My life in plants with Michael Perry

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Hi All.

For those of you that follow me, you’ll know I just had a big birthday! Yes, the big 4-0. It’s so strange, because I feel like I’m in my twenties, but then perhaps everyone feels that way..!?

And, it’s right what they say, when you get to 40 you kinda look down on your life from above, and you assess how far you’ve come with things and what you’ve achieved…

So, that’s why I decided to make this month’s Q Gossip blog about my journey into the plant world.

It’s funny because I actually gave my first presentation about my career only recently, when Niagara Parks Commission asked me to put together My Life in Plants for their recent “Rooted” talks programme.

I had fun rummaging around in my parents attic for my childhood photos, where there were snaps of me in my grandparents’ garden, tumbling down the slide in my parents garden, picking daffodils in the wild, and various other deeply horticultural shots…!

My earliest memories are of being around plants… the smell of fresh Geranium cuttings, the feel of deadheading Dahlias, the taste of a Runner Bean fresh from the vine…

My grandparents were selling plants at markets around the Suffolk area, and also exhibiting at local flower shows as well as being judges (obviously not at the same shows..!)

I even started to enter some of the flower show classes myself. I really enjoyed making a ‘garden on a plate’ with tiny gravel pathways, mossy lawns and the smallest of flower borders!

I soon got the entrepreneurial bug from my grandparents, and I was growing my own plants to sell at the local WI (yes, the Women’s Institute market!) and I believe I was the youngest – and only male – member!

I was taking cuttings, sowing seeds, all that jazz – I was a right little production nursery! In fact, by the time I was 12 years old, I was specialising in herb plants, and advertising my wares via small ads in the back of BBC Gardener’s World magazine!

Growing plants was such a normal part of my life, and my year was punctuated with what needed to be done when, and I’d eagerly wait for February, when we could start sowing seeds.

But, of course, growing plants wasn’t such a cool thing to do in those days (which is why I’m still astounded to open up the Instagram app every day, where plants are now king!) – back then, I wouldn’t breathe a word of my horticultural habit to my school friends! This all kept me very shy…

However, when I went to college, it was as if I’d found my people. There were just twelve of us on the course, but everyone was from a ‘natural’ background, so not necessarily into plants but the great outdoors.

I felt like I finally had a place to be confident in my own skin, and I didn’t have to hide my love of green anymore! This was pretty cool, and changed my life is so many ways.

The course had a great camaraderie, which you may not have had with more people. My plant geek status started to grow in this environment. Whilst I didn’t have a natural agility with driving tractors, I did excel in the plant identification classes.

I also enjoyed garden design and the biology classes. During my time at college, I also found a side job, working with a garden designer named Paul. This opportunity opened up so many doors, as he was designing for many top names and families of great heritage in the UK.

I also got to visit the legendary author Graham Stuart Thomas, stay with garden designer Rosemary Verey, visit many stately homes (often invited for dinner!) and lots more. It was quite the experience for a geeky 18-year-old!

Besides helping with the garden designs, I was also helping to source specific plants for the plans, which was such a fun challenge that helped me learn yet more plants. I also had some work experience at a newly opened Plant Centre in the heart of Suffolk, where I was particularly known for my beautiful retail area designs!

Now, without that many options for horticulturists, I came to the end of my college course not quite knowing what to do. I didn’t quite want to be a landscape designer, and that’s not cos I’m lazy!

I don’t even remember if there was much in terms of university options for what I wanted to do. In fact, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do, I just wanted to work with plants!

Sometime during April that year, I opened the local newspaper, and there was an appeal. The challenge was to design a garden at Thompson & Morgan, the mail order plant company I’d known from my childhood.

The first packet of seeds I’d grown were actually Marigold ‘Tiger Eye’ from Thompson & Morgan. So, I knew who they were. The competition was in conjunction with BBC Radio Suffolk.

I set to work on a design, and decided to milk the Suffolk marketing angle by filling the borders with plants raised in the Suffolk area! I researched Pinks from Mendlesham, Iris from Benton End in Hadleigh, the famous Hibiscus ‘Woodbridge’ and tonnes more! The design looked pretty good too. But, with this unique marketing angle, I quietly knew I had a chance to win!

I was SUPER excited to win, although I didn’t show it as I was still an awkward teenager at that stage! My nervous self went to Thompson & Morgan for a presentation, and they took lots of photos for a newspaper feature (I looked like an awkward matchstick!) – after that, everything happened quite quickly…

I wrote to Thompson & Morgan and basically asked for a job, went for an interview, got offered one, and then seamlessly moved from college to the workplace. Not bad for having no plan. In fact, I think this fateful set of circumstances is why I always sit back and rely on my instincts, even now. I always find it hard to have more than half a plan…!

All of a sudden, I was in my dream job! I was shadowing the Horticultural manager when I first joined, as we hunted down new plants, whether that meant flying to Glasgow to collect a single Petunia plant, or driving into the heart of London to collect a Delphinium with black dusted flowers.

These experiences were phenomenal for an 18-year-old who had never had a plan in the first place. My new job also forced me to get my very first passport – as trips to Holland beckoned!

I truly believe I have this turn of events to thank for everything in my life, from my career to my growth of confidence. I really can’t imagine what I’d be doing otherwise.

The next 18 years were punctuated with further growth (excuse the pun!) as I worked on the introduction of around 500 brand new plants into the Thompson & Morgan range, including some of my own crazy marketing creations.

I was also gently pushed (and encouraged) into the world of TV, initially with a very shy and wobbly appearance on The Alan Titchmarsh Show!

Social media became a great tool for me to show people what I was up to, and that’s also how I get booked for different work jobs. Though I’ve now been freelance for three years , I still enjoy every day of my job and continually look at the world through ‘plant-tinted glasses’, and I don’t think that will ever change!!

So there we have it! The story of my childhood years up until I began my job at 18. Perhaps sometime in the future I’ll cover the years 18 to 40!

Speak to you all soon, guys!

Michael x

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