A few weeks ago, while I was in Kansas filming the pilot for my new show, Garden Earth, I came across something I hadn’t seen for 30 years. No, not some lost old rose cultivar, but a veritable garden heirloom nonetheless : a metal Tonka toy front-end loader. I had this very same toy when I was a kid, and spent countless hours in the sandbox under our big willow tree, contentedly creating and breaking down and remaking imaginary roadways, hills, and landscapes with the loader and its companions, the dump truck and the bucket crane. I often think that these toys, more than almost anything else, were responsible for my interest in outdoor construction and design, and there’s never a time that I climb into a Bobcat or loader without thinking fondly of those metal miniatures.
These days, I’m told Tonka toys are entirely plastic, and not much in vogue. Kids are too busy playing indoors in front of computers, much like the children I visited recently who on a beautiful summer’s day a few weeks back, were “getting exercise” by balancing on a board in front of a televised “Wee” hula-hoop. Now call me old fashioned, but I can’t for a minute imagine that this kind of thing is particularly healthy, either mentally or physically. Not only are these kids deprived of sun, air and real physical activity, but where’s the incentive for imagination, where’s the ability to create in such pursuits? How many future design careers will be spawned by playing a video game? Without the dreams of Tonka toys and little boys, (and little girls!) the world will be a far duller place, and it’s high time we, as gardeners, get our children outside, active and interested in the environment around them – before we discover to our horror that an entire generation’s only appreciation of nature is delivered through canned images on a television screen.