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.

Recent Grants

Neil Ranson, Mark Harris, Ade Whitehouse, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2016), £1,000,000

Katie Field, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £830,381

Alan Berry, Alex Breeze, Adam Nelson, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £479,490

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2015), £752,365

Julie Aspden, MRC (Oct 2015), £633,020

Steve Sait, NERC (Oct 2015), £386,061

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2015), £200,293

Eric Hewitt, Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Oct 2015), £46,621

Ade Whitehouse, Alison Ashcroft, Ian Carr, BBSRC (Sep 2015), £438,975

Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2015), £430,567

Shaunna Burke, Andrea Utley, Sarah Astill, Arts Council of England (Sep 2015), £80,594

Samit Chakrabarty, Ronaldo Ichiyama, Intl Foundn for Research in Paraplegia (Aug 2015), £93,000

Eileen Ingham, John Fisher, EPSRC (Jul 2015), £1,458,439

Anastasia Zhuravleva, BBSRC (Jul 2015), £483,019

Alex O'Neill, MRC (Jul 2015), £249,822

Ade Whitehouse, Richard Foster, Cancer Research UK (Jul 2015), £201,034

Ronaldo Ichiyama, Jim Deuchars, Sue Deuchars, Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research (Jul 2015), £123,895

Helen Miller, ABNA Ltd (Jul 2015), £22,968

Martin Stacey and colleagues in FMH, MRC (Jun 2015), £426,475

Adrian Goldman, Sarah Harris, Roman Tuma, BBSRC (Jun 2015), £420,693

Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jun 2015), £238,915

Christine Foyer, BBSRC (Jun 2015), £160,401

Adrian Goldman, EU (Jun 2015), £116,331

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Innovate UK (Jun 2015), £113,378

Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, EPSRC (Jun 2015), £93,672

Michelle Peckham, Peter Knight, Thomas Edwards, BBSRC (May 2015), £404,987

Michelle Peckham, Ed White, Peter Knight, BHF (May 2015), £208,184

Dave Westhead, Sheena Radford, Alex Breeze, BBSRC (May 2015), £51,021

Steve Clapcote, Vitaflo International Ltd (May 2015), £33,703

Les Firbank, Joe Holden, Pippa Chapman, NERC (Apr 2015), £388,726

Samit Chakrabarty, David Steenson, BBSRC (Apr 2015), £120,103

Paul Millner, Gin Jose, Sarah Aickin, DSTL Porton Down (Apr 2015), £63,407

Chris Hassell, David Lewis, The Physiological Society (Apr 2015), £6,900

Andrew Tuplin, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £15,000

Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £14,770

Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £13,960

Stuart Egginton, BHF (Mar 2015), £272,979

Keith Hamer, Department of Energy & Climate Change (Mar 2015), £58,066

Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Mar 2015), £41,171

Les Firbank, DEFRA Dept for Env. Food & Rural Affairs (Feb 2015), £20,000

Ian Hope, Marie-Anne Shaw, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £381,998

Paul Knox, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £5,000

Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £359,077

Christine Foyer, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £408,334

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

Mike McPherson, Christoph Walti, DSTL Porton Down (Jan 2015), £625,125

Sheena Radford, Mark Harris, Peter Stockley, Alan Berry, Alex O'Neill, Thomas Edwards, Adrian Goldman, Anastasia Zhuravleva, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2015), £443,015

Alison Ashcroft, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Nicola Stonehouse, David Brockwell, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £340,937

Bill Kunin, EU (Jan 2015), £157,490

John Colyer, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Fund (Jan 2015), £40,000

Chris Hassall, Royal Society (Dec 2014), £14,500

Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700

Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Nov 2014), £355,253


Voluntary exercise delays heart failure onset in rats with pulmonary artery hypertension

6th October 2015

Professor White’s group’s observations on rats suggest that appropriate exercise regimes may be useful in the treatment of pulmonary artery hypertension.

Professor Nicola Stonehouse discusses the HPV vaccine for ITV calendar news

1st October 2015

A mother from Grantham says a vaccine designed to prevent her daughter getting cervical cancer has led to the teenager developing a neurological condition.

Offshore wind farms could be more risky for gannets than previously thought

28th September 2015

Offshore wind farms which are to be built in waters around the UK could pose a greater threat to protected populations of gannets than previously thought.

Tortoise poo highlights the need to conserve parasite communities as well as their hosts

23rd September 2015

For most people diseases and parasites are only seen as something to be eradicated because of their negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of humans, or agricultural and wild species.

Swinging on ‘monkey bars’: motor proteins caught in the act

14th September 2015

The first images of motor proteins in action are published in the journal Nature Communications today. 

Outstanding examples of Leeds research impact named

11th September 2015

Dr Simon Goodman wins the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Award for the Medicine and Biological Science Category - Biosecurity and sustainable tourism in the Galapagos Islands.

FBS academic £250,000 award from research council

11th September 2015

Dr Alex O'Neil has been featured as an award winner for his research 'Silent antibiotic resistence genes:an overlooked issue of considerable importance in antibacterial chemotherapy' in the Times Higher Education publication

From musical innovation to climate change, contributing to the British Science Festival

9th September 2015

A pioneering digital musician is following in the footsteps of physicist Brian Cox by being chosen to give a public lecture at the British Science Festival in Bradford (7-10 September).

Dr Alex McLean

Bats wake up and smell the coffee

20th August 2015

Intensive agriculture is taking a toll on bats in the Western Ghats of India, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, but shade-grown coffee, remnant rainforest patches and riverine vegetation strips may help struggling species hang on.

Food production shocks 'will happen more often because of extreme weather'

14th August 2015

Professor Tim Benton (biology), from University of Leeds has conducted research that suggests climate change and a rising demand in food from a high population could cause a frightening situation. 

“Brainy” mice raise hope of better treatments for cognitive disorders

14th August 2015

Researchers have created unusually intelligent mice by altering a single gene and as a result the mice were also less likely to feel anxiety or recall fear. 

Study finds non-genetic cancer mechanism

27th July 2015

Cancer can be caused solely by protein imbalances within cells, a study of ovarian cancer has found.

Physiological Society Oral Communication Prize Winners

17th July 2015

Ewan Fowler and Sabine Lotteau from the Cardiovascular, Sport and Exercise Sciences group (School of Biomedical Sciences) have been awarded the Physiological Society’s Oral Communication Prizes

Age doesn’t dull damselflies' love lives

16th July 2015

Aging damselflies never lose their libidos and are just as likely as younger competitors to mate.


Dr Simon Goodman has investigated the disease risks to the native Galapagos fauna.

Dr Utley has carried out research over a number of years to increase understanding of the issues faced by children with varying types of movement and co-ordination difficulties.

The Ponnambalam laboratory undertakes research relating to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

The Yorkshire Dales Environment Network is a partnership involved in the daily life and long term protection of the Yorkshire Dales.

All impact stories