Sally Ballard meets a man who wants all children to get their hands dirty, down in the garden
Youngsters who love and appreciate nature today will care for the Earth tomorrow, says Steve Brookes. He is is a man with a gardening mission, who visits schools imparting green-fingered know-how to today's children, many of whom have neither weeded nor seeded.
"We have lost a lot of gardening knowledge in the past couple of generations," says Brookes, who is known to hundreds of pupils as Mr Rotavator. "Children no longer go down to the allotment with their grandad, so they don't have the opportunity to learn about plants, vegetables and nature in the way they did a generation or two ago."
So Brookes takes on the role of grandad, transforming himself by greying his hair, donning dungarees and a straw hat and sweeping into schools with the energy and sparkle of an enthusiast, fascinating his audiences with scientific knowledge and hands-on gardening.
A professional landscape gardener, Brookes has combined his love of amateur dramatics, his experience as an off-the-cuff gardening presenter on radio and television and his wealth of knowledge on horticulture. The result is a selection of lively workpacks and workshops for schools and whole-school gardening days tailored to key stages 1 and 2 (the infant and junior years).
"It is exhausting but it is so satisfying," says Brookes, whose love of gardening was encouraged by his own grandfather.
"I am not trying to get every child I speak to to be a professional gardener. But I want to instil the beauty of nature and the pleasure you can get out of gardening."
His gardening workshops are geared specifically to each primary school. "If it is a rural primary, then I take it that most kids are at least familiar with gardening. In city areas some children think carrots come from Sainsbury's, so I have to start at a different level."
Brookes, who is completing talks with Channel 4 about a possible schools programme, discusses individual requirements with each school. "I might get one coming to me saying they need this area transformed and they need to motivate children and parents into action, so I go in to start them off." He also suggests where schools might get sponsorship for their schemes.
Mr Rotavator opened up a whole new gardening experience for Sturton-by-Stow county primary school, which is sited on wind-blown open grounds in rural Lincolnshire. "He was an absolutely excellent resource," says headteacher Mrs Stephanie Douglas. "The children loved him. Not a single child was intimidated by him and he had time for every child in the school.
"They planted a copse of trees and he told them how, in a few years, it would provide a quiet shelter where they could sit. He also suggested we might plant some willow to make a covered tunnel. The children are now cultivating vegetable plots."
The community at Mount Pleasant primary school on the outskirts of Birmingham were also thrilled to have some gardening ideas for the school's hard core environment. Mr Rotovator encouraged the staff and children to think how play areas, quiet areas, picnic areas and shady, ivy-covered arbours could soften their urban school landscape.
"He definitely raised awareness in the children," says Gail Bedford, the headteacher. "It was a very successful day."