NOVEMBER is, above all others, the tree-planting month over the wide Union.† Accordingly, every one who has a rood of land looks about him at this season to see what can be done to improve and embellish it. Some have bought new places where they have to build and create everything in the way of home scenery, and they, of course, will have their heads full of shade trees and fruit trees, ornamental shrubs and evergreens, lawns and walks, and will tax their imagination to the utmost to see in the future all the varied beauty which they mean to work out of the present blank fields that they have taken in hand. These, look for the most rapid-growing and effective materials, with which to hide their nakedness, and spread something of the drapery of beauty over their premises, in the shortest possible time. Others have already a goodly stock of foliage and shade, but the trees have been planted without taste, and by thinning out somewhat here, making an opening there, and planting a little yonder, they hope to break up the stiff boundaries, and thus magically to convert awkward angles into graceful curves, and harmonious outlines. Whilst others, again, whose gardens and pleasure grounds have long had their earnest devotion, are busy turning over the catalogues of the nurseries in search of rare and curious trees and shrubs to add still more novelty and interest to their favorite lawns and walks. As the pleasure of creation may be supposed to be the highest pleasure, and as the creation of scenery in landscape gardening is the nearest approach to the matter that we can realize in a practical way, it is not difficult to see that November, dreary as it may seem to the cockneys who have rushed back to gas-lights and the paved streets of the city, is full of interest and even excitement to the real lover of the country.
* Original date of November, 1851.
† The advantages of November as a tree-planting month seem to be generally overlooked. Exclusive spring planting is too commonly accepted as the only way. — F. A. W.
It is, however, one of the characteristics of the human mind to overlook that which is immediately about us, however admirable, and to attach the greatest importance to whatever is rare, and difficult to be obtained. A remarkable illustration of the truth of this, may be found in the ornamental gardening of this country, which is noted for the strongly marked features made in its artificial scenery by certain poorer sorts of foreign trees, as well as the almost total neglect of finer native materials, that are indigenous to the soil. We will undertake to say, for example, that almost one-half of all the deciduous trees that have been set in ornamental plantations for the last ten years, have been composed, for the most part, of two very indifferent foreign trees — the ailantus and the silver poplar.* When we say indifferent, we do not mean to say that such trees as the ailantus and the silver poplar, are not valuable trees in their way — that is, that they are rapid growing, will thrive in all soils, and are transplanted with the greatest facility — suiting at once both the money-making grower and the ignorant planter; but we do say, that when such trees as the American elms, maples and oaks, can be raised with so little trouble — trees as full of grace, dignity, and beauty, as any that grow in any part of the world — trees, too, that go on gathering new beauty with age, instead of throwing up suckers that utterly spoil lawns, or that become, after the first few years, only a more intolerable nuisance every day — it is time to protest against the indiscriminate use of such sylvan materials — no matter how much of "heavenly origin," * or "silvery" foliage, they may have in their well sounding names.
* This is remarkable testimony. The popularity of the ailantus and the silver poplar must have been short, for they cut a very unimportant figure in modern tree plantations. — F. A. W.
It is by no means the fault of the nurserymen that their nurseries abound in ailantuses and poplars while so many of our fine forest trees are hardly to be found. The nurserymen are bound to pursue their business so as to make it profitable, and if people ignore oaks and ashes, and adore poplars and ailantuses, nurserymen cannot be expected to starve because the planting public generally are destitute of taste.
What the planting public need is to have their attention called to the study of nature — to be made to understand that it is in our beautiful woodland slopes, with their undulating outlines, our broad river meadows studded with single trees and groups allowed to grow and expand quite in a state of free and graceful development, our steep hills, sprinkled with picturesque pines and firs, and our deep valleys, dark with hemlocks and cedars, that the real lessons in the beautiful and picturesque are to be taken, which will lead us to the appreciation of the finest elements of beauty in the embellishment of our country places — instead of this miserable rage for "trees of heaven" and other fashionable tastes of the like nature, † There are, for example, to be found along side of almost every sequestered lawn by the roadside in the northern states, three trees that are strikingly remarkable for beauty of foliage, growth or flower, viz.: the tulip tree, the sassafras, and the pepperidge. The first is, for stately elegance, almost unrivalled among forest trees: the second, when planted in cultivated soil and allowed a fair chance, is more beautiful in its diversified laurel-like foliage than almost any foreign tree in our pleasure grounds: and the last is not surpassed by the orange or the bay in its glossy leaves, deep green as an emerald in summer, and rich red as a ruby in autumn — and all of them freer from the attacks of insects than either larches, lindens, or elms, or a dozen other favorite foreign trees, — besides being unaffected by the summer sun where horse chestnuts are burned brown, and holding their foliage through all the season like native born Americans, when foreigners shrivel and die; and yet we could name a dozen nurseries where there is a large collection of ornamental trees of foreign growth, but neither a sassafras, nor a pep-peridge, nor perhaps a tulip tree could be had for love or money.
* The ailantus bears as one of its vernacular names the grandiloquent title of "Tree of Heaven." — F. A. W.
† This cult for native materials, thus clearly announced by Mr. Downing, was not always followed by him without deviation. At least it came to have much more partisan support and much greater popular acceptance among some of his successors. — F. A. W.
There is a large spirit of inquiry and a lively interest in rural taste, awakened on every side of us, at the present time, from Maine to the valley of the Mississippi; but the great mistake made by most novices is that they study gardens too much, and nature too little. Now gardens, in general, are stiff and graceless, except just so far as nature, ever free and flowing, reasserts her rights in spite of man's want of taste, or helps him when he has endeavored to work in her own spirit. But the fields and woods are full of instruction, and in such features of our richest and most smiling and diversified country must the best hints for the embellishment of rural homes always be derived. And yet it is not any portion of the woods and fields that we wish our finest pleasure ground scenery precisely to resemble. We rather wish to select from the finest sylvan features of nature, and to recompose the materials in a choicer manner, by rejecting any thing foreign to the spirit of elegance and refinement which should characterize the landscape of the most tasteful country residence — a landscape in which all that is graceful and beautiful in nature is preserved — all her most perfect forms and most harmonious lines — but with that added refinement which high keeping and continual care confer on natural beauty, without impairing its innate spirit of freedom, or the truth and freshness of its intrinsic character. A planted elm of fifty years, which stands in the midst of the smooth lawn before yonder mansion, its long graceful branches towering upwards like an antique classical vase, and then sweeping to the ground with a curve as beautiful as the falling spray of a fountain, has all the freedom of character of its best prototypes in the wild woods, with a refinement and a perfection of symmetry which it would be next to impossible to find in a wild tree. Let us take it then as the type of all true art in landscape gardening, which selects from natural materials that abound in any country, its best sylvan features, and by giving them a better opportunity than they could otherwise obtain, brings about a higher beauty of development and a more perfect expression than nature itself offers. Study landscape in nature more, and the gardens and their catalogues less, is our advice to the rising generation of planters, who wish to embellish their places in the best and purest taste.