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High Voltage gardening in Borehamwood

PUBLISHED: 15:25 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

Peter Middlicott and Mark Wheeler on the green roof of the office, once an electricity substation building

Peter Middlicott and Mark Wheeler on the green roof of the office, once an electricity substation building

A derelict electricity site has been transformed into a state-of-the art plant nursery at Borehamwood. Philippa Pearson finds out about the hard work involved and takes a tour around the site

TWENTY months ago, four people arrived at the overgrown former electricity substation at Borehamwood and began to clear away the waist-high brambles and debris. Abandoned for 10 years to the ravages of time, nature and latterly used as a hang-out for local youths, it took real foresight, dedication and a certain amount of tenacity to see the potential of the derelict site.
Mark Wheeler had capacious fathoms of both as he began to cut down brambles and clear away concrete pylons. His vision was a nursery offering specimen plants to the wholesale trade and garden designers where the eclectic range of products combines side by side with creativity, experience and personal service. Mark's other passion was to integrate green and eco-principles into the concept. From this forbidding and desolate wasteland, Folia has emerged this year to be one of the most exciting and diverse wholesale nurseries around.
But not everyone shared Mark's optimistic vision and enthusiasm, especially as he tried to raise funds for the business. 'It was a hard concept to sell to the banks as we walked around the site, stepping over thick brambles and piles of rubbish,' says Mark as we walk between rows of tall, pleached Hornbeam, carpinus betulus. In fact, no one would lend him money for the project but, undeterred, Mark funded the beginnings of the business himself which included taking on three permanent members of staff, clearing and landscaping the site and transforming the graffiti-riddled substation building into a smart office.
Mark and business partner Peter Middlicott have amassed decades of horticultural experience and knowledge between them. At the nursery you'll find smart clipped box and yew in all shapes and sizes mingling with unusual plants such as an umbrella-shaped white mulberry, pomegranate shrubs and standard loquat trees.
Attention to detail
All the perennials and shrubs are grown by Mark at his 11-acre nursery at Dane End near Stevenage, where he lives, whilst larger shrubs, topiary and trees are sourced by Peter from specialist nurseries across Italy, Belgium and Holland. Attention to detail is evident in the plant range, as is how the plants are maintained on the site and it was good to see rows of the tall jungly black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, sitting in water.
'Bamboos dry out very quickly in containers during the summer if they are not watered enough so we've made these special lined troughs for them which are filled with water to keep the plants happy', says Mark, whose holistic approach to the business is driven by a strong green ethos. During landscaping, large areas were in-filled with recyclable materials and what could be restored or re-used, was.
The original thick cement constructed building is now a smart contemporary office with a green roof where a row of box and yew hedging have been planted into 200mm of soil whilst a choice selection of perennials and grasses, even a silver birch, are growing in recycled substrate. All these plants, which are not watered or fertilised, are monitored and assessed to see how they cope with these extreme conditions. A lush lawn at one end of the roof garden flourishes and there are plans to have a small water feature added next year.
An eco-minded approach
The roof garden is a great place to view the nursery, which slopes down over eight acres to two large ponds which collect water as it drains off the site. Mark plans to recycle this water to irrigate the nursery in the future. In the middle of the nursery, one of the old concrete electricity pylons towers over the plant collection. Soon this will have a wind turbine fitted onto it to generate electricity for the office and the computerised irrigation system.
Being eco-minded, recycled plant pots, donated by clients, are used and the nursery is currently trialling an organic specially formulated all-in-one liquid feed, plant growth stimulator and biological pest control. 'If it works,' says Mark, 'we'll bottle it and sell it.'
Transforming this neglected, unwanted brownfield site into a green, eco-friendly contemporary commercial venture has paid off as Folia's garden designer clients include Joe Swift and Chelsea Gold Medallist Andy Sturgeon whilst celebrities like Stella McCartney, corporate businesses and local authorities have also discovered the specialities of this unique nursery.

Article taken from November issue of Hertfordshire Life

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