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Walk on the wild side

By Jilly Easterby

Seed pods and sedums. Teasels and tansy. The humbling buzz of industrious bees. Reimagine horticulture for a post-pandemic age with Folium.

© Katie Goff

From the verdant valleys of the sub-tropical south to the less temperate climes of the north coast, an increasing number of Cornish gardens are now rich with biodiversity as a result of the inspiring intervention and botanical know-how of Riyah Snow and Megan Lowman.

Having completed their horticultural apprenticeships and pursued successful careers at The Eden Project – in the Mediterranean and Rainforest Biomes, and collaboratively, as part of the Seasonal Displays team – Megan and Riyah aspired to launch an eco-enterprise with environmental sustainability at its heart. But where to begin?

© Katie Goff

As lockdown took hold in 2020 and many of Cornwall’s skilled horticulturists were disadvantaged by career setbacks, entrepreneurial businesswomen, Sue Newton-Paine and Claire Waldie, pondered ways to provide practical support and repurpose horticulture as a powerhouse for positive change. A chance encounter, a catalysing conversation or two and initial investment from Sue and Claire, joined by Becs Trant, led to the founding of Folium, a company that rejuvenates gardens and revives lost spaces from Praze-an-Beeble to Probus and beyond.

Riyah and Megan create outdoor sanctuaries that offer solace from life’s stresses and devise bespoke garden maintenance packages to match client need, whilst Sue, Claire and Becs contribute expertise in sales and marketing, people management, finance and administration. The result is a highly effective business model that maximises resources, talents and skills. Folium is not only transforming the gardens of coastal cottages, designer dwellings and historic houses across the Duchy; the company is changing mindsets too.

© Katie Goff

“Covid-19 has caused society to stop and think; people have re-engaged with the natural world and are more aware of their environmental impact,” explains Megan. “Our growing number of private clients want to know how to enhance their spaces with that in mind so we plant to attract pollinators; enrich soil structure by protecting micro-organisms and offer advice on composting, bee-keeping, creating habitats and implementing natural methods of pest control. This is not just about making your garden look good, it’s about living a life that feels good and that’s what sets us apart.”

Underpinned by an ethos to promote professional horticulture as a progressive career path, the fledgling firm has already recruited bee and wildflower specialist, Alina Dressel, who trained as an apiarist at a biodynamic bee farm; Mediterranean plant expert, Rob Elley, who has a background in biodiversity and landscape design, and Merryn Voyzey, whose planting schemes and colour palettes are inspired by Cornwall’s breathtaking landscapes, shaped by the elements.

There are also plans to collaborate with apprentices from The Eden Project and students from Eden Learning as Folium’s reputation for doing gardening differently continues to spread.

© Katie Goff

Left | © Folium Right | © Katie Goff

“Folium is all about letting wildlife in,” explains Riyah, whose comprehensive understanding of Cornwall’s microclimates and native plants is impressive. “If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that we need to take time to absorb and harness the natural capital of what lies beyond our own front doors. Whether doing battle with brambles to create a quiet corner for reflection or experiencing the wonder of a spider’s web, bejeweled with dew, on a woodland walk, nature has the power to comfort, soothe and heal. By working with clients to reimagine their gardens, the rigid formality of static shrubs and manicured lawns has been replaced with softer, sinuous grasses; more indigenous species and abundant wildflower meadows – and what’s more, they are teeming with life.”

Minimising digging to enrich the earth; mulching to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere and intelligent planting are just part of the story. Pesticides are replaced with natural predators. Hoverflies, lacewings, ladybirds and ground beetles feast on aphids and slugs whilst nasturtium distract caterpillars from devouring brassicas and thymus vulgaris deters black fly from infesting roses.

Clients have marveled at the transformation. Those previously unnerved by the prospect of dispensing with traditional layouts and planting are now reaping the rewards. A green-backed woodpecker has been spotted. A hummingbird hawk moth has been observed. Song thrushes, wrens and other native avians are returning to raise their young. Frogs, toads and newts are populating their ponds once more.

Creating environments that enable wildlife to thrive is a laudable aim but Folium adopts a wholesale approach to nurturing nature through the careful curation of seed mixes, late season wildflower cuts to encourage second flowerings, protecting seed-heads to sustain winter foragers and embracing natural die-back. Listening to clients to fully understand their preferred garden style, looking at the plants that thrive in their soil, and reading the land are also essential to achieving a successful outcome.

Left | © Folium Middle & Right | © Katie Goff

“A formal border, enveloped by a curvaceous gravel path, can still be planted in such a way as to attract vital pollinators and provide year-round visual interest,” adds Megan, whose long-held dream is to design a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. “As a nation, we have become obsessed with tidying our gardens at the year’s end: chopping back and clearing to create a blank canvas for next year or sticking with unimaginative shrubs that give back very little. A client who had been taught to garden by her father, who was born in 1910, really struggled with the concept of selective weeding, the absence of bare soil around plants in her herbaceous borders and wilding parts of her lawn but is now beginning to embrace our new way of gardening, feels less pressure to be tidy and is using the time she has saved to appreciate what biodiversity in a garden can really mean. If we immerse ourselves in the natural order of things and permit plants to do their thing, we can not only appreciate the natural architecture of skeletal shapes, provide safe havens for invertebrates and keep our birds well-fed with berries as we await spring’s new beginnings. We can also feel so much better about ourselves in the process.” This notion of circularity is a recurrent theme.

As the rainbow of colour recedes from the spectacular displays of summer, seeds are collected, dried and used to illuminate unmown strips of lawn with wildflowers and attract particular pollinators next year. Leaf litter imbues soil with valuable nutrients and provides a winter habitat for butterflies and insects, which, in turn, attract birds and other wildlife into the garden.

A year into the business and clients are really noticing a difference in terms of seasonality as well as sight and sound. The softer edges and gentler ambience also promote mindfulness, engender humility and evoke a greater sense of perspective and ‘at one-ness’ with the world.

“People are beginning to understand that gardens take time and that a quick fix for Instagram is neither meaningful nor sustainable,” comments Riyah. “As we try out new techniques, there is trial and error, and a lot of learning on both sides, but it is immensely rewarding to challenge our creativity and knowledge to make gardens that are the very best they can be.”

There is an economic circularity at play too with plants being sourced from small independent suppliers and commercial nurseries in Cornwall, and reputable growers from across the south west if specialist plants are required that are not grown locally.

“As a team, we flourish because we share everything from weeding, pruning and general maintenance to exploring ideas, developing designs and selecting plants,” concludes Megan. “We grow bolder with every garden to experiment with different methods and embed the latest thinking in everything we do. The positive feedback that we have received so far is all the motivation we need to work harder and communicate our passion for reimagining horticultural practice with environmental consciousness and sustainability at its core, and look forward to working on new projects with clients who share our ethos.”

The growing Folium family is certainly a force to be reckoned with, not only for the good of our gardens and the creatures that inhabit them, but also for the benefit of us all.


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