Seasonal Garden Highlights
The gardens at Down House were where Darwin developed many of his ground-breaking ideas on evolution and natural selection. They were both his outdoor laboratory and a place where he could reflect and think deeply. Take a journey through a year of seasonal garden highlights at Down House.
Down House in Spring
There is plenty to see during spring at Down House, from orchids in the glasshouse to spring flowering bulbs appearing throughout the garden. In early spring head towards the glasshouse. Many of the orchid species that Darwin studied are grown here and this is the time of year when the majority come into flower. Of particular note is the Comet orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) for which Darwin predicted the pollinator 40 years before it was actually discovered.
COWSLIPS AND PRIMROSES
Beside the glasshouse, Darwin's experiment bed bursts into life with his primula experiment. Cowslips and primroses are planted out in rows to compare the shapes of their flowers and the effect that has on their pollination.
Primulas feature again in the Orchard, which looks particularly good in early spring, with primroses (Primula vulgaris), native daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in full flower. By April the orchard trees will begin to blossom.
A RIOT OF COLOUR
The end of April and into May is perhaps the best period of spring at Down House. The mixed herbaceous borders start to show their colour, the rhododendrons come into bloom and the first of the spring vegetables start to enliven the kitchen garden.
Just on the other side of the hedge to the kitchen garden, Darwin's meadows start to burst into colour in late spring. First the reds and yellows of sorrel and buttercups, before moving into the whites and golds of the summer.
The final spring highlight has to be the flowering of the wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) followed by the bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the Sandwalk wood, an area planted by the Darwin's and used by Charles for his daily walks.
Down House in Summer
During summer at Down House the ornamental aspect of the garden, which in most parts is typically Victorian with mixed herbaceous borders, rose gardens and flower beds, provides a great deal to see.
Summer is the time for roses at Down House, but you won't find many in the borders. The Darwin's preferred to grow their roses to use as cut flowers in the house, so most are found in the kitchen garden planted in two utilitarian blocks.
The vegetables in the Kitchen Garden are regularly harvested during the summer, including lettuce, broad beans, radishes and peas, some of which are used in the tearoom. Some of the Victorian vegetable seeds are also available in the shop.
Climbing plants continue to be a feature through the summer months, including a selection of plants that have been chosen from Darwin's book on 'The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants' which he published in 1865.
They are on display in the far end of the greenhouse, and also on the trellis on the house. Darwin was constantly interested in all that was happening around him and there are accounts of him tracing the movement of vine tendrils on the windows of the dining room.
In the glasshouse there is a fine display of insectivorous plants. Darwin was the first to scientifically prove that these plants gain their nutrients through digesting insects on their leaves rather than drawing them up through their roots. He focussed most of his work on sundews (Drosera sp.) and probably 70 per cent of our collection focuses on this genus.
A stroll around the Sandwalk, Darwin's 'thinking path', at this time of year may show many hidden treats - look out for small, pale lower spikes of common Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria), which grows parasitically on the roots of trees and wild roe deer that often raise their young on the estate.
Down House in Autumn
Autumn at Down House is colourful, from the climbers on the house to the fungi in the lawns. Over 200 different species of grassland fungi have been recorded at Down House, with the majority found in the lawns directly behind the house.
All four 'CHEG' species (Clavaria, Hygrocybe, Entoloma and Geoglossum) are present, considered to be indicator species of old, unimproved grassland (permanent grassland that has not been cultivated for some years).
In order to maintain the fungi population we have a very limited lawn maintenance regime. All we do is cut the grass and no more. Many of the fungi are associated with rotting down the layer of thatch in the lawn. This is the dead layer of grass that builds up annually and is normally removed in the spring or autumn by scarification.
Other fungi species have symbiotic relationships with the moss or the grass species themselves. We stop mowing by mid-October to allow the fungi to develop unhindered and normally by the beginning of November we have quite a display of various coloured fungi. The frost will kill the mushrooms and toadstools so keep an eye on the weather forecast if you really want to see the fungi at their best.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLES
Elsewhere in the garden the apples and pears provide a good show, and in the kitchen garden the remains of the summer bounty are hanging on. Cabbages, leeks, and late season root vegetables such as parsnips and turnips provide most of the interest.
The trellis on the house is planted with many climbers such as Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) which was known to be there during Darwin's life and provide great autumn colour.
Down House in Winter
The quiet winter months pass quickly at Down House, and while Jacob sheep graze the meadows, winter aconites and snowdrops start appearing around the garden. Early daffodils such as Narcissus pseudonarcissus, planted in the orchard, and some Victorian cultivars in the borders should be in full bloom by late winter.
The orchids in the greenhouse also put on a show in February. The Coelogynes often flower around this time with Coelogyne cristata being a favourite. Laelia anceps should also be in flower, but the greenhouse will be scented by a smaller flowered orchid called Osmoglossumn pulchellum. Not as showy as the other two but well worth growing for its perfume.
For the hardier visitor, a walk around the wider garden and estate has many rewards. The gentle slope of Great Pucklands Meadow catches the winter sun and many of the trees planted by Charles Darwin - now mature specimens - can be appreciated in their fullest along the circuitous path of the Sandwalk. With oaks, beeches and sweet chestnuts supporting a wide range of wildlife, they enjoy the peace and tranquillity as Darwin did year round.