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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
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
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
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
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.
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's e-mail newsletter by dropping him a line at
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