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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Helena Horton Environment reporter

Forest bathing garden wins Chelsea flower show top prize

Ula Maria stands in her garden
Ula Maria in her award-winning garden, which was inspired by the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

A garden demonstrating the joys of forest bathing has won best in show at the Chelsea flower show.

Designed by the first-time exhibitor Ula Maria, the garden was inspired by the ancient Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which means being calm and quiet among trees, breathing deeply and observing nature.

She was inspired by a birch grove, and filled her space with dappled light and the sound of water, bringing in more than 40 trees and running a water rill through the middle. Banks of woodland flowers and grasses included foxgloves, cranesbill geraniums, snowy woodrush and wild strawberries.

Maria, who designed the garden for the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, aimed to demonstrate how immersion in nature could boost the mental health of people with the disease.

She spoke to patients about what they would like in the garden, and many said visiting woodlands was difficult as few were wheelchair accessible. So Maria created a garden with wide and easily accessible paths that allow people to get closer to the trees.

The garden is the latest in a series of natural designs to win at Chelsea flower show, which is held in the Royal hospital gardens in south-west London. In 2022, a rewilding garden inspired by a beaver pond won best in show.

Maria, who was slightly overwhelmed by winning, said: “It’s incredible, I can’t believe it, it’s amazing. I’m so proud!”

The RHS chair of show garden judges, Liz Nicholson, said: “This has been one of the toughest years to judge, with exemplary designs and much to enjoy in design detailing. There are some fantastic narratives and storytelling among the gardens.

“Ula’s design is a wonderful slice of forest edge brought to the heart of the RHS Chelsea show ground. It is immersive, relaxing and calming. Its use of flint, which is a difficult material to work with, is notable, creating possibly the biggest insect habitat I’ve ever seen. Coupled with faultless planting to make an innovative, artistic and precise garden, it is a clear winner.”

This year children presented an award for the first time, giving one to the garden in which they would most like to play.

Groups of giggling and chatting primary school pupils were roving the show, trying out the gardens and surveying the flowers as they decided on their favourite.

In the end, the inaugural RHS children’s choice award was presented to Anne-Marie Powell for the Octavia Hill garden by Blue Diamond with The National Trust.

A junior judge from Christ Church school in London, said: “I love how certain areas provide more shade than others, and you can obviously see that the planting has attracted a lot of wildlife. Just looking you can see all the bees and the bugs everywhere.”

Another added: “The planting is on point – it looks like they spent a lot of time on it.”

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