This year is not only the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, it’s also 150 years since the publication of his explosive text on evolution – ‘On the Origin of Species’. It turns out that not only was Darwin a brave biologist willing to challenge fixed ideas about creation, he was also a kitchen gardener. The vegetable plot within the grounds of his home was both an inspiration and a source of many delicious family meals.
Heading down to Downe
I headed to Down House on a crispy autumn day late last year in anticipation of these two big anniversaries, and in a bid to catch the last of the crops in the still flourishing kitchen garden. The tiny village of Downe is on the very edges of London and Kent and the Darwins’ ivy covered house looked a vision in the early afternoon sun, surrounded by trees still just hanging on to their leaves, but burnt all kinds of oranges and reds.
The house and grounds are owned and managed by English Heritage and are open to the public. The ground floor of Down House has been restored to look as it would have done when the large Darwin family was in residence, and it’s rather exciting to have a nose around Darwin’s study. Upstairs is an interactive exhibition all about Darwin’s life and works.
But the real reason I was there was to look at the garden, which was absolutely fundamental to the evolutionist’s thinking and psyche. He spent hours out there, exploring its tangled banks, walking its twisting paths and conducting experiments in his series of glasshouses, which are still standing in the walled kitchen garden today.
Tangled banks and deep purple cabbages
Darwin was massively influenced by his natural surroundings in what is now the London borough of Bromley. This area, recently labelled ‘Darwin’s Laboratory Landscape’, has been put forward to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. The family owned 18 acres of land here, including the gardens and a 15 acre meadow. In ‘On the origin of species’, Darwin wrote evocatively of a tangled bank teeming with interconnected life, and so explained the complexity of ecosystems and evolution by describing the garden and wild areas that were all around him.
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (On the Origin ofSspecies by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin, 1859)
I headed straight out to the vegetable garden – a long, neat, rectangular plot, about 125 x 20 metres, walled, with a series of glasshouses down the right hand side as it stretches away from the house towards the ‘sandwalk’, the path Darwin followed daily to walk through his thoughts. The kitchen garden provides the link between the house and formal gardens and the countryside that rolls away from them.
A feast for the eyes
Exploring the end of season rows of veg, I came across huge, deep red cabbages, bright mammoth and rouge wif d’Ecampes pumpkins, the jewel like leaves of Swiss chard, walking stick kale, delicious looking Web’s wonderful lettuce and some impressive marrows. Not to mention a decent crop of Florence fennel, various potato varieties, carrots, radishes and onions. It was an absolute feast for the eyes, brightened further by beds of wild flowers and nasturtiums trailing up the far walls.
Sweet peas and rose bushes would have provided colour earlier in the season, but had finished flowering by the time of my visit. Darwin crossed generations of peas in the veg patch as part of experiments to explore the central problems of heredity.
Next I wandered through Darwin’s glasshouses, painted a dusky shade of pale blue, and built between 1856 and 1881 for his botanical research. I also went to meet the bees kept on the other side of the kitchen garden wall. The garden is both a fully functioning and inspiring vegetable patch and a living science and history lesson – it feels like a special place.
Super heroes and seed catalogues
So what’s it like being responsible for a large kitchen garden that has such a formidable former owner? Really exciting but a tiny bit nerve wracking too, according to Rowan Blaik, who started as head gardener in September. Rowan lives in a cottage on site and juggles between maintaining a working garden that’s a visitor attraction and also conserving it faithfully as an important piece of history.
“Charles Darwin is a super hero of scientists and Darwin fans come here looking for the specific plants that he wrote about. It’s important that we are deeply accurate about what we grow. He spent decades in this garden and his experiments within its walls allowed him to answer questions he’d started thinking about during his voyage on the Beagle. Darwin took common plants from his local landscape and, by studying these humble species, he came up with really important theories about plant structure” says Rowan.
The aim here is to get things period correct and, actually, with the late Victorian era that’s not too restrictive. Rowan explains that the records of what was grown here are very good, and he can refer to the actual seed catalogues that Darwin read through and marked – like his copy of John Cattell’s Kitchen Garden Seed Catalogue of 1855. The recipes of Darwin’s wife, Emma, reveal a love of home grown soups and salads, fresh from a plot easily large enough to sustain the large Darwin family.
These days some of the produce from the garden is sold in the shop on site, while the rest is taken home as a delicious reward by the volunteers who give their time here. Rowan says there are plans to start using the veggies in the café some time soon.
This February, the kitchen gardeners at Down House are making plans for the year ahead, starting indoor propagation and mulching the beds outside. The site re-opens after winter revamp work on February 12th and there are loads of special events planned to mark this year’s big Darwin anniversaries, both here and across the UK.
© Helen Babbs
This article appears in the Feb issue of Kitchen Garden magazine