Carina Millstone is a Co-Founder of The Orchard Project (TOP) and is now an Ambassador. She is a permaculturalist, who first noticed the opportunity for more orchards within London’s environmental movement. Here Carina tells us about what inspired her vision for TOP, how she made it a reality and how you could do the same!
What inspired you to start TOP?
Several things! I had become very interested in permaculture and was involved with Transition Town Brixton, one of the first urban transition town groups. This was 15 years ago or so. I was speaking to a lot of people with a lot of interest in food growing and realised most people were interested in growing fruit trees, but they didn’t know where to start. There was more knowledge of how to grow annual crops, less knowledge of trees. So, I really saw that as a big gap.
In parallel to that, the idea of actually making it happen came to me while I was running on the common. I became aware that it had been really a huge, missed opportunity for our ancestors not to plant fruit-bearing trees. It’s great having parks with trees, but I was thinking to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be a miracle if all these trees were fruit-bearing or nut-bearing trees?’.
London’s a very green city, and whilst London being self-sufficient in, say, tomatoes isn’t going to happen… the idea that London could be self-sufficient in plums, cherries and apples seemed quite feasible to me.
How did you go about starting the project?
Having had the idea, I enlisted the help of my friend Rowena, (who is) very entrepreneurial. I thought, this would be more fun if there were two of us.
“The idea that London could be self-sufficient in plums, cherries and apples seemed quite feasible to me.”
The first thing we did was write emails to community and urban growing groups basically saying ‘we want to start a project supporting groups to plant fruit trees, would you be interested?’. We started doing this when we had no funding secured at all.
Within a few days, we had loads of responses from different groups across London saying they loved the idea and would support us. At that stage we knew we were onto a winner – there was a real appetite of people really keen to do this and looking for expert support.
A lot of us grew up in London, myself included, and don’t know how to much about growing. Neither myself nor Rowena had the technical skills to plant fruit trees.
So, realising there was a lot of appetite and interest. We started applying for funding and meeting agriculturalists and fruit tree experts. [Finding funding] was quite tough, but we knew it was a good idea from the enthusiasm.
What advice would you give someone wanting to do the same thing?
- Prepare for a lot of hard work, and prepare to be really skint. We have to be realistic that it’s a real luxury to be able to do this. I was made redundant for a year during the financial crisis, but with the guarantee of being able to go back to the job after a year. I was broke, but I also had the financial security of knowing that if the whole thing didn’t work out, I could go back to my job. Having it as something you do on the side is one thing; turning it as an organisation and a source of income, and that’s really difficult.
- You need to be 100% committed. Decide that this is what you’re doing with your life, – as in, you want this to be on your gravestone, to be read at your funeral that you did this. You really need to want it, a lot!
- Get some friends involved. It’s good to have friends involved because it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s always more fun doing it as a group.
- Make sure there’s interest there, – test the idea. After year one, the decision is, will this be a one-off fun project or do we want to turn this into an actual charity which is totally different in terms of incorporating and securing core funding.
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have enough experience. You learn by doing. I had never planted a fruit tree, I didn’t even know fruit trees were grafted – I knew nothing. I just knew I liked fruit trees, and it was a cool idea. You can learn by surrounding yourself with experts, and there’s an element of self-belief that I was lucky to have.
Brilliant! And finally, do you have a favourite fruit tree or orchard?
I like pear trees, but I think I’ll go with the peach tree of my childhood. I’ve realised that fruit trees are the lazy man’s horticulture – once the trees established, it just keeps on giving in abundance.
My favourite orchard might be Brogdale, the National Fruit Collection. The Core Blimey apple which we created as new variety at TOP is now growing there, – that’s is really exciting! That’s somewhere that I had no idea existed before I started. I experienced going there as a bit of a miracle, all these different varieties.
Interview and text by Ethan Burn (Operations Intern); editing by Maja Darlington (Communications Intern).