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Lifestyle, Gardens, Country

Muscular Dystrophy UK: Forest Bathing Garden

At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

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Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden dybe1f

Artist’s impression of ‘Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing RHS Chelsea 2024 Show Garden’ by Ula Maria

Muscular Dystrophy UK supports more than 110,000 people in the UK living with muscle wasting and weakening conditions. On 21 May, they are looking forward to their RHS Chelsea Show Garden being unveiled for the RHS judges, who will be viewing the show gardens and awarding their medals. Designed by award-winning designer Ula Maria, and generously sponsored by Project Giving Back, the design of the Muscular Dystrophy UK- Forest Bathing Garden has been inspired by the ancient Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku; bathing in the forest atmosphere and reconnecting with nature through our senses.

Ula Maria was born in Lithuania and many of her gardens are inspired by her family’s countryside home with its rural landscape of wildflower meadows, pine forests, wild streams and rivers. Ula’s design ethos is to create gardens in an authentic and organic way, and she believes that the most effortless-looking spaces are often created as a result of a complex design process with every detail carefully considered and refined to its purest expression. When she unveils her RHS Chelsea Show Garden this year, she is hoping that what she has so carefully created will awaken people’s imagination with its connection to nature, bridging the gap between us and the natural world.

Ula Maria - Image credit: Rebekah Kennington

The garden is designed to offer an accessible, immersive forest bathing experience to Muscular Dystrophy UK patients, their families, clinicians and the wider community. Following the Show, it will be relocated to the public garden space at the new Institute of Developmental & Regenerative Medicine at the University of Oxford in Headington. There it will provide a permanent place of refuge for Muscular Dystrophy patients during their treatment and new trials, with access to the general public also available. 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. The relocation site was selected as the Institute is a flagship scientific centre meeting the ambitious challenges of finding new treatments and therapeutic strategies to tackle the chronic conditions brought about by cardiovascular, neurological or immune system disorders.

"We at the Institute of Developmental & Regenerative Medicine (IDRM) are all very excited about having the Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden as part of our Institute. It is wonderful that this beautiful design will adorn IDRM and we are grateful to Muscular Dystrophy UK and Project Giving Back for relocating the garden to us where it will benefit the researchers, patients and public for many years to come,” Professor Georg Hollaender, Head of the Department of Paediatrics, and Academic Theme Lead Immunology at the Institute of Developmental & Regenerative Medicine.

Ula Maria - Walled Garden project

Ula’s research prior to designing the garden was extensive: she read about many experiences and stories from the Muscular Dystrophy UK community but was particularly inspired by Martin Hywood’s story. Now 50, Martin lives in Aylesbury and, since his diagnosis in his 20s, he has inspired others diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. He has also personally raised thousands of pounds for research into finding treatments and a cure for this debilitating condition. Martin shared his experience following his diagnosis with Ula.

“I remember returning to my car at the hospital, just sitting in silence contemplating how my life might change, with my wife sat next to me, wondering how it would impact my role as a husband and father,” says Martin. "My diagnosis was horrible. I was surrounded by my whole family and yet I felt like I was the loneliest person in the world. I felt useless and knew, after some time, that I had to do something about this and hoped that what we do now will help others in the future to not go through the pain that we have as a family and that’s what we’ll keep doing because this group of fantastic people just keeps growing. I have found a massive positive out of something so negative and now I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Tiny Courtyard design by Ula Maria - Photo credit: Chris Wharton

After years of fundraising and raising awareness of Muscular Dystrophy in his spare time, Martin left his pharmaceutical job and took up a new role as Partnerships and Ambassador Engagement Officer at Muscular Dystrophy UK in 2021 which supports c110,000 people in the UK living with one of over 60 muscle wasting and weakening conditions. Martin will be representing patients at the Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathin’ Show Garden.

Armed with a myriad of information about the condition, and inspired by Martin’s story, Ula envisioned an ethereal, therapeutic, and accessible garden space offering a sense of being immersed in nature, providing a juxtaposition to a clinical environment. To achieve this, the Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden is planted with more than 50 silver birch trees, creating an atmospheric birch grove with dappled shade as the sunlight filters through the branches of the trees. It will be underplanted with woodland edge style plants, varying from deep shade corners to more open, sunnier woodland glades. The experience will be further enhanced with the addition of 4,000 plants, the majority of which have been selected for their beautiful foliage, creating a rich textural green tapestry with an occasional burst of colour.

Visitors will enter via an accessible path, following a slow-moving naturalised water stream running through the central garden axis inviting both people and wildlife to enjoy what the garden has to offer. At the heart is a central meeting hub with informal seating and sculptural knapped flint walls to provide a sheltered space. Created with a random knapped flint, the pattern is reminiscent of muscle cells. The wall will become a vital visual aid helping to illustrate what Muscular Dystrophy is and the effect it has on one’s muscles. Another key feature of the garden is a large bungaroosh-style wall, made using modular steelwork sections filled with a mix of reclaimed and recycled materials such as large stone blocks, slate tiles, and bricks. Ula selected this building technique to showcase how a beautiful and contemporary looking garden structure can be created from a variety of reclaimed materials. The use of naturally occurring materials such as stone, timber and clay all work together, enhancing the experience of forest bathing.

Sanctuary Garden - Ula Maria

Ula Maria comments: “This garden is all about connections: whether to oneself, nature, or others. It is meant to serve as a sanctuary whilst offering an immersive forest bathing experience. It is my hope that this garden will increase awareness of how places that are inspired by the people who inhabit them can have a meaningful effect on communities such as Muscular Dystrophy UK.”

Catherine Woodhead, Chief Executive of Muscular Dystrophy UK said: “Thanks to the generous sponsorship from Project Giving Back, we are absolutely delighted to have a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024. We want more people to know about Muscular Dystrophy and what it’s like to live with a muscle-wasting or weakening condition. Part of the challenge of a diagnosis is that no one has heard of it, you know no-one living with it and you have to explain it to everyone from family, friends, teachers, colleagues and even GPs. This opportunity will change that. It will allow us to reach people who have never heard of the condition, give our community a voice, and raise awareness of the work of the charity.”

The garden’s relocation to Oxford following RHS Chelsea Flower Show is noteworthy as Oxford holds a special significance for Muscular Dystrophy UK. The charity has been supporting scientific research in the city for over five decades. Professor Dame Kay Davies, current Vice President of the charity, who is a renowned geneticist has dedicated two decades to the pursuit of effective cures and treatments.

If you are visiting RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May, you can find the Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden located on Main Avenue MA327. RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024 runs from 21-25 May. rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show.

To find out more about how you can support Muscular Dystrophy UK, please visit musculardystrophyuk.org

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