Beautiful—but also kind of a yawn


This might be at the other end of the spectrum from funky bottle trees and found object enclosures. Acres and acres of lawn. Although Asheville’s Biltmore estate is set inside a magnificent wooded landscape, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the formal gardens surrounding the house (also by FLO) have retained less of their appeal. Appeal for me, that is. I’ve toured lots of estate gardens, mainly in England, and—although with these large properties there was also plenty of lawn (you can’t do without it)—the borders, water features, touches of whimsy, topiary and other, more intimate elements rose to a level I didn’t see at Biltmore. The Biltmore gardens are magnificent in some ways, but disappointingly lacking in personality in many others.

This article talks about the lawn care and other horticultural requirements. It takes a lot of horsepower to manage 8,000 acres!

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. The drive to the estate was a wonder to behold, with its luminous plantings of bamboo and, of course, rhododendrons. The views from the terrace are breathtaking and I am always a sucker for a nice statue or three, especially when they are lightly clothed in moss. But the formal gardens overall? Too broad stroke.

If you’d like to see more, here is my facebook album from 3+ days of Asheville gardens.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Hmmmm, that photo of “Bamboo on the path to Biltmore” at first glance made me think of Central and Northern European Industrial Forestry. I have to admit though that formal gardens while there are some interesting things have never appealed to me. Though my wife and I along with friends recently tour the estate outside of Göteborg Sweden called ‘Gunnebo’ and once I got out and into the wild estate grounds far away from the mansion home and formal trimmings, I got a time warp view of what Swedish Old Growth forest use to look like. It was wonderful. I’ll post it shortly. Thanks for sharing this.


  2. Nothing says “I have beat back the wilderness and am in control of my environment” more than this kind of formal landscaping with expansive lawns, severe shaping and trimming, and introduced plants; a sentiment FLO and his contemporaries probably shared and hoped to express in their work.
    I have seen gorgeous photos of the natural landscape and wilderness around Asheville, with lush forests, dramatic rock formations, beautiful waterways, wildflowers and so on. It would be nice to see an estate or park that created a space to reflect and showcase that environment ( maybe such a place already exists?)

  3. Such enormous lawns are not appealing to me. I like tightly controlled formality in small doses. The landscape gardens of England that I saw do have lots of lawn, but so many trees and shrubberies – nothing resembling a football field.

  4. I wonder if perhaps the problem is a lack of maintenance. I have noticed that American gardens, whether a classical garden such as this or a naturalistic Japanese garden, tend to suffer from a lack of clipping. As a result, they end up looking just a slight bit sloppy which takes away a lot of the aesthetic power of geometric forms such as these. Just look at how not flat that hedge is.

    I have to disagree about classical gardens being the ultimate expression of subjugation or domination of nature. I think that has to go to the Japanese gardens. The level of control dwarfs that required for hedges and lawns.

  5. The landscape is boring, the statuary pretentious. There is no sense of abundance or dynamism. It represents what I like to think of as the constipated school of garden design.

  6. I have not been anywhere in such a long time anything looks beautiful to me. I know that I am looking at it through your eye and you do have a point. Any way you look at it, it is better than living in a big city with big building all around you all the time. Thanks for taking me back to a little more green than I have recently been looking at.

  7. skr, classical gardens aren’t the ultimate expression of subjugation and dominance of nature (that would be cities and urban landscaping I imagine), but they certainly reflect the major activities and pre-occupations of FLO’s time in America(late 19th–early 20th centuries), when man’s domination of nature was considered so important; the “greening of the deserts”, public works projects, deforestation and settling/building of the west.

    As for Japanese gardens, take a stroll around the Portland OR Japanese Garden (which is said to be one of the most authentic outside of Japan) and tell me what you think. It is situated on 6 acres of second-growth forest gone wild, and then shaped by the gardeners; but you would be hard-pressed to believe that nature wasn’t ultimately in control there, except for maybe in the rock garden. It feels like they took what they found in nature there, and amped up the volume.

    It’s true, though, that there are probably many more man-hours of labor that go into creating and maintaining Japanese gardens than formal classical gardens.

  8. Don’t get me wrong–I love the FLO park and parkway systems in cities. We have some lovely FLO urban parks here in the Buff.

  9. I wonder whether the formal pool garden and the formal annual bedding display in the walled garden actually reflect FLO’s overall design aesthetic or the body of his work. Even back then the landscape designer had to give the client what they wanted. This was the days of the promenade when people dressed, strolled, gossiped and flirted while on long walks through the garden. Vanderbilt was no doubt influenced by travels to Europe and the formal gardens there.

    The Biltmore prides itself on historic accuracy in the house and gardens. When the formal gardens were laid out that simple design was probably in fashion.

    As you mention the 3 mile drive in is also by FLO and is much more natural. The 15 acre azalea and rhododendron garden just beside the walled garden is also much more lush and natural with a walk that takes you around the lake.

    In my many visits to the Biltmore I never ventured into the formal pool garden because it always looked like a huge lawn and empty cement ponds. This visit was the first time I saw greenery in the ponds. I am so glad I strolled through for a closer look.

  10. I’ve finished my posts on my blog, but it’s nice to see I’m not alone in my view of formal over done landscaping. Just give me nature at it’s best. Thanks for the article here, definitely appreciated your similar take on things.


  11. They have some really beautiful perennial borders and mixed borders there. Much of the landscape bores me, but I have used pictures of the perennial borders in numerous talks and presentations. However, I was there in late June, and they might have been blooming more then.

  12. Anne, from what I remember, the Portland Japanese Garden though beautiful, is still a bit soft. From friends that have studied niwaki in Japan, the most common criticism from Japanese when not being overly polite, is that American Japanese gardens are sloppy and unkempt. That has also been my experience. Japanese garden are hyperreal. They are simulacra of nature. Tableaus of fantastic landscapes so contrived and ordered as to put the English picturesque movement to shame. That Americans generally fail to appreciate this seems to be a result of a belief in a naturalism fallacy spawned from the modern environmental movement coupled with exposure to American style Japanese gardens. I mean, the idea that a tree doesn’t have perfect shape so the gardener grafts on at just the right place and clipping is done everyday is about nothing if not control.

  13. I wholly agree that they seem sterile.
    Formal does not have to mean uninteresting. I spent a year in England visiting gardens that were just as large, just as formal and proportioned to the mansion home, but still interesting and beautiful. For example the Hestercombe garden has the lawn as wide as the mansion, but it is has much more curious and interesting plantings. The gardeners are working hard to use Gertrude Jekyl’s planting plan as closely as possible. For example, her rose garden contained roses, but they were fronted by peonies and bordered all round with stachys, making an architectural design very pleasing even apart from the luscious rose scents & colors of the blossoms. But over all, I do find big flat plats of lawn and bedding pretty boring. I was very disappointed when I toured Biltmore Gardens. I kept wishing somebody from Monty Python would pipe up with , “and now for something completely different…”

  14. Erin, I loved Hestercombe! It’s become kind of the gold standard for me, though I also liked Knightshayes a lot.

  15. I am not sure why, if you don’t like acres of lawn and historically accurate formal gardens, you didn’t spend your time exploring the natural areas at the Biltmore. We made a pass through the rose garden and around the “house” and spent all the rest of our time on the woodland paths, which were beautiful. So many incredible specimen trees and shrubs that can’t be found elsewhere plus plenty of wildflowers and shade plants.

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