Rachel Wakefield

‘I’m just green doing my thing’

Michael Perry, aka Mr Plant Geek, smelling herbs

For hortpreneur Michael Perry, plants are everything. He goes by the moniker Mr Plant Geek and recently listed in The Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world. He also wears the Influencer of the Year crown bestowed upon him by the UK’s Garden Media Guild.

He is also ‘that friendly bloke’ the audience so readily connects with on daytime television, radio gardening shows, podcasts, and every single social media platform to the everyday gardener at home. He was known as the ‘plant hunter’ at Thompson & Morgan, and his marketing skills grew in this environment for 18 years, specifically in new product development. As he describes it, writing headlines for product pictures in the mail order catalogues gave him a real insight into what consumers want and how they like to hear it. Five years ago, he had a leap of faith and became a freelancer to share his joy of gardening.

FloraCulture International had an enjoyable interview with Perry over Zoom, and he gave insights into how he balances his authentic plant geekiness with the industry and the consumer.

FloraCulture International: What does gardening, flowers and plants mean for you?

Michael Perry: “My earliest memories of gardening and plants were when I was five years old, with my grandad. It is madness to stop and think I have built a career around my love of plants. There is nothing I am interested in or good at other than working with plants. I love having plants around me; it’s their wellbeing properties, the joy of growing them, the pleasure of discovering new varieties, finding different ways to grow plants. I love seeing blankets of plants. Somehow, I have 150 houseplants, and I do not know how this happened. I am naturally drawn to them. I think when you love them, you do not worry or fuss about them. It’s only natural, and it is part of my life, and that’s what gardening, flowers and plants are all about to me.”

What do you think about today’s teenagers? Are they desperately hiding their passion for flowers and plants, as you did, or do you feel a lot has changed since you came ‘out and proud’ with gardening?

“I naturally fell in love with plants, but it was tough to confess to loving plants in my youth. I think some of that problem links to a perception of sexuality. So, I tried to avoid letting anyone know about my feelings. These days, it is much easier to follow your passion, to be honest and to be an individual; ironically, social media makes it easier to see things and connect with people who feel the same way. When I was younger, I never saw anyone my age doing what I do. I couldn’t appreciate how I felt is more normal than I imagined, so I isolated in those days. But these days, there is so much more exposure on Instagram and social media. It’s cool and trendy. Now I see a future where plants are appreciated; and, the young people are already here!”

What about your garden? Where does your inspiration come from?

“My mind is a Pinterest board, and I try to deliver that in my garden. It is my space to reflect, and inspire, with blankets of plants that deliver colour, and it is also my studio where you see my gardening on social media and my website. Gardening is cyclical, and there is that element of ‘what to do in your garden’. Still, I pick up on topical issues, such as gardening during the lockdowns, or add a twist on gardening tips such as what not to prune in your garden right now or how to deal with your Aloe Vera’s soggy bottom. My aim in writing and presenting is to educate hopefully and never to patronise. I love adding my passion and humour in a laid-back style.”

What is your business model, and how does it work? Is it all paid content?

“In horticulture, there is an embarrassment about making money. Yes, there are various sponsored content types on my website, from a series of products to one-off items. It is visible, and I have brand ambassador agreements.

For example, I worked with Rowse honey as their horticulture spokesperson; the project was gratifying. They chose me because of my industry connections and my consumer associations. I don’t think there are many horticultural experts with that juxtaposition.

Social media is my visual CV. It shows how I can work for the industry, as much as it is inspiring my passion and gathering gardening followers. My business model is to say ‘yes’ to anything and throw myself into whatever. I am keenly aware that my job is to make plants accessible and exciting for my audience, but it is my passion. I am even recording a voiceover for the Calm sleep app, and it’s all about gardening.”

Can you tell us more about your connection with breeders such as Danziger, Syngenta and trade shows such as Plantarium or the Dutch Flower Council?

“On my website, I share with my audience: the plant of the month, or vegetable of the month, or shrub of the month or patio plant from these breeders that approach me with their products. It is my way to support the industry and get consumers enthusiastic about gardening. The exchange is instant feedback for the breeders and new knowledge for gardeners.

I was asked to host the trade show Plantarium. An event that not many consumers get the chance to see. I saw an opportunity to get my followers excited on Instagram and ran a people’s choice awards, a bit like they do at the Chelsea Flowers Show. It allowed the public to vote on products that typically would be decided upon by a buyer.

The Dutch Flower Council asked me to design a garden. It was an exciting opportunity to work with them and for me to not only create my vision but also to educate my audience.”

What strikes you most when speaking to industry professionals?

“Sometimes, when I talk to breeders and salespeople, they try to sell products to me, which they think I should sell to the public. I know my audience and have much more creative ways of talking to them and solving their garden problems. I do not believe in pushing items for the sake of it. I think this pandemic has been a revelation to these salespeople, particularly for garden centres, about what consumers do want.

I am not too fond of the traditional horticulture media either. It can be snobbish and inaccessible. I want people to engage in plants at whatever level and skillset. Plants are a living thing; they don’t always behave in the way you’re expecting – sometimes they die. I believe just talking about plants should be a great sharing experience.”

Plant promotion at the industry level and consumer level are two different worlds. What approach is needed for both?

“I consult the consumer more often. But here is an example, when you go to the Aalsmeer flower market, you see great innovation, but this is an innovation that the consumers will never see because the buyers are deciding whether the consumer will or will not like it. They are missing out on real-time consumer feedback that needs to be addressed. I suppose that is what I am doing on a small scale. Buyers need to listen more to the consumer.”

Michael Perry

How much do you benefit from your time spent at Thompson and Morgan?

“I went straight from college to Thompson & Morgan. Working in the breeding programme’s product development was like being in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory for plants. It was just such an innovative and creative time. I give my managing director Paul Hansord much credit for my marketing experience. He catapulted me into writing catalogue copy; I was encouraged to do the television work. He pushed all the way, but I was the guy who had the passion, and that’s what makes me authentic and real. Being English, we do not like to celebrate our success and boast, but I am an influencer, not just for the sake of being famous.”

Talking about novice gardeners, Covid 19 has caused an influx of many young and novice gardeners. Currently, the big question in the industry is how to keep the momentum of this new hobby?

“Momentum in gardening is mostly about accessibility and not being judgemental; it’s about allowing people to grow plants the way they want. The horticulture media is its own worst enemy when it puts on elite airs and graces, even getting sniffy about labels’ mispronunciations. Just shut up. It’s so needless, let people engage with plants in the way they want to and in their own style.”

Covid-19 is also interesting because the industry was struggling to connect with the young generation for decades. On many occasions, we were told that gardening starts above the age of 30. Do you agree, or is gardening merely an expensive and impossible hobby when you lack the money to buy a home with a garden?

“You can buy cheap pansies and plastic pots; it is possible to garden however you want. The barrier is whether people see the value. Covid-19 has helped us see gardening’s importance during the lockdowns and for people to know that gardening matters right now. For me, the connection is about the doing, and when people see it is not so much about the money and what they can afford, the movement is now about how they value the hobby of gardening.”

To be a successful plant geek, you need to know your audience. what is your target market, and what understanding do you have of your demographics, interests, and how they communicate?

“I put my messages across in a neutral way, not dictating or bossy; this does make it accessible to a wide demographic. My audience demographic is here in the UK, across to Europe and other countries. I am approachable, and I think that is why I have such a mix.

A successful plant geek always comes up with excitingly new and cool varieties. How do you choose what plants to put in the limelight? Is it merely a question of who pays the piper calls the tune?

“Who pays the piper is an interesting phrase. Of course, I need to earn money. My mission is to market plants that are attractive to the consumer. I look at why this plant will be of interest, compare plants to other plants, or have conversations about why plants would suit particular gardens. I also let my followers try products in my Geek Product Trials. My angle is to make the growing of plants accessible to any skill level of gardener. I also make gardening accessible so that people will accept the failures of growing plants. A lot of this could be down to the soil or inferior compost. We have conversations about this. I see it as my responsibility to make growing plants accessible and achievable, and when you feel optimistic about something, it means you can do it.”

Across the global ornamental industry, there is a jungle of schemes to highlight sustainability and ethically grown plants? How do you transmit the sustainability message?

“My message is positivity toward plants. There are sustainable angles; I hold off preaching to people too much about this. There are lots of places to go to for that information. If you go down the ‘preachy’ route on social media, you are likely to encourage trolls who will happily berate you for your opinion. I am open-minded, some things are not so black and white, and I do not push people into making choices. I am just green doing my thing.”

Find out more about Michael via his website: https://mrplantgeek.com/

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