Making a mess can improve your gardening


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.

Notes to editors

Dr Slack is available for interview. Contact: University of Leeds Press Office, +44 113 343 4031 or email

Professor Les Firbank
has studied farming and the environment for over 30 years. He has looked at the effects on wildlife of organic farming, agri-environment schemes and GM crops, and now focuses on how to improve both food production and ecosystem services. He led the work on enclosed farmland for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, and is an Independent Director of the 'Red Tractor' food assurance scheme. He has long extolled the environmental virtues of untidy gardens!

Dr Mark Goddard
is a Research Assistant on the Urban Pollinator Project at the University of Leeds. He has recently completed his PhD that explored the ecological and social drivers of bird and bee diversity in residential landscapes.  Mark is particularly interested in how socio-economic factors and human decision-making influence the wildlife-friendly management of private gardens.  His research has highlighted the biodiversity benefits of managing groups of gardens collectively - so please get chatting over the garden fence!

Professor Bill Kunin is an ecologist who specialises in wild plants and their pollinators. He has helped explore the declines in Britain's wildflower and pollination communities, and is currently involved in two insect pollinator initiative projects, one on agricultural landscapes and one on urban pollinators. He has two sets of twins and hence a very messy garden at home.

Dr Gordon Mitchell has worked in environmental management for 25 years, with an emphasis on cities and predictive modelling. He has research experience in water management (stormwater pollution, resource demand, marine oil pollution, catchment hydrology), energy, air quality, environmental justice, spatial planning, and environmental assessment. He recently finished rescuing a listed building in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and is now about to start on the garden - it will be his first.

Dr Rebecca Slack combines managing water@leeds, the water research centre at the University of Leeds, with research that looks at how the environment influences human health. She is a keen gardener and once worked at garden centre, putting her plant sciences degree to good use! Having recently moved house, her big project for 2012 is redesigning her rather neglected back garden along ecosystem services principles.

Ms Constanze Vageler is a business development manager at the University of Leeds. She grew up in a house with a big garden and her earliest memories are of picking home-grown strawberries in the summer and smelling the freshly mowed lawn. She experienced the importance of managing and preserving water when sailing around the world on a yacht as every drop of drinking water was dependent upon the on-board water maker working without a glitch.  Turning on the tap when onshore became a novelty!

Mr Martin Walker has spent a lifetime in gardening. Having been encouraged by his grandfather as a child, he embarked on a career with Leeds Parks from 1972-2011. A member of several gardening groups and charities, he judges show competitions and speaks on many gardening subjects. A highlight was guiding Leeds City Council to 'Show Garden' Gold Medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Recently retired, he continues to expand and share his passion, experience and knowledge of horticulture. 

What does the garden look like?

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.