Sow and Tell: Biltmore Estate Walled Gardener Travis Murray
Travis Murray has a gardener’s dream job as the director of the Biltmore Estate’s Walled Garden in Asheville, North Carolina. In this protected microclimate — a kind of Shangri-La of all things verdant — the encircling wall blocks the wind, retains the heat and makes fighting bugs far less demanding than in the typical home garden. Tucked within the 8,000 acre grounds of Biltmore, the Walled Garden is a blooming jewel box of seasonally-relevant plantings that has included silvery eucalyptus; luffa dangling like steroidal cucumbers from a trellis-covered walkway that cuts through the garden; countless rose varieties; themed plantings of scented borders; a Victorian garden of dahlias, gladiolas and cannas; espaliered pear and apple trees; succulent towers and, in the fall, 7,000 gloriously multihued mums laid out like an ornate Oriental rug.
Murray’s task as the Walled Garden Crew Leader for the past nine years is to supervise the design and plantings in this exquisite four-acre garden designed by famed father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted envisioned the Walled Garden as a functional kitchen garden of fruits and vegetables. “Vanderbilt kind of nixed that idea,” admits Murray. Biltmore’s owner, George Vanderbilt, wanted a pretty showpiece instead. “A garden of ornament rather than utility,” said Vanderbilt. Not surprisingly, the man cutting the paycheck won. The present day garden Murray supervises bears traces of Olmsted’s orderly, inventive hand, as well as espaliered apple and fruit trees along one wall that hint at that longed-for utility. It is an inspirational paradise full of color combinations and plant groupings that leave your head swimming with ideas you want to race home to apply to your own space.
Murray, who has an easy manner and a genuine enthusiasm for what he does, initially studied to be a journalist and then a chef. But while in school he discovered his love of growing while working at a wholesale nursery. Eventually, he succumbed to the call of the calla lilies. “It’s definitely a less stressful outlet than cooking or journalism,” laughs Murray. “It’s a way to be very artistic and very creative.”
On a recent tour of the Walled Garden, all decked out with gorgeous mums for fall, Murray shared some tips for the home gardener on bringing some of this beauty back home.
Just as the Walled Garden is an homage to the grandaddy of landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted, Murray has placed his own micro-shout-outs into the Walled Garden. Murray salutes Asheville’s thriving craft beer industry by trellising golden hops. Think about similar ways to bring family history or a local industry into your garden.
An interesting-looking and utterly functional plant, luffa are dramatically trellised at the Walled Garden for a real visual conversation-starter. “The seeds are widely available,” says Travis who advises home gardeners to be patient before plucking these cucumber-like plants. “You want to let them dry on the vine” says Murray. “Once the stem starts to brown out, then you can cut them.”
Plant Before you Feast
If you are thinking of planting bulbs, it is best to get them into the ground before Thanksgiving. “Kind of a general rule of thumb, basically you want to make sure the soil temperatures are below 55 degrees,” notes Murray. You can test the soil with an actual soil thermometer, but Murray, in the spirit of the season, uses a turkey thermometer.
Get a Soil Test
Take advantage of a great resource: a soil test is free in most areas through your county extension office agency. It will help you assess the composition of your soil and how best to amend it.
Plant a Travis Murray Favorite
“Catmint is really a strong performer,” says Murray who loves to plant it as filler between his mums. He’s also a fan of Eupatorium greggii (Texas Ageratum), “another strong repeat bloomer that doesn’t get a lot of mildew or rust.” And when you are thinking annuals, think of ones that are three seasonal like amaranthus, alyssum, ‘Jade Princess’ millet and Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ all of which can hold up through the last frost of early spring to the first hard frost of winter.
Choose Groupings of Threes or Five
It is fundamental plant-guy geometry. For balance and order in your garden go for odd groupings of threes and fives. This rule of thumb also ensures you won’t end up with what Murray sweetly terms an “eclectic” garden with one or two plants of countless specimens.
Sure it seems intimidating but creating an espalier — trees forced to grow in a flat plane against a wall – despite the fancy Continental name, isn’t as hard as you’d think. Murray recommends Kieffer pear trees which espalier nicely with that lovely dangling fruit. Apples tend to have issues with pests and diseases that pear trees don’t, he says.