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Japanese inspired show garden influenced by the personal experiences of those living with muscle-weakening conditions

by | 14 Mar 24 | Garden Design, Long Reads

Garden designer Ula Maria will make her RHS Chelsea debut this year after previously winning RHS Young Designer of the Year in 2017, with an ancient Japanese inspired garden, helping raise awareness for Muscular Dystrophy UK (MDUK) and those affected by muscle-weakening conditions.

“I remember leaving the initial conversation with the team at Muscular Dystrophy UK and thinking – I must get involved in this project.”

The Muscular Dystrophy UK – Forest Bathing Garden is unlike any in Maria’s already impressive portfolio and is inspired by the ancient Japanese practice of ‘Shinrin-yoku’, which directly translates to forest bathing.

“It [the garden] seeks to create a sheltered space for its visitors – to give comfort and clarity, reconnect with oneself and nature, or accommodate conversation with others.”

Garden designer Ula Maria © Rachel Warne

The garden, which is being supported by MDUK and Project Giving Back, will include around 50 birch trees, creating a dappled shade effect and will work to “enhance visitors’ experience of forest bathing”, says Maria.

“The birch trees will be underplanted with the woodland edge plants, varying from deep shade corners to more open, sunnier woodland glades.”

She goes on to say the experience will also be enriched by around 4,000 plants, the majority of which have been selected for their “beautiful foliage that will form a green tapestry on the floor of the forest that is rich in texture with an occasional burst of colour.”

Foundations for the garden’s walls will be formed using reusable precast concrete footings, which has been in circulation at Chelsea since 2017 and will go on to be reused in future show gardens.

Maria hopes the garden will showcase how “accessible green public spaces can make a positive impact for people living with muscle-wasting or weakening conditions.”

The muscular dystrophies are a group of genetic conditions that overtime weaken the body’s muscles, with some types of MD eventually impacting the heart or even the muscles used for breathing, causing life-threatening complications.

In 2022 a study led by Dr Iain Carey at St George’s University of London found that over 100,000 people in the UK are now living with MD, a significant jump from the 70,000 originally thought.

Maria envisions the garden to be an “accessible and immersive” space for MDUK patients, its families, clinicians and the wider community.

She says the design was primarily influenced by the personal experience and stories from the MDUK community.

“I was particularly inspired by Martin’s story who was diagnosed in his 20s and now aged 49. He shared how he felt immediately after receiving his diagnosis: “I remember returning to my car at the hospital, just sitting in silence contemplating how my life might change, with my wife sitting next to me, wondering how it would impact my role as a husband and father.

“After hearing Martin’s story, I aimed to create a garden that will showcase how an outdoor space can provide a safe, sanctuary-like environment to support patients, and their families, in the future during their most challenging times and beyond.”

The garden will serve as a sanctuary, offering connectivity either to oneself, nature or others, upon its relocation to the public garden space at the new Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Oxford.

Where it will be a “permanent place of refuge for MD patients during treatment and new trials, with access to the general public also being made available.”

Maria says discussions about the project began all the way in spring 2022, and while she has exhibited at other flower shows before, “Chelsea feels different, and working with such a great charity makes it that much more meaningful.”

The show garden will be built by 33 Chelsea Gold Medal winner, Crocus and will feature along the event’s coveted Main Avenue.

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show will be taking place on the 21 – 25 May 2024. For more information on the show, visit:

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