“Insects have quite a bad rep, but they’re vital to our survival” says Tom Massey

Interview with Tom Massey about his garden for the Royal Entomological Society at RHS Chelsea Flower Show May 2023

With his new RHS book, The Resilient Garden, out next month, award-winning designer Tom Massey reveals his plans for an insect-friendly show garden at Chelsea. By Liz Potter

Why are insects the focus of your Chelsea show garden this year? The garden has been designed for the Royal Entomological Society – entomology being the study of insects – with support from Project Giving Back. So, it’s all about insects and how we as humans are important for their survival, in the choices we make and the interest we take in them.

Will it be mostly for pollinators? It’s about much more than just gardening for bees and butterflies – which are by far the most popular insects! There are so many other important species such as beetles, lesser-known ground nesting bees and moths to consider too. Insects tend to have quite a bad rep, particularly wasps and hornets, which are almost demonized.

The Royal Entomological Society is hoping to change that by showing them in all their glory – enlarged on the display screen on the garden at Chelsea, and then in its permanent home where it will be a public open access and teaching garden.

What plants will you be using? The design will include a backbone of native plants such as hawthorn and silver birch (both can support more than 300 species of insect), borage and hardy geraniums, with non-natives to extend the flowering period, such as Echium pininana agm from the Canary Islands. We’ll have a native-inspired woodland edge – foxgloves, ferns and grasses – moving through to a more sparsely planted, open, dry area with more Mediterranean-types of plants, such as salvias and nepeta species. There will also be leaves, bark and abundant deadwood in the garden.

Any special insect-friendly features? We’ll be using many different types of mulch – not just leafmould and composted bark, but a mineral aggregate made from recycled construction waste. This creates lots of different pores and aperture sizes – ideal insect habitat. There’s also a pond with a stream flowing through the garden with ponding and pooling areas for insects that prefer still water to flowing.

Will we get to see any insects? In the centre of the garden is an outdoor laboratory, its roof made from laser cut panels of weathering steel and its design inspired by a compound insect eye. Inside the lab, microscopes on a workbench will be connected to a big projection screen, so we can display sample insects on a massive scale, showing off their fascinating morphology.

Will you keep a record of the insects that visit? During the evenings and overnight we’re going to run a high-tech moth trap that uses artificial intelligence to identify and record the moths that visit the garden. The trap has a lightbox screen with a camera pointing at it, and as the moths visit, the camera software can analyse their size, body and wing shape to identify them. The RHS entomology team will also be surveying the site before, during and after the show, to see if the garden’s ‘insect banquet’ has a positive impact on biodiversity.

What got you interested in insects? I’ve always been very inquisitive. As a boy, on holidays in Cornwall, I remember trying to find out what was causing the buzzing, chirping noise in the long grass. It was fascinating to gently catch the grasshoppers I discovered, then watch how they could jump so far. That early connection with nature is really important for children, to build an appreciation and love for the natural world and the excitement that comes with it.

What impact do you hope your garden will have on Chelsea visitors? Hopefully we’ll inspire people to think more about the role insects play in the garden and the role we play in protecting and supporting them. If we tidy everything up immediately, remove all the fallen leaves and deadwood, keep everything clipped, mown and sprayed with pesticides, that can be really devastating to them. Insects are in mass global decline, but I’m hopeful that if we all make an effort to look after them better, we can make a positive impact on biodiversity.

You’ve got a book out next month too. What’s it about? RHS Resilient Garden explains how to garden in a more gentle and climate- friendly way, encouraging biodiversity by not using chemical pesticides or fertilisers. It encourages people to find more holistic and organic ways to feed and nourish their plots and at the same time minimise waste while increasing nature connection.

So you’re calling for a change in how we garden? We have to see that our gardens don’t exist in isolation – they’re part of the wider, green, interconnected landscape. Also, there’s a perception that gardens are just for human enjoyment, but it’s vital that we take joy in sharing them with nature. The sounds of birdsong and other wildlife have been proven to have a positive mental health effect on humans. It’s important not to exclude nature from our lives.

A lot of the available information about gardening is quite dated and very human- centric – there’s this desire to be ‘tidy’ and control nature. Yet there’s something very evocative about a wild garden.

What are the key ideas in the book? I’ve shown how to turn a traditional urban garden into a more climate-resilient one, from harvesting rainwater in water butts to the creation of a ‘swale’ feature – a depression that collects rainwater from the house roof. Then, instead of paving over the space, you can leave gaps between pavers so water can percolate through to the soil beneath, also allowing more space for planting. Another element of the design is to create a raised timber walkway that weaves through the garden and ‘floats’ over the pond, allowing plants and wildlife to move beneath it. As it’s made from timber it’s biodegradable and has a low carbon footprint. The planting itself follows a ‘food forest’ concept, where edible plants co-exist with ornamentals in a layered understorey. This kind of planting uses species known as ‘edimentals’ – or ornamental edibles.

What can we all do at home? The first thing to do is try to cut out all chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Instead, add bird feeders near plants that are susceptible to insects, and encourage ladybirds to help deal with aphids. Another thing is to take a more relaxed approach: stop mowing your lawn and clipping things back all the time. Maybe try no-mow May during RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Let the flowers emerge; see which insects come and visit. The other thing is to create different types of habitat. A small tree can add a lot of character, habitat, food and shelter for wildlife.

Can we make a difference? There are 30 million gardeners across the UK and many more globally, and if we all make these small changes then yes, I think we can make a big difference. There’s still time. Humans are very adaptable and gardeners will always rise to a challenge.

Tom’s new book RHS Resilient Garden (£27, 256pp, RHS/DK) is available from Amazon, WH Smith or Waterstones

This feature originally apeared in The Garden March 2023

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