Faculty of Biological Sciences

Research Bulletin

Making a mess can improve your gardening

11th April 2012

A University garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show highlights how messy gardens can boost pollination, manage water and increase carbon capture.

Research by scientists at the University of Leeds has shown that having a 'messy' area in your garden is the most effective way to give bugs a boost and improve pollination in gardens.  The University is to exhibit a garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show that actively demonstrates how, with clever yet minimal changes to their gardens, everyone can be an "ecosystem services champion". 

"If everyone were to make a few, key alterations to their garden, the cumulative difference we would make to the environment could be very significant," said Dr Rebecca Slack, of the university's Faculty of Environment.  "It doesn't matter how small your garden is, it can still make a real difference - in fact our garden is deliberately based on the kind of garden you'd usually find in Yorkshire's urban fringe in order to show just how easy it is to get involved."

The University's RHS Chelsea exhibit has been designed to resonate with the RHS Environment  theme of "urban greening" and has been developed by a team of academics from two faculties at Leeds who are researching ecosystem services. The team includes: Dr Gordon Mitchell and Dr Slack from the Faculty of Environment and Professor Les Firbank and Professor Bill Kunin from the Faculty of Biological Sciences.  The team are working with Chelsea gold medal-winning designer Martin Walker who is helping to bring the research to life. Support has also been given by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which has funded much of the research into ecosystem services, including most recently the Insect Pollinators Initiative.

The University of Leeds exhibit focuses on three specific areas:

  • Making an area of the garden messy to provide nesting sites, such as "bug hotels" for pollinator insects, and habitat piles for other pollinating invertebrates, and planting pollinator-friendly plants that often thrive in poor soils;
  • Managing storm water by slowing water flow through the garden and preventing run-off by collecting and storing water to maximise retention within the garden;
  • Making the garden a carbon sink rather than a source of greenhouse gases by composting to make mulch, reducing use of artificial fertilisers, growing vegetables and fruit, and planting green roofs and walls to insulate buildings.

"Our design is based on an average urban garden," said Martin Walker, the acclaimed Chelsea gold medal winner.  "But we've made a few vital tweaks: the path is made of permeable material, so that instead of water running off the surface into drains, it percolates into the soil and stays within the garden. There's a cottage garden section planted with a mixture of fruit bushes and companion flowering plants: the flowering plants attract pollinators and encourage pollination of the fruit allowing gardeners to grow their own and reduce their carbon footprint."

Dr Slack added: "We're showing a garden that's just like any other - it's the kind of garden you or your friends have - it's meant to look familiar, rather than different. What we're showing is the science behind a garden and the many benefits, or services, that a garden ecosystem can provide for the gardener. By focusing on the services of pollination, carbon sequestration and water management, we show that many of the measures gardeners already take are making important contributions to the ecosystem functioning of a garden but is easy to do more."

The University of Leeds is also to launch a "virtual garden" on Facebook where people can grow their own flowers and shrubs and leave gardening tips, effectively making everyone that takes part a member of the University's online ecosystem.

The garden represents an average urban garden, the kind found on the fringe of any northern city. A path made of permeable material will allow visitors to walk through the garden. There is a green-roofed (planted with Sedum Grass) pagoda which houses information boards to explain the function of the garden. The path and pagoda divide the garden into three areas: the vegetable and fruit bed; the shady garden common in many north-facing gardens; the rain garden planted for areas of high rainfall or water run-off.

A "bee-vision" camera and linked screen will allow visitors to see the garden from the perspective of a pollinating insect.


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Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haematology, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2015), £700,521

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Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880

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Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174

Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Medimmune Ltd (Apr 2014), £337,661

Peter Stockley, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £251,019

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £146,596

Andrew Macdonald, Kidney Research Fund UK (Apr 2014), £127,237

Elwyn Isaac, DEFRA (Apr 2014), £126,512

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in School of Design), Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £114,350

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Carrie Ferguson, Karen Birch, Shaunna Burke, Heart Research UK (Apr 2014), £60,140

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