How Frederick Law Olmsted landscaped a more beautiful Asheville

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This portrait of Frederick Olmsted, made by John Singer Sargent, hangs in the Second Floor Living Hall. | Photo courtesy of the Biltmore

Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape architecture, is credited with designing some of the United State’s most picturesque + iconic public parks (think: Golden Gate, Central Park, and the U.S. Capitol). But did you know he regards the grounds and gardens he designed at the Biltmore Estate as “the most permanently important public work” of his career? 

From his innovative garden design to his thoughtful approach to forest management, Olmsted’s ideas have paved the landscape of WNC. In honor of his 200th birthday, we toured the Biltmore Estate with Head Horticulturist Parker Andes to learn more about Olmsted’s legacy (1822-1903). Here’s what fascinated us the most.  

A statue of Frederick Olmsted that’s located at the NC Arboretum. | Photo via @thencarboretum

1. Olmsted is the inspiration behind the North Carolina Arboretum. While he oversaw the management of the Biltmore Estate’s 125,000 acres (under the tutelage of George Vanderbilt), Olmsted found himself deeply inspired by the rich + indigenous flora of the Appalachian mountains and it became his dream to create the most comprehensive research arboretum in the country

Though his original plans for an arboretum never came to fruition at the Biltmore, it laid the blueprints for the state to eventually establish the NC Arboretum in Asheville in 1986. Pro tip: if you want to learn more about this history, check out the NC Arboretum’s “Thanks FLO” exhibit that runs through May 8

Olmsted’s Shrub Garden. | Photo courtesy of Biltmore Estate

2. He’s also largely responsible for the first modern forest management plan. When Olmsted first began designing the Biltmore Estate in 1888, much of the land had previously been cleared for farming + timber and left much to be desired. But by 1892, Olmsted had planted 300 acres of white pine on the grounds + hired a trained forester named Gifford Pinchot to create an official forest management plan for the grounds.

The concepts outlined by Olmsted, Pinchot, and German forester Dr. Carl A. Schenck (who later joined the team), later influenced the development of the Pisgah National Forest and countless scientific forestry initiatives across the country. 

3. He had a penchant for wandering landscapes. This is most visible in the Biltmore’s Shrub Garden, which inspires visitors to lose themselves among spacious, winding paths and drapey vegetation. While the structure of the garden paths appears loose and unstructured, the movement of the space is very much orchestrated and precise in its sloped, layered landscape and “champion-sized” trees. 

The Biltmore Estate, and its fledgling gardens, back in 1895. | Photo courtesy of Biltmore Estate

4. He understood the art of timing. Olmsted commissioned the planting of thousands of trees that would live far beyond his lifetime, which eventually grew to create inspiring and dramatic layers of sustainable forest. He also had the vision to allow three miles of distance between Biltmore Village and the Biltmore House itself. This iconic Approach Road first elicits a sense of mystery, then a total immersion into nature (which includes 10,000 rhododendron plantings), and then grandiosity as you finally lay eyes on the mansion for the first time. 

Want to experience the magic for yourself? You’re in luck. The Biltmore just launched a new self-guided Collection of Scenic Spots throughout the estate that educates visitors on the vision + impeccable execution of Olmsted’s designs.