Michael Perry: green-fingered geek

The self-confessed plant geek sits down with Vada to discuss his new book Hortus Curious and how he turned his passion for plants into a career.

When I ask Michael Perry about what helped him to figure out who he was whilst growing up, he says it was plants. It might seem like an unusual thing to help somebody workout their identity and sexuality, yet in the case of Perry, it makes total sense.

His passion for horticulture was passed down to him by his grandparents. Growing up, he used to spend a lot of time with them. “I was often taken there, they babysat me, and I kind of ended up spending a lot of my spare time with them,” he recalls one afternoon in November, when I sit down to speak with him. “They also had more time for me than my parents would, which is kind of natural.”

Perry’s grandparents used to sell plants at the local market. He quickly realised that plants could be a lucrative business, especially given that he was making all of his own pocket money as a teenager selling plants. Yet it wasn’t just the money that pricked his interests. “I was just really intrigued by plants, what they could do, growing them, and seeing their lifecycle,” he says. They were also a welcome distraction for him. “I was having worries growing up, and wondering about my own sexuality. My passion for plants was a good escape for me too.”

As he reached the end of his time at school, Perry turned to a careers advisor about what he should do next. His passion for plants led him to be signposted towards becoming a florist or landscape gardener. He wasn’t convinced. Instead, he enrolled in horticultural college. “That was really the only option for someone like me that wanted to be into plants,” he explains.

However, horticultural college was often a place where students were sent when they didn’t know what they wanted to do for work. “Obviously in my case, it was a benefit, because that’s where I wanted to be,” he says. Despite being in an environment that championed his passion for horticulture, Perry still didn’t feel like he fitted in well with the other students and struggled to make friends. “I was still finding my feet,” he recalls of that time. “When you’ve grown up with insecurities and been bullied and picked on a lot, it takes a lot to then trust a new person and to become their friend.”

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A break for Perry would come in the form of an article in his local newspaper. Thompson and Morgan, a mail order plant company, were running a competition to design a garden. “I put together a design that was filled with lots of unique plants that were raised in the local Suffolk area,” he says. “And I won the competition.”

They didn’t quite offer him a job then and there. “That would have been too simple,” Perry laughs. But after his win, Perry wrote to the company asking them for a job. It would see him embarking on an 18-year career with Thompson and Morgan, and ultimately, a foundation for him to build his career in horticulture. “It was a chance article in a newspaper, which maybe I wouldn’t have even seen, but without it I wouldn’t know where I would be today,” he says. “I hadn’t really found my confidence or my feet yet, and I certainly wouldn’t have found my career without it.”

Alongside his role at Thompson and Morgan, Perry was already thinking about what was next for him. He invested his time in expanding his network of contacts, and developing his social media following, with a view to becoming freelance. “My social media was then as much for sharing with followers and building my following, but predominantly, it was a visual CV,” explains Perry. “It was kind of a portfolio, because it would allow companies to see what I was up to, and show them different types of projects that I could do.”

The gamble to go freelance certainly paid off for him. Perry, also known as Mr Plant Geek across social media, is now a recognisable and trusted go-to person for all things horticulture.

Speaking of social media, at the time of our interview, rumours are circulating online that Twitter might collapse any day now. I ask him if the end of such a powerful platform worries him. “I have scattered what I do across several different platforms,” he explains. Perry, for instance, can be found on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Substack, Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok. “I guess that is part of having that kind of mixed portfolio of work and social media, but it also makes you more future proof as well.”

He agrees that people are worried about what a platform like Twitter collapsing might do to their careers, especially fellow freelancers who rely on it for work. “I guess humans don’t really like change anyway, and change is always very scary,” he reasons. “But somehow, as a person, I’ve always embraced change. I’m really happy to always evolve and see what’s next. So that, I guess, kind of spills over into how I use social media.”

As well as garnering popularity across social media, Perry has also ventured into the world of TV. When I ask Perry if he is ever recognised as ‘Mr Plant Geek’ in public, he laughs. “Maybe in a garden centre or something like that?” Although he admits that people coming up to him is quite rare, he has had a few people messaging him afterwards to say that they’d spotted him. “But I’d say it’s quite a niche group of people who would recognise me.”

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I circle back to an earlier remark Perry made about how plants helped him navigate working out who he was and his sexuality. Perry came out at the age of 21, almost two decades ago. Society, he remarks, felt different towards queer people then. “I’m starting to see a change in our society, where it’s not always assumed that you’re straight,” he explains. “I hear that from some of my friends who are a similar age to me, when they’re talking to their kids. They ask them if they’ve got a boyfriend or girlfriend, rather than just assuming. It’s almost like they’re giving their children the option to be who they are.”

Perry, sadly, didn’t get that option; it was assumed by society and those around him that he was straight. Growing up, he did everything he could to hide his differences from the outside world. His passion for plants, whilst providing him with comfort during his journey to working out his sexuality, also had to be kept secret. “I didn’t want to align myself with anything that could get me accused of being a pansy,” he says.

Speaking of the time when he first came out, Perry says it “wasn’t easy” to be gay. “I was living in a small town, which maybe made it more difficult, than say if I was living in London.” There was no option to make an announcement on social media, as Perry remarks, so his process of coming out was perhaps slower than it would have been today.

His parents figure it out through a process of elimination. They could tell that something was troubling him. “You’re almost too scared to say it,” says Perry. His parents asked if he was having trouble at work or with friends, before finally asking him directly if he was gay.

When it came to initially coming out at work, Perry initially told a colleague that he was gay and asked her to tell their other colleagues. “It feels a bit cowardly now when I look back on it,” he explains. “But I kind of understand why I did that as well. I just think you deal with things and handle things in different ways when you’re younger, compared to when you’re a bit older and wiser.”

Now an established horticulturist, Perry is embarking on a new venture in the form of a book. As we sit down for our interview, Hortus Curious has just landed on bookshelves. It’s an idea that Perry has been toying with for several years. As part of his career, Perry started doing The Weird and Wacky Plant Show, which saw him presenting unusual plants across the globe. He was then approached by a publisher, who saw the potential for this to become a book.

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Divided into different chapters, the book sees Perry humorously exploring the weird and wonderful plants that exist across the world. Hortus Curious makes botany approachable, as Perry puts it. Whilst he argues that botanists are often over-serious and sometimes protective of their knowledge, he tells me that this book is the opposite. “It’s written in quite a chatty way,” he explains. “I wanted to translate that botany to an everyday audience. I think I’ve got that really nice balance where both experts and people with very little interest in plants could pick up the book and think, wow I didn’t know plants were so cool.”

In terms of what’s next for Perry, he has just finished working on a project with Timberland, which was an advert looking at various careers. Amongst the people profiled were a female mechanic from the US, a boxer from Taiwan, and Perry for his career in horticulture. “It was a real compliment,” he says of the advert. “Not only for myself, but for horticulture at large.”

TV views will also continue to spot Perry on the small screen. He can be found on Steph’s Packed Lunch on Channel 4, and his gardening show on QVC will be restarting in January next year.

As winter is now upon us, I ask Perry about what people can do to continue their own passion for plants during the colder months. “If you want to feed your houseplant obsession, or start one off, you can easily get down with some projects like building terrariums, you know, bottle gardens,” he explains. “Outdoors, there’s still stuff you can do in containers. You could make some winter containers with heathers, primroses, and pansies. They all flower through the colder months and then you have something colourful to look at. Colour isn’t just for summer.”

Having spent almost three decades working and obsessing over plants, it seems clear to me that Perry has successfully built a career around his passion. It’s not something that everyone is able to achieve. What’s the secret to his success, I venture. “I think sometimes people can maybe believe their own hype too soon,” he reasons. “And that then doesn’t help you get where you want to go. So you’ve always got to stay humble, stay reliable, and just be a nice guy really.”

Michael Perry is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, photographed by Leo Holden. His book Hortus Curious is published by DK and is out now. Michael can be found on social media as Mr Plant Geek.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.