12 November 1999

GREEN FINGERS WIN A TESTING TV ROLE

Simon Robinsons green

fingers have worked

wonders in one north-west

garden, earning the farmer

a prime-time slot on

television. Tim Relf reports

CHANCES are, if hes not out working somewhere on the farm, youll find him in one of the polytunnels behind the parlour.

A few minutes at lunchtime; after dinner in the evenings; in the daytime, even, on wet days when the milkings been done and the sheep tended, hell be there. His family even joke about it. Simon, they say, is having a love affair with Polly. As in Polytunnel.

And a love affair it certainly is – because its in these polytunnels that the 29-year-old Cumbrian farmer spends so much time in the spring, lovingly tending thousands of seedlings.

The garden at Warth Sutton Farm, Kendal, attracts not just the praise of passers-by, but is also about to star next month as a shortlisted finalist in BBCs Gardener of the Year competition.

It all began when, unbeknown to him, Simons wife, Julie, sent off for an application form. "I filled it in under duress," he says. "I had absolutely no idea it would go this far."

&#42 Cottage garden

It is a "cottage" garden, says Simon, walking among the beds and borders which, only four years ago, were grass and vegetables. Now, there are hundreds of plant varieties, including more than 30 types of hardy geraniums. Its somewhere for the children – Ben, 3, and Holly, 4 – to play in and enjoy as they grow up. Maybe theyll become keen gardeners, as Simons parents are.

"I like being outside," he says. "Its very relaxing but challenging, too – a lot more so than people think."

And its certainly a farmers garden. A lump of manure sits in one corner, dropped over the wall by the tractor. "We have a plentiful supply of well-rotted manure," says Simon. Its an essential ingredient in combating the stoney, water-losing ground. Flower beds are made from spare fencing stakes and gateway gravel. Rolled-up sheep netting make ideal supports for high plants against the wind coming off the sea little more than two miles away. "The wind will knock anything tall over."

In June and July its an explosion of purples and blues. "I like alliums and delphiniums," says Simon. In winter, its less colourful – and less time-consuming. Which suits him fine, what with the 8000 litre-averaging Farletonview dairy herd to be tended and 300 sheep to be lambed after Christmas. "There isnt much time for anything else," he says of the daylight-short winter months.

As for the future, more work will be put into the gardens shape. "Its very open in structure; I would like to split it up into sections with, maybe, paths, fences or shrubs."

But it was his seedsmanship that so impressed the competition judges. "Most things here have been grown out of a packet. Trying to get things to germinate – thats the challenge, thats what requires patience."

More than £100 a year can be spent on seeds, with 80 or more packets bought. "You get more and more interested in it. You get the bug and want to try something harder."

This is the case with Alstroemeria which, in a bid to break the dormancy in the summer, have been known to end up in the fridge. "But Im not too popular if I fill the fridge full with seeds."

Gardening, it seems – like farming – demands skill, patience, a bit of luck and a lot of hope. Its like Simon says of growing alpines from seed. "You sow them and leave them outside all winter in a cold frame, hoping the frost breaks the dormancy."

Then he pauses, smiles and repeats that word well-known to gardeners and farmers alike. Hoping.