Archive | July, 2012

Getting to the bottom of the bumblebee question

30 Jul
Echinacea with a white-tailed bumblebee

Hard at work: Echinacea with a white-tailed bumblebee

Have you looked at a bumblebee’s bottom recently? The question is not as strange as you might think. It can be a simple way to identify the common species – and it’s good to know what kind off bees you’ve got.

You may not have realised, but bumblebees and honey bees are not the same thing at all. Honey bees live together in large numbers and make and store ‘commercial’ quantities of honey to feed their colony, while bumblebees live in small groups, so don’t make very much at all.

But bumblebees have other skills. Honey bees all have the same length of tongue, whereas bumblebee species all have different lengths, which means they can pollinate many more types of plant.

And, unlike their honey-making cousins, bumblebees will come out in the rain, which means they go on working even when we’re having a rotten summer like this one.

Unfortunately, as you probably know, bumblebees are in decline and if we don’t protect and nurture them, we’ll have an ecological nightmare on our hands. Without them, we would lose a huge number of vital plant varieties.

The greater the range of plants in your garden, the wider the range of bumblebees that can thrive and go about their business. However, they need to be traditional cottage garden plants, as they’re full of nectar and pollen.

Amanda’s had me on bee watch in the garden recently and so far I’ve spotted six different species:

  • Red-tailed, which have red bottoms
  • Common carders, which are brown all over like miniature teddy bears
  • White-tailed, with wide white bottoms
  • Buff-tailed, with pale fawn bottoms
  • Garden bumblebees, with pointy white bottoms, and
  • Early bumblebees, which are small with rusty bottoms and usually gone by June.

Not a bad total, I think you’ll agree.

Traditional cottage garden plants

Bees’ paradise: Some of Wordsworth House’s traditional cottage garden plants


Recycled roof slates and crocheted mice

23 Jul
A slate label in Wordsworth House garden

New Life: A slate taken from Wordsworth House roof

Kat in Wordsworth House garden

Lady in red: Kat, skilled secretary and calligrapher

Amanda has found a clever new use for damaged roofing slates taken from the house here and other National Trust-owned homes and farms around the northern Lake District. With the help of garden volunteer Kat, who’s a whiz at calligraphy, she’s turned them into giant plant labels – and they look wonderful.

Kat, who’s also a skilled secretary, says Amanda’s handwriting is worse than a doctor’s, hence her offer to help out.

Visitors have always been interested in the wide range of heritage fruit we grow, but up to now Amanda hadn’t found sympathetic labels for them. It truly is a unique collection, as most of the apple, pear, plum and other wall-growing varieties date from pre 1800.

The garden volunteers bring all sorts of skills – Lynne who crocheted my pals Bubble and Squeak, the mice, also makes the tea cosies that you can see on TV’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch.

The only other place we know of that does something similar with slates – in this case with poetry written on them – is Calke Abbey, a glorious hoarders’ paradise in Derbyshire, packed with generations of fascinating collections and bric-a-brac.

The Georgians were great recyclers – reusing everything from tea leaves to human hair and teeth – so we think William and the rest of the Wordsworths would have approved.

Fun for all the family – indoors and out

19 Jul
Go hunting for bees in the garden

On the trail: Go hunting for bees in the garden

There’s something special on at Wordsworth House every day that we’re open during the school holidays.

For those with green fingers, Monday or Wednesday is the day to visit. On Mondays, from 11.30am to 1.30pm, budding young gardeners can decorate a plant pot made from recycled materials, sow a seed and take it home to grow.

Wednesdays are herbs and hedgerows days, with talks at 11.30am and 2.30pm about the bizarre ways – from poisonous puddings to nettle cloth – that the Georgians used herbs and foraged plants.

Weather permitting, any day of the week, your young ones can also pick up a copy of Amanda’s brilliant All-a-Buzz garden bumblebee and bug trail.

If their main interest is in the kitchen, they can roll up their sleeves and join the costumed servants on Tuesday, between 11am and 3pm, to make clapbread, or on Thursday, also from 11am to 3pm, to fashion a pastry fish.

On Saturdays, there are special talks and recipe tastings at 11.30am and 2.30pm, while for Sundays the focus is on the weird world of Georgian sports and pastimes, with talks at 11.30am and 2.30pm, and the chance to play cards or skittles 18th-century style throughout the day.

We’re open every day except Friday, from 11am (last entry 4pm) and there’s no additional charge for activities. For more details about our events programme, go to or call 01900 820884.

Playing snip, snap snorum

Hand of cards: Playing “snip, snap snorum”

Summer sun on a plate

17 Jul
Cakes in Wordsworth House cafe

Delicious: Cakes – and nasturtium flowers – in the Wordsworth House café

Nasturtiums, pot marigolds and borage don’t just look pretty at this time of year – they taste good too. The café staff are adding edible flowers to the herbs they collect every day to adorn their fabulous savoury dishes.

When they stop to chat, I’ve been imparting some of the wisdom Amanda has shared with me. For instance, did you know that the name nasturtium comes from “nasus tortus”, which means twisted nose in Latin and refers to their peppery smell?

The flowers taste peppery too and, along with the young leaves, make a wonderfully colourful addition to salads and garnishes. Those thrifty Georgians also found a use for the green seed pods, which they pickled to make a caper substitute.

Pot marigold petals, as the name implies, can be used in the pot when cooking custards and other puddings to add a hint of summer sunshine. The petals are nice in salads too.

Borage flowers, for those who enjoy an al fresco summer drink, make a sophisticated – and practical – addition to ice cubes, as they have cooling properties that continue to work after the ice has melted. They also have a lovely cucumbery flavour – Amanda suggests adding them directly to your Pimms.

For those who like their afternoon tea outdoors, the café team tell me we should soon have tables in the front garden. And, of course, if you’re visiting the house, you can enjoy a takeway in our beautiful rear garden and have tea with me. Don’t forget to bring me a piece of cake – and I like a slice of lemon with my cuppa!

Sunburst: The pot marigold

Sunburst: A pot marigold

Service with a smile in Wordsworth House café

Service with a smile: Our café volunteer Helen

Amanda’s good pruning guide

9 Jul
A young plum fan with slate label

Work-in-progress: A young plum fan

If you have apples or pears trained against your garden walls, now’s the time to prune them. Amanda would normally be setting to with her secateurs, but this year she’s going back to square one and training the actual espaliers.

At the end of 2009 our lovely walled garden was turned into a swimming pool by the great flood of Cockermouth. As a result of all the damage to the brickwork, we lost our Victorian espaliers. This created an opportunity to replace them with varieties that would have been available in the late Georgian period.

The only downside to this rain/flood cloud’s silver lining was that 18th-century varieties aren’t generally available ready-espaliered, so Amanda is learning on the job, teaching herself how to espalier apples and pears and to fan plums and cherries.

For those who have established espaliers, step one in Amanda’s good pruning guide is to get your secateurs sharpened.

She then recommends starting on the main arms, pruning all the new laterals to just three leaves above the basal clusters and completely removing any over-vigorous upright shoots. Next, turn your attention to side shoots, reducing them to one leaf. Simples, as my friend Aleksandr Orlov, the TV meerkat, would say!

By the way, did you know that the word “secateurs” comes from the Latin verb to cut, secare. And the exact definition of an “espalier” is a plant trained around a central trunk, with tiers of branches growing out horizontally on either side.

Sadly, a perchcrow of little brain does not know such things – I had to ask Amanda. And in return for this information, she said I had to include a picture of her rose campion, for no other reason than that it’s beautiful at the moment!

Rose campion

Blooming lovely: Rose campion

A courgette by any other name

5 Jul
The long herbaceous border at Helmsley

Colourful: The long herbaceous border at Helmsley

If you love gardens and are going to be in Yorkshire this summer, pay a visit to Helmsley Walled Garden, near Thirsk. Amanda and her volunteers went on an excursion there this week and they loved it.

Like my home here, it’s a Georgian walled garden filled with gorgeous, colourful plants – and like this garden, it’s run by a charity so depends on the hard work of a dedicated volunteer team to keep it in tip-top shape.

Amanda couldn’t resist taking the snap below to show Sian, the senior retail consultant in our splendid shop. Sian said she wouldn’t mind sharing her name with a fuchsia or a peony, but she wasn’t so keen on a courgette. Sian isn’t exactly the green-fingered type, though – she’d be the first to admit that if she was in charge, this place would be Astroturfed from edge to edge!

Green and lovely: Sian, the retail consultant

Sian, the courgette

Green and leafy: Sian, the courgette

No wars between our roses, as Amanda shares some secrets

5 Jul
Rosa mundi and cat mint mingle

Fragrant: Rosa mundi and cat mint mingle in the rose bed

The smell in the garden at this time of year is utterly sublime – an intoxicating mixture of roses, herbs and lilies. The heady fragrance wafting over the paths is a real treat – and the view is beautiful too.

Amanda grows 19 varieties of heritage roses, spread throughout the garden. Each one smells subtly different, adding a fabulous new level to its sensory appeal. Often, she tells me, heritage roses have a deeper perfume than modern ones, which makes up for the fact that the majority have only one flush of flowers.

There are two roses she deliberately keeps apart to prevent arguments: the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York. Both are doing very well this year in their separate beds. When pressed, she will admit that Rosa alba maxima, the white rose, is her favourite of the two, because of its truly glorious scent.

While we were chatting, she told me a fascinating historical fact … the rose was a traditional emblem for silence and secrets, often used on ceiling plasterwork, wooden panelling and other decoration in old buildings. So next time you look up and see one, you could be in a room that was used for private meetings or even plots!

She also whispered to me that her very favourite rose in the whole garden is Rosa mundi, a luscious pink and white striped variety that dates back to the 12th century, when it was named after King Henry II’s mistress, sweet Rosamund. Isn’t that lovely!

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