Local resident Tamara Toth shares how her idea to help provide veg boxes during lockdown became a reality thanks to Emmaus Village Carlton, and how she’s now giving back…

Growing up green

I was born in Bedford and have lived near Carlton since I was 20. Growing up we always had a veg patch and were often picking and storing produce for the winter. All our fruit and veg, eggs and sometimes meat came from our garden.

My first jobs included working for a garden designer and a tree surgeon. I’ve always loved working outdoors so I decided to go back to college and studied garden design and horticulture for a few years. This led me to start up my own business doing gardens, which I still do part-time. I also have three allotments and I learn a bit more each year.

Veg boxes during lockdown – KemfreeVeg

When the first COVID-19 lockdown hit, in early 2020, I had the idea of doing organic chemical free vegetable boxes for local people. My original plan was to grow food for boxes and donate all the excess to local foodbanks. Emmaus Village Carlton has two polytunnels and they kindly offered me the use of one of them for my project; the charity often helps support local good causes like that. When I then discovered that foodbanks prefer donations of non-perishable items, I adapted so that any excess produce now goes directly to the Emmaus Village Carlton kitchen, supplying food for companions and Bistro customers.

Since advertising as ‘KemfreeVeg’ I have found that there is a demand for OAP boxes; some people live on their own and a standard box is too much for them to use, I’ve also tailored some boxes for low income families and am giving away some boxes to people who use food vouchers. I don’t accept the vouchers and encourage them to use them for the more exotic fruits and veg that won’t grow in the UK.

My experiences at Emmaus

During my time in the vegetable garden at Emmaus I’ve met some of the companions – the formerly homeless people being supported by the charity. They’ve all been so welcoming, helpful and interested in how the polytunnel is evolving. We have our own duties but I like to think we help each other out. I feel we all have a shared love of being outdoors and I’m hoping that our chats will stimulate more interest for gardening in the future.

Gardening and mental health

I spent many years of my life dealing with depression; gardening was my lifeline. There has been a lot of scientific research that proves that working outdoors in nature is very beneficial to our nervous system. It calms our mind and body down. Recent research has discovered that there is a natural occurring bacteria in the soil that acts as a natural antidepressant. This bacteria positively affects our serotonin levels, the happy hormones. Fresh air and sunlight are all beneficial to our wellbeing and physical activity helps the body heal physical and mental trauma through being in the moment, bringing you back to earth for those brief moments.

In the garden we see the life cycle of plants, we create a healthy environment for the plant to grow and we support it through any difficulties. Life is very much the same when you find the support you need. I believe there is healing in all aspects of gardening and it can give us great comfort in its simplicity.

Future plans

I’ve really enjoyed my time at Emmaus and hope to continue the partnership for many years. I am hoping that maybe at some point we will be able to get the garden producing all of their fruit and vegetable requirements. Recently, Emmaus has agreed for me to use an extra bit of land and I have started work on clearing it. I would like to be able to provide more boxes for the people in need and carry on learning about growing for more families.