Natural Tranquillity: How to make your garden into a restful space

We get some top tips from expert Ula Maria on how to create a calming garden, whatever its size

Main image: Ula Maria’s ‘Muscular Dystrophy UK – Forest Bathing Garden’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

This year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, garden designer Ula Maria will be creating a space that is inspired by the ancient Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, where you soak up the atmosphere found among the trees, which can help you feel grounded and calm.

Some 50 trees will be brought in to provide a forest-inspired atmosphere – but reaping the benefits of nature doesn’t need such a dramatic setting. Ula has expertise in small urban gardens. She says: “People find different things relaxing so the starting point would be to find out what gardens make you feel most relaxed and at ease. Think about engaging your senses within your garden – smell, touch, hearing, sight and even taste. Introduce comfortable seating for lounging and observing changes in your surroundings.”

The RHS adds that you can create your own forest bathing garden by introducing plenty of texture and a variety of leaf shapes and colours, and mimic the woodland by layering up with hits of green at different levels – ground, eye height and a shady canopy. Trees with ornamental bark such as birch, which will be used in Ula’s Chelsea garden, add a beautiful and tactile feature.

Pictured: Antiquarian’s Orchard Project by Ula Maria / Sanctuary Garden by Ula Maria / Family Garden by Ula Maria / Tiny Courtyard by Ula Maria © Chris Wharton

If your garden is small, go big, says Ula. “It might feel counterintuitive to introduce Ula Maria ©Rebekah Kennington large items to small spaces, but they trick the eye and mind making the space appear grander and bigger than it actually is. Even a single statement plant or tree will make more impact than loads of tiny ones.”

A growing trend in recent years has been towards more nature-inspired planting schemes that not only provide a wonderful retreat for relaxation, but also a haven for wildlife. It can be difficult to achieve but Ula has some tips: “There’s a general misconception that planting that appears to look ‘naturalistic’ is easy to maintain and develop, but it requires a lot of care and attention. I would recommend plants that are resilient and provide interest all year round. Some ornamental grasses are ideal for this as they provide lovely changes throughout the year and look great even in winter.

Adding some sort of water feature can be calming and is good for wildlife. “No matter how small, it will make a big difference.” Other ways to attract wildlife include simply adding a pile of decaying wood, and planting more trees, shrubs and ornamental species.

But before making any changes to your garden, you need to understand what you are working with to ensure you plant sustainably. “Evaluate the soil, observing sun and shade levels within the garden and how much water it typically receives. You can then introduce plants that grow best in those particular conditions. It is also important to consider the sustainability credentials of any hard landscaping materials that you use such as their predicted lifespan, how are they made and where they come from.”

Ula’s Forest Bathing show garden, sponsored by Project Giving Back, will be on display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 21-25 May. It is being created for Muscular Dystrophy UK to help raise awareness of the work of the charity.