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Four Seasons Biltmore Free Garden Tour
updated: Jun 30, 2012, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

The Four Seasons Biltmore just drips with California style: alluring archways, polychromatic azulejo tiles, red roofs, and wrought iron balconies. Windy paths meander through cottages, occasionally peeking out to the Pacific.

But it's the hotel's lush blanket of vegetation that always enchants me. Take the gardens away and all you've got is… well, you've still got some glorious examples of Spanish style architecture, but it just wouldn't be as romantic.

I've spent some time at the Biltmore, but I'm usually there as a musician, so I don't have time to linger and wander. That's why I was so thrilled when I heard that they gave free horticultural tours every Tuesday at 11 AM from spring through the end of October.

Hide and Seek with Zeke

The tours are led by Ezequiel (he goes by Zeke) Gil, grounds manager. What a kick to spend an hour delighting in his enthusiasm for his work, his deep knowledge of plants, and being treated to his infectious laugh. I didn't put my finger on it until I got back to my car, but the best description to capture Zeke's essence has to be "Latino Leprechaun."

The day I toured the grounds, we had a small group - just a mom and son from New York with a keen interest in seeing what grows around our way. Zeke wove his own story into the tour. He worked his way up the ladder (literally), starting at the Biltmore 34 years ago, mowing lawns, tending to the plantings, and keeping the grounds in tip-top shape. Now, he oversees a staff of 11, tending to the 22-acre sprawling grounds at one of the most beautiful hotels on the planet.

If you're thinking, "I'm not the Biltmore type", please don't feel intimidated attending, even if you're not prepared to drop $8000* a night for their top-tier rooms. (You can cheap out for one of the starters, at $550). Don't take my word for it. Fromers says, "This gem of the American Riviera manages to adhere to the most elegant standards of hospitality without making anyone feel unwelcome." Everyone - hotel guest or locals - is welcome on the tours. They ask only that you call the concierge for a reservation (805.969.2261 ext. 8542), so they can make sure the tour remains intimate and manageable.

The American Riviera

I can imagine a guest arriving in February after snowplows cleared the runway at O'Hare. This resort just drips West Coast romance and relaxation. Zeke's primary job is having something beautiful to look at throughout the year. The entrance is pure Santa Barbara, punctuated with inviting colors of common, but artfully arranged plants. This is mostly Zeke's handiwork. He's got a great eye for design and combining plants.

The hotel entrance is flanked by kentia palms and the porte cocher is slathered with creeping fig, probably not Zeke's favorite plant to maintain. Giant Bird of Paradise towers over the terracotta tiled roof, and seasonal flowers welcome you at the door.

Zeke gave us a bit of background, handed out a cute botanical guide map, and led us through Moorish arches into the paths and courtyards that wind through the grounds. Every line of sight ends in a horticultural confection, like a simple pot of hot red begonias perched as a finial at the base of a spiral staircase.

As lush as the plantings appear, one of my hallmarks of sustainable maintenance is apparent - plants are selected and spaced so they can grow without a lot of pruning and shearing. With the exception of clipped boxwood, serving more as an architectural element than floral embellishment, plants get to mingle and overflow their beds. That's part of the garden's allure.

Most of the plantings are understatedly elegant, but here and there, Zeke and his crew get to strut their stuff with overtly bold splashes of color. Visiting in June, I was treated to dynamic explosions of shell pink and buttercup yellow canna lily, backed with searing red begonias and Pepto pink geraniums near the pool.

Balconies get their own finery, sporting splashes of Pelargoniums in simple earthen pots.

To be sure, amongst the workhorse plants - campanula, agapanthus, geraniums, Clivia - that a lot of us grow in our own gardens, there's also plenty of exotica to please the seasoned horticulturist. When I visited a few weeks ago, the centerpiece of the Monte Vista lawn was a Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius), native to New South Wales, Australia. Lipstick-red bell-shaped flowers lit up the garden, and the deep green, maple-like foliage provided strong contrast.

There's a surprise around every corner. Just east of the main driveway, Zeke walked us through the English-style garden, a flamboyantly floral mix of roses, cranesbill, tree mallow, hebe, breath of heaven, lavender, and I lost count. Beautiful cast iron benches look out to the Channel Islands, and aromatic native Cleveland sage mixes with salt air.

So, even if you didn't stay at the Four Seasons Biltmore before attending Kim Kardashian's wedding last year, you can at least stroll the grounds, be entertained by Zeke's delightful banter, and perhaps spot a few plants to try out in your own garden.

* Author Correction: The most expensive (presidential) suite at the Biltmore is $4,600 per night and not $8,000.


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