Take care of water and make your garden grow


University of Leeds scientists offer gardeners practical tips on making the most of Spring rainfall.

With the Environment Agency today (13 April) reporting that England and Wales received only 38% of the rainfall normally expected in March, scientists from the University of Leeds' leading interdisciplinary water research centre, water@leeds, are offering gardeners practical advice on how to make the most of any rainfall which does come their way.

Dr Rebecca Slack from water@leeds explained: "Water is a very valuable resource, particularly in times of drought, so we want to encourage gardeners to think about how they use it, just as they might think about how they use electricity or other utilities in their home. "Looking after water will be one of the key themes for our garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May. 

We want to show easy, practical steps that gardeners can take to manage water in their gardens whether we've had too much rain or too little - let's not forget that despite the current dry spell, many parts of the UK have also suffered from flooding in recent years." The University's Chelsea garden, entitled 'Gardening for Champions!', is modelled on a typical urban garden, and designed to be relevant to the millions of city and surburban gardeners across the UK.

The garden will showcase simple ways that any gardener, amateur or professional, can manage stormwater, maximising drainage to the ground rather than the sewer during very high rainfall events, and ensuring water is stored within the garden to reduce the effects of drought. Measures demonstrated in the Chelsea garden will include collecting and storing rainfall from a green-roofed pagoda in a water butt. As water butts fill quickly in heavy rain, a stormwater garden will be planted around the water butt allowing water to overflow for natural drainage. A permeable resin-bound gravel path allows water to soak into the soil rather than running off into surface water drains.

Dr Gordon Mitchell, one of the key academics behind the garden, explained: "By ensuring rainfall soaks into the ground, rather than runs off into drains, you're helping to raise water levels in your garden. That means two things - firstly your garden will be better able to cope with dry periods and secondly you are helping to prevent flooding, which can be caused by water running off non-permeable surfaces such as tarmaced or concrete drives and paving."

Another feature of the University's garden is the emphasis on soil care. Rebecca commented: "Adding organic matter to soil improves water retention while top dressing with mulches can help reduce evaporation. Good soil management will help plants survive dry conditions." While drought tolerant plants are certainly an important consideration for gardeners in parts of the south-east, the planting in the University's garden reflects its Yorkshire roots. 

Rebecca explained: " We have included some Mediterranean-type plants, but we really wanted to show that gardeners in many parts of the UK can use our water and soil management techniques to keep the plants they already have, rather than redesigning and replanting their whole garden." The University's garden, which will be located in the show's Environment Zone, will also explore pollination and carbon management, key themes which resonate with the Zone's overall focus on urban greening. 

The team responsible for developing the garden include academics from the Faculty of Environment and Faculty of Biological Sciences at Leeds: Dr Mitchell, Dr Slack, Dr Mark Goddard, Professor Les Firbank and Professor Bill Kunin, with Constanze Vageler from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and Chelsea gold medal winning designer Martin Walker who is acting as the horticultural advisor.  Support has also been given by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Yorkshire Water.

Notes to editors

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Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk

What does the garden look like? The garden represents an average urban garden, the kind found in 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) 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 with bug hotels; 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.  

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. Gordon is the water specialist for the Leeds exhibit at Chelsea. http://www.geog.leeds.ac.uk/people/g.mitchell/

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. Rebecca is coordinating the Leeds exhibit and assisting Gordon with the water message of the design. http://www.geog.leeds.ac.uk/index.php?id=777

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! http://www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/staff/profile.php?tag=Firbank_L

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. http://www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/staff/profile.php?tag=Kunin

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.