Garden tour and Darwin experiments at Down House


Back to presentations: Science in Gardens

Kristyna Slivova, English Heritage Down House, Senior Gardener, and Volunteers: Elizabeth (Weed Garden Experiment), Jane (Lawn Plot Experiment, fungi and worm recording), and Ray (Experimental Bed)

Kristyna comes from Prague, Czech Republic, which is where she started her horticultural career at the College of Agriculture and then carried on to complete a Master’s degree at the University of Life Sciences. She moved to Margate in Kent after her graduation in 2011 and in the following year started the RHS Level 2 Diploma at Hadlow College in Canterbury which she completed within one year. During her studies she decided to become a garden volunteer at Walmer Castle and Gardens to gain gardening experience. A maternity cover vacancy occurred at Walmer and Kristyna was asked to apply for the position. At the end of the contract in 2013 Kristyna moved within the organisation and became a Gardener at Down House, Home of Charles Darwin. Her knowledge and experience quickly expanded and she took charge of the kitchen garden and volunteers. She was recently promoted to a Senior Gardener and she continues to supervise the on-going development of the garden at Down House.

Garden Tour and Darwin experiments at Down House

The gardens at Down were central to Darwin’s work, and the place where he conducted numerous investigations. Closest to the house is a lawn, which was not just a place for recreation but where Darwin carried out various experiments, such as identifying species in one plot of lawn, and observing the activities of worms beneath a ‘Wormstone’.

Beyond the lawn is the kitchen garden, which is walled on three sides, with hedging on the south to let in sunshine. A wide range of vegetables is grown there today, many of them Victorian varieties noted by Darwin.

In the late 1850s Darwin took over a corner of the kitchen garden for his ‘experimental beds’, where his investigations into plant evolution led to several key discoveries. Some of these beds have been replicated in the present planting.

Bordering the north wall are Darwin’s greenhouses, which provided the specialised growing environment he needed for experimentation. It was here that he made revolutionary discoveries about the reproductive behaviour of plants in the final years of his life. They are now stocked with many of the same plant specimens that Darwin cultivated, including orchids, carnivorous plants, wild cucumber and passionflower.

At the outer edge of the property, beyond the walled kitchen garden, Darwin laid down the Sandwalk, a quarter-mile stone and sand path that formed the basis of his regular daily walks until the final weeks of his life. It was a place for meditation, known as his ‘thinking path’.