Meet Mr Plant Geek - Ipswich's TV gardening star

Michael Perry is Mr Plant Geek - Credit: Sonya Duncan

As I chat with Michael Perry (AKA Mr Plant Geek) I can’t help but imagine him as a modern-day David Bellamy, rustling his way through foliage and vine. When he’s not presenting on QVC, appearing as an expert on This Morning or Steph’s Packed Lunch, or talking with Ellen Mary on The Plant Based Podcast, the self-proclaimed hortpreneur is jetting around the globe in search of the ‘next big thing’ in gardening. 

He talks of striding through plantations and fields on his discovery missions, where he could happen upon what may be the season’s hottest new shrub, bloom or tree.  

While it’s not an especially (well, not at all) exotic locale, he’s just returned from Europe’s flower trials. The collective Crufts of the floral world, if you will, where buyers grapple to get sight of what could be ‘best in show’. 

“What sets me apart,” says Michael, “is having access to consumers, while being connected in the industry. I can communicate what’s going on, and what to look out for next in gardening when I’m out there.” 

Michael Perry is Mr Plant Geek. - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Plenty caught Michael’s eye for the next flowering season. He predicts us buying more wildlife-friendly annuals and perennials, and has taken a shine to a whole new host of cut flowers, including a double alstroemeria (renowned for their staying power if treated right in the vase). “They are just next level. Absolutely stunning. And dahlias have had a real revival in the last few years.  

“I’m seeing lots of new patio ones. They still have big flowers and can be cut, but are self-supporting. 

“On the exotic side of things there are some new patio cannas to watch out for. And I really like the new dianthus I’ve seen. They have such dense growth, like thyme, really really dense. You could almost stand on them and use them as an alternative to grass on the lawn.”

Naturally, Michael is on the pulse when it comes not just to new varieties of plant, but trends too.

“I think playing around with bedding plants is a great trend this year,” he muses. “Bedding plants tend to have a bad reputation. They’re not seen as sustainable, and some people find them a bit chintzy, but recently I’ve been putting them in pots with other, longer-lasting plants. So maybe a showy, brash begonia with a lovely hosta. Changing them up, making them feel a bit different in the garden. 

“I think we have to remember bedding plants, though they only grow for one season, they do flower for over five months, so we get a lot of use out of them. By combining them with more sustainable plants we can ease out of that guilt a bit.” 

Another trend Michael’s at the forefront of, and one he’s been working on with the renowned Perrywood Garden Centre, is using houseplants outside, saying many potted plants we keep on the windowsill, or tucked away in the living room, can actually be out in the garden over the warmer months, bringing a spark of something different to corners needing a bit of livening up. 

Michael Perry is Mr Plant Geek. - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“When I make up a container for the garden, I don’t just head for the bedding section, I use the whole cross section of a garden centre,” he adds, also saying the trend for wild flowers and growing wild patches in out outdoor spaces is on the rise, while admitting he doesn’t have a lawn. 

“I don’t have any grass in my garden at all,” he laughs. “I have polished concrete, but it's absolutely surrounded by plants of all different kinds.” 

Mr Plant Geek, presented with the Sophie’s Choice question of selecting his favourite bloom or shrub, can’t decide, but says flowering houseplants are massively underrated, and are there to be sprinkle a touch of magical colour throughout our homes. 

“We don’t embrace orchids as much as we should. I think we see them as a bit awkward and throwaway but there are so many brand-new types of orchid, including lots of fragranced ones. The Flaming Katy from the 80s is back too – there are loads of double-flowered rosebud varieties. I think it’s [flowering houseplants] the next frontier in gardening. 

“Outdoors...I love lavender, but we’re all growing the same type year-on-year. Good old English Hidcote. But, again, there are lots of new phenomenal lavenders out there that will perform better. I think a lot of us are guilty of growing the same plants all the time.” 

The 42-year-old says he’s most inspired by the gardens at East Ruston in Norfolk. “There are so many different ‘rooms’, and their plants make the best of the slightly milder climate. But if I’m over in France I like to go to Les Jardins D’Etretat. They’re built on the side of a cliff and are basically lots of topiary and shapes with some really cool elements like a sound garden, and awesome sculptures pulling faces – almost like emojis.” 

Michael Perry is Mr Plant Geek - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Michael has had a fascination with growing since he was knee high to a grasshopper. He spent his formative years in Ipswich, enjoying lots of time out in the garden with his grandma who, alongside his grandad, would exhibit and judge at flower shows. 

“Some of my earliest memories are being in grandma’s garden learning tips and tricks, and then I started to grow and sell my own plants at the end of the driveway. I never got pocket money, but I was earning my own.” 

Michael joined the local WI market aged just 10, the growing and selling plants punctuating his year. 

He says his teens weren’t particularly great times, but at least he could take refuge in plants (something many of us will understand and appreciate from lockdown). Michael was quite the entrepreneur, running his own little herb nursery at 12-years-old, putting adverts in the back of Gardener’s World. 

Once high school was over, he was able to fully feed his passion, with a national diploma in horticulture at Otley College. He didn’t know what he might do next, despite having started up an impressive young CV, but fate was about to hand him a ticket to the future. 

“I happened to see a competition in the Evening Star to design a garden at Thompson and Morgan, in collaboration with BBC Radio Suffolk. You could win a greenhouse and 100 types of seed. So I did it, with my design using plants from the local area. Pinks from Mendlesham, Benton End irises, Woodbridge hibiscus. And I won. 

Michael Perry is Mr Plant Geek - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“A week after that, despite being quite shy and not confident, I wrote to Thompson and Morgan to ask for a job, and they took me on.” 

It was, he says, a dream job, travelling far and wide discovering new plants, be it a black flowering delphinium, or star-shaped petunia. When the colleague he was shadowing left, Michael was quickly promoted, and gained recognition for the introduction of exciting finds, such tree lilies, ground cover lilies, black hyacinth and, most famously, the egg and chips plant, which is grafted to grow aubergines up top and potatoes below the soil. 

In 2012, while at Chelsea, Michael found himself propelled onto the screen, talking about the striking Gold-winning digitalis Illumination. And he’s not been off the telly since, having left Thomson and Morgan after 18 years to pursue the more multifaceted career he has today. 

“I work with some really interesting, entrepreneurial companies who need my horticultural know-how, I’ve worked on a shopping channel in the US, on ITV’s This Morning, Steph’s Packed Lunch. And now it’s morphed into content and presenting work.  

“I’m filming a reel at the moment for a new ‘plant pop star’ where I’ll dress up as five well-known pop stars. You have to advertise plants in a different way these days. It’s such a crowded platform so you’ve got to stand out.” 

It does help that Michael likes to dress up. “My view is gardening should be fun. I try to have fun, while also having that serious professional edge. I encourage people to break the rules and garden the way they want to. Snobbery in gardening is one of the things that irritates me.” 

Looking forward, Michael is excited to release his stunningly illustrated book Hortus Curious later this year – all about the world’s most weird and wonderful plants. 

Published by Penguin Random House, the tome is split into five chapters, covering a breadth of species, from poisonous to painkilling, with Michael explaining in his own inimitable way what makes every single one special and remarkable. 

“I can’t wait to see it on the shelves,” he says. “It’s all written in my own personality, with how I feel about the plants. It's informative but entertaining.” 

One that stands out is a dancing plant, Michael explains. “It’s actually capable of moving itself in relation to the light and vibrations, and it’s easy to grow from seed. No one’s really clear why it moves. It could be to ward off predators, or to move the leaves to get more light. It was just so interesting looking into all this.” 

He likens the natural, growing world, to the deepest depths of the ocean, where unknown creatures scurry along the seabed. 

“So much with plants is undiscovered and unfound or hasn’t been researched. You do assume these days everyone knows everything...but they don’t! 

“What we do know is plants are intelligent and the stuff they do and how they interact with nature around them is really impressive.” 

Michael’s top tip 

A lot of people assume if they’ve got containers, rainwater will water their plants. But it doesn’t. Plants have that canopy of foliage that water bounces off of. It's so important to use a watering can, or a hose direct to the soil, or to mix in water retentive crystals when you’re planting up. Plants respond best when they’re watered and also when they’re fed. A lot of people don’t realise plants need feeding as well. If you give them the nutrients they need they will flourish and look really good, which will make you feel more confident as a gardener as well. 

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