home of the Vanderbilt family better illustrates not only that characteristic, but underscores that some of these industrialists also contributed to a better understanding of environmental issues, including sustainability.

"We feature six restaurants on the property and our vegetable and herb garden provides fresh produce for each. We're constantly planning sustainable features for the grounds."

In addition to the grounds area, the estate holds an abundance of plantings in several dozen beds on the property. These include four seasonal color displays: spring bulbs, cool-season annals, summer annuals and fall mums. The staff plants 10,000 bulbs each fall.

Excellence recognized

"We strive to have the most efficient bed preparation and planting schedule possible so guests can enjoy tremendous color all through the growing season. Our arborists and horticulturists rely on what we term the 'design intent' of Fredrick Law Olmsted and carefully monitor the types and kinds of plantings that we offer," says Quade.

Understandably, Quade is proud of earning the prestigious 2012 Green Star Grand Award presented by the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS). It wasn't the first recognition the Biltmore Estate has received from the PGMS. Susannne Woodell, manager of Historic Gardens, received the PGMS Green Award for Historic Garden areas in 2011, and she and Quade shared the Green Star Award in 2007 for the entire grounds and the Inn on Biltmore Estate.

Woodell and her group manage the historic gardens and maintain the ponds, water gardens, landscape beds, containers, conservatory and plant displays on 40-plus acres of Fredric Law Olmsted-designed gardens and the 3-mile-long Approach Road. The centerpiece of their work is the 4-acre Walled Garden, with 1,200 roses, 21,600-square-foot seasonal annual display and 40,850 square feet of perennial displays, along with 5,000 square feet of plants under glass in the century-old conservatory.

"There is no 'best time' to plan a visit because there is an array of color year-round; it's just a preference then for the types of foliage that guests enjoy. In May, the turf is outstanding, as are tulips in April or chrysanthemums in October or poinsettias in December, the choice is theirs. Come and see us and enjoy the views," he adds.

Mike Ingles is a freelancer writer living in Columbus, Ohio, who writes articles about business and the green industry. Contact him at duckrun22@gmail.com.