HOW to choose the site for a country house is a subject now occupying the thoughts of many of our countrymen, and therefore is not undeserving a few words from us at the present moment.
The greater part of those who build country seats in the United States are citizens who retire from the active pursuits of town to enjoy, in the most rational way possible, the fortunes accumulated there, that is to say in the creation of beautiful and agreeable rural homes.
Whatever may be the natural taste of this class, their avocations have not permitted them to become familiar with the difficulties to be encountered in making a new place or the most successful way of accomplishing all that they propose to themselves. Hence we not unfrequently see a very complete house surrounded for years by very unfinished and meagre grounds. Weary with the labor and expense of levelling earth, opening roads and walks, and clothing a naked place with new plantations, all of which he finds far less easily accomplished than building brick walls in the city, the once sanguine improver often abates his energy, and loses his interest in the embellishment of his grounds before his plans are half perfected.
All this arises from a general disposition to underrate the difficulty and cost of making plantations and laying the groundwork of a complete country residence. Landscape gardening, where all its elements require to be newly arranged, where the scenery of a place requires to be almost wholly created, is by no means either a cheap or rapid process. Labor and patience must be added to taste, time and money, before a bare site can be turned into smooth lawns and complete pleasure grounds.
* Original date of December, 1847. The problem is still a live one. But the old English term "country seat" has disappeared from American use. We now say "country place," "country home," or some more pretentious persons speak of their "country estates." The average city man, however, prefers above all else to refer to "my farm." — F. A. W.
The best advice which the most experienced landscape gardener can give an American about to select ground for a country residence is, therefore, to choose a site where there is natural wood, and where nature offers the greatest number of good features ready for a basis upon which to commence improvements.
We have already so often descanted on the superiority of trees and lawns to all other features of ornamental places untied that our readers are not, we trust, slow to side with us in a thorough appreciation of their charms.
Hence when a site for a country place is to be selected (after health and good neighborhood), the first points are, if possible, to secure a position where there is some existing wood, and where the ground is so disposed as to offer a natural surface for a fine lawn. These two points secured, half the battle is fought, for the framework or background of foliage being ready grown, immediate shelter, shade, and effect is given as soon as the house is erected; and a surface well shaped for a lawn (or one which requires but trifling alterations) once obtained, all the labor and cost of grading is avoided, and a single season's thorough preparation gives you velvet to walk about upon.
Some of our readers, no doubt, will say this is excellent advice, but unfortunately not easily followed. So many are forced to build on a bare site, "and begin at the beginning".
This is no doubt occasionally true, but in nine cases out of ten, in this country, our own observation has convinced us that the choice of a poor location is the result of local prejudice, or want of knowledge of the subject, rather than of necessity.
How frequently do we see men paying large prices for indifferent sites, when at a distance of half a mile there are one or more positions on which nature has lavished treasures of wood and water, and spread out undulating surfaces, which seem absolutely to court the finishing touches of the rural artist. Place a dwelling in such a site and it appropriates all nature's handiwork to itself in a moment. The masses of trees are easily broken into groups that have immediately the effect of old plantations, and all the minor details of shrubbery, walks, and flower and fruit gardens, fall gracefully and becomingly into their proper positions. Sheltered and screened and brought into harmony with the landscape, these finishing touches serve in turn to enhance the beauty and value of the original trees themselves.
We by no means wish to deter those who have an abundance of means, taste, enthusiasm and patience, from undertaking the creation of entire new scenery in their country residences. There are few sources of satisfaction more genuine and lasting than that of walking through extensive groves and plantations, all reared by one's own hands — to look on a landscape which one has transformed into leafy hills and wood-embowered slopes. We scarcely remember more real delight evinced by any youthful devotee of our favorite art, in all the fervor of his first enthusiasm, than has been expressed to us by one of our venerable ex-Presidents,* now in a ripe old age, when showing us, at various times, fine old forest trees, oaks, hickories, etc., which have been watched by him in their entire cycle of development, from the naked seeds deposited in the soil by his own hands, to their now furrowed trunks and umbrageous heads!
But it must be confessed that it is throwing away a large part of one's life — and that too, more especially, when the cup of country pleasures is not brought to the lips till one's meridian is well nigh past — to take the whole business of making a landscape from the invisible carbon and oxygen waiting in soil and atmosphere, to be turned by the slow alchemy of ten or twenty summers' growth into groves of weeping elms and groups of overshadowing oaks!
* Undoubtedly this refers to Mr. Downing's intimate friend, John Quincy Adams, to whom his book on "Landscape Gardening" was dedicated. — F. A. W.