Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in August 2012.
There is a deer in Curt Horn’s garden. He can barely make out its head behind a forest of green stalks. The doe’s neck makes a graceful slope. Just as Horn suspected: She’s eating his flowers. Horn watches as she labors down the rows, but he doesn’t frighten her away. Instead, he smiles. The doe is exactly what he wants to see.
As the grounds maintenance manager at Biltmore Estate, one of Horn’s main responsibilities is the wildlife food plot program. The program entices animals with crops like sunflowers, soybeans, clover, corn, and sorghum. These plots — decoy gardens — are more attractive to wildlife than the tulips in Biltmore’s annual Festival of Flowers.
Only one thing about deer dining habits bothers Horn. Sometimes, they start snacking on garden sprouts before the plants have a chance to get going. “It would be nice if they could wait a little while,” Horn says. “That way, they’d have more to eat.”
Wildlife food plots cover 100 acres at Biltmore. The largest and most popular is the sunflower garden that runs alongside a section of road between the iconic Biltmore house and Antler Hill Village, a retail space north of the house that includes shops, restaurants, and a winery. Here, Biltmore’s deer and other animals — bear, quail, rabbit, and wild turkey — find plenty of food.
“When they start snacking a lot on the new growth,” Horn says, “we just plant a little more.”
In his previous job with the Department of Natural Resources in his native state of Illinois, Horn planted up to 200 acres of sunflowers a year, catering to songbird and dove populations. These mass plantings are common out West, where gardeners grow sunflowers as a crop for oil and other seed-based uses. But in the South, Horn’s handiwork is a bit of a novelty.
He adjusts his sleek, black sunglasses to rest just above his forehead and looks out across six acres of sunflowers. The planting of yellow covers three-quarters of a mile. Cars roll by him on the blacktop, slowing as they close in on the flowers.
“I’m pretty sure this is the biggest sunflower field in western North Carolina,” Horn says.
Bees, birds, and blooms
When Biltmore opened Antler Hill Village in 2010, the staff tried to incorporate native and functional landscaping.
“At Biltmore, most areas are highly manicured, so this is something a little different,” Horn says. Sunflowers — along with native grasses that slow storm-water drainage to the French Broad River — were part of the change.
Although his plants are a boon for wildlife, Horn thinks of his flowers as a massive bouquet delivered to each guest who passes through this section of the approximately 8,000-acre estate.
“Those fields out West almost blind you when it’s sunny out,” he says. “That’s the sort of experience I wanted people to have when they were driving here.”
The year he introduced sunflowers to Biltmore, Horn planted them all at the same time. Now he plants eight to 12 rows at a time, so the flowers slowly reveal themselves over a few months. This gradation means the plot is steeped in yellow for the first two weeks of July, August, and September.
Horn plants the flower varieties — two or more, depending on the season — in a stair-step formation, with the largest, ‘mammoth,’ planted at the back. This order ensures that visitors have a good view from their cars as they drive by, but people don’t stay in their vehicles. Some haphazardly park and leave doors hanging agape as they run into the field with their cameras.
Horn motions toward a nearby shade tree beyond the snaking bike path that traces the field’s outline. Two visitors lie in the grass next to turquoise bikes.
“People always pull off here,” Horn says. “It’s the first place they see the flowers.”
He strolls closer to the field. Mounds of tilled earth crumble under his sneakers. When a chorus of cicadas comes from a nearby tree, Horn rubs a jungle-worthy sunflower leaf, the texture of sandpaper, between his thumb and forefinger. Then he points to a tiny, ragged hole. “Insects love the sunflowers, too,” he says.
A fuzzy bumblebee and a slender honeybee vie for space on a nearby sunflower disc, where florets fulfill the estate’s nectar needs. A moth with beautiful, brown wings flitters around Horn. Above, a giant dragonfly roars by like a child’s battery-operated helicopter. Horn watches it dip and rise for a few minutes before moving on to take a look at how the sunflowers are doing at the end of the field closest to Antler Hill Village.
When Horn started planting flowers, he was nervous about how they would take to the dirt down at this end of the patch. It’s mountain clay, not bottomland like the rest of the swath. But the flowers thrive here, sometimes blooming in the dense, highland soil before the favorable, loamy end. Sunflowers may appear delicate from a distance, but they’re hearty plants. That strength is one of Horn’s favorite things about them.
As he nears Antler Hill Village, he spies two pewter-colored birds on a tree in the parking area. “Mourning doves,” he says, watching them bounce on a slender branch. “They appreciate sunflowers more than anything.”
Horn navigates through tree-like flower stalks. From this end of the garden, he has access to every step of his living staircase. The eight-foot-tall ‘mammoths’ that he planted first now slump over in maturity. The ‘black oil’ species, planted a few weeks ago, burst forth and expose their small seeds rich with oil. And then there are the young things, the late-planted babies that are just beginning to bloom. These flowers still move their heads back and forth to follow the sun.
When these young sunflowers reach the end of their growth cycle, they wearily hang their heads like the ‘mammoths.’ This isn’t a sign of defeat — the sunflower is too cheery a plant to ever concede — it’s a move that shows the plant has more to offer. The characteristic droop protects sunflowers from the elements, ensuring that their seeds will be edible in the darkest months of the year. The seeds cling to the plant all winter long until an animal comes by and dislodges them.
At the back of the patch, Horn spots a cluster of ‘mammoths’ with leaves the color of dried tobacco. This color indicates that the seeds are nearly ready for harvesting.
“It’s funny,” he says, “deer don’t usually eat the ‘mammoth’ variety, but it’s the one most often used for human consumption.”
Horn occasionally buys sunflower seeds shelled, dried, and packaged, but there’s something special about eating them on the ground where they were grown. At this early stage, they’re too moist and mildew-prone to survive transport. He draws his switchblade knife and carves at a stalk until the air begins to smell green, like fresh-cut grass. When the flower head falls, heavy as a gallon of milk, he catches it in his arms and wiggles a single seed loose from its face.
“It’s hard to get through the woody structure on the outside,” he says of the seed’s damp, zebra-striped outer hull, “but, boy, is it worth it.” He fumbles until his thumbnail finally breaks through to meat, which has the earthy crunch of a boiled peanut. He pops the pearl-white seed in his mouth and shakes his head approvingly. It’s delicious, still warm from the afternoon’s honeyed sunlight.