AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL PERRY, AKA MR PLANT GEEK
The consumer trend we’re living this month – identified by social data – is gardening and as part of it we’re interviewing some prominent people in the gardening community.
First up was the man behind the RHS’ social media channels, Ian Reynolds, now we’ve sat down with Mr Plant Geek, otherwise known as Michael Perry. As the “ultimate plant geek”, he’s made numerous TV appearances, is a speaker for the RHS but more notably has thousands of social media fans following his work and asking advice.
As he says, if you love plants, you’ll love him. So, read on…
What got you into gardening?
Spending time with my grandparents when I was young – from five! At that point, they’re a lot more interesting than your parents and I wanted to do what they did. I had a natural interest in nature and gardening but what really kicked it off was their love of growing plants and flowers, and being at exhibitions. From that point, I used every opportunity to do something related to gardening and expanding my knowledge. I was selling plants via mail order via my own herb nursery when I was just 12. It was there that I went on to learn a lot about marketing and how to talk to people about plants in a way that they understood, got excited about and ultimately bought.
Have you ever thought of doing something else?
I haven’t, I’m not sure what else I’d be good at! I think you should do what comes naturally to you, gardening is that for me. I am very lucky to have been able to turn it into a career – that’s not always the case.
What is the importance of non-traditional gardening faces?
Having a variety of knowledgeable people who are prominent in the gardening community is important to inspire different people. I’ve been considered quite different in my approach – typically younger and more forward-thinking – which has made me get noticed more. Although as gardening has grown and become more ‘trendy’, I’ve probably become a more acceptable face! I fit in more – although I’ve never tried to do things differently, I just do what I do! I would add, that it’s not just about being of the moment, you do need experience to back it up. I’m horticulturally trained which ensures I’ve got the substance!
Have you seen it grow?
Yes definitely. Predominantly around indoor plants – it’s the natural place to start and lots of people don’t have gardens. Something I try and champion more is window boxes, anyone can do it and it’s your ticket to outdoor gardening. The problem is people don’t think about it in the first place and there’s no handy universal window box that just fits.
Looking at gardening more generally, it has become less complicated and stuffy, which has helped grow its popularity. It was very hierarchical, but less so now – you don’t have to know how to prune 20 different shrubs to be recognised! People are more likely to have a go – and I’d really encourage them to do so. It’s important we protect the history and knowledge of horticulture but without compromising on its appeal.
I do think the bubble might burst with house plants though. We tend to get obsessed on one thing for a couple of years and then hate it because it becomes ‘uncool’. But we’ll see.
You’re well followed on social, how has that played a role in building your personal brand?
I don’t think I’ve really thought about it in that way, I just do what I do. That said, my social following is used as a proxy for credibility. The reason I use it is because it gives me direct contact with the customer – that’s the real benefit. I can give them advice but also get that advice back – I ask them what flower shows I should be going to that I don’t already know, for example. It keeps me much better connected to the industry and it connects you to amazing and interesting people all the time.
My channels all serve a slightly different purpose, Instagram is great for being visual and showing off different plants. Twitter is where I can showcase my work and jump into conversations with all sorts of people – although it’s getting a lot more cluttered, making that harder to do. Facebook is great for showing my work in more depth and getting discussions going with followers. It’s taken me awhile to decide what role my website has, but what I’m aiming at is the ‘Buzzfeed of plants’ – it’s almost there! I want to draw people in and really enjoy their time there.
Are Gardening YouTubers underrepresented?
I think they are. I’d love to focus on this but I have to think about what I spend my time on. Gardening is under-represented. It’s hugely seasonal so that makes it difficult to sustain content throughout the year. To build a credible social following with great content requires a lot of investment.
What’s your favourite gardening account on social?
Noughticulture by Alice Vincent, who also writes for The Telegraph. Gently hipster, but the way she delivers content and information is very accessible and every day. She has made some lovely how to videos about basic things that come across beautifully.
I also love Dale Dixon who works at the Botanical garden in Sydney. He gets a lot of everyday interest on social, which is amazing for a botanical garden. It shows how connected the world is now – you can learn about gardening from anyone in the world.
What are your favourite brands in gardening?
There’s a new compost called Black Magic, from Scotts, which I love – I’m doing some work with them now. It appeals to a more hipster audience without alienating the traditional gardener. Seed Ball are doing some great stuff – particularly engaging people on social.
I would say on asking for gardening advice, do ask the right people. And don’t go for the first answer on Google – it can be completely wrong and do more harm than good.
What are your top tips for those new to gardening
Keep it small, keep it basic. Don’t get overwhelmed and have fun! And remember, plants won’t (and don’t need to) last forever. We tend to have an odd opinion in the UK that plants shouldn’t die. Why can’t we use them in a more relaxed and disposable way? I’ve been doing quite a bit of lecturing in Japan to students. They cram amazing things into a container designed to least 2-3 weeks – and they have fun! You don’t want to waste money on plants but don’t get too focused on the value either.
Also, realise that gardening means many different things – it doesn’t have to be digging all day. It can be, but often isn’t.
Just have a go!