An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Mercy Morris is the PlantNetwork Administrator. The interview was recorded in November 2022 in a very noisy cafe and while every effort has been made to improve the sound quality, the recording is not one of our best! We decided to post it though as Mercy proved to be a truly amazing interviewee with a unique horticultural career.
Welcome to the team, Mercy! Can you tell us about your various roles.
As well as being the PlantNetwork Administrator, I am also the Awards Manager for the Professional Gardeners’ Trust which is a charity that gives awards to working gardeners so they can develop skills and further their education. I’m also self-employed gardener which can be wet and muddy at this time of year.
How are you finding your role with PlantNetwork?
I’m really enjoying it partly because I knew quite a lot about PlantNetwork as I’ve been a member for many years but also because you see the organisation from a different perspective. I’ve been learning all the various applications that make PlantNetwork work!
Tell us about your horticultural career.
I started by becoming obsessed with house plants in my early 20s when I was at university doing English and Politics. I went to work in insurance as I wasn’t sure what to do but as my desk gradually disappeared under plants, my colleagues suggested it might be time to retrain! I started to retrain part time, and did two NVQs, several City and Guilds and then the RHS General Certificate. I then went and got my first job in a garden centre, which is a great place to learn as you must answer every single question you get from customers and sound convincing! I was there for five years then moved to Wakehurst Place as a Botanical Horticulturist in the Water Gardens and then moved into the Southern Hemisphere Garden. I was lucky enough to go seed collecting in New Zealand whilst I was there – great fun. I then saw a fantasy job advertised in Hort Week at Plant Heritage – a role that had everything interesting for me! I applied and got the job but found out years after that I was a wild card candidate. It was a brilliant job and I saw us move from a leaky portable building in the Wisley car park to slightly more robust quarters. After eight years, I decided to do a Master’s degree in Ethnobotany and moved to Kent where I did various jobs while I was at university including the very satisfying job of stacking nail varnishes in Tesco and research assistant roles. After this, I did six months with Which? Gardening but it wasn’t right for me. I didn’t know what to do next so one of my friends suggested doing gardening! I then became a self-employed gardener but doing other roles as well such as merchandising (horrible) and then PGT Awards Manager (great). I’ve had a very varied career in horticulture.
Tell us more about the house plants you grow.
I grow house plants and air plants (Tillandsia) to sell at markets, though this winter I’ve not had much time to prepare them for sale – I have them, but they are not in a saleable condition. House plants are a fascinating area, particularly as there are lots of similarities with tropical glasshouse growing too. There is huge potential to link the house plant enthusiast and the glasshouse display horticulturist.
If you could go back to your younger self, what advice would you offer?
I’ve thought about this for many years since I got into horticulture. I’m going back to my 14-year-old self when you pick your options for doing GCSEs and along with physics and biology, I’d say ‘take chemistry too!’. When it got to A-levels, I wanted to take biology, but I couldn’t without chemistry GCSE. This stopped me doing a science-based degree as by that time I was interested in plant biology so I would probably have found plants sooner. My mother tried so hard to make me a gardener: she loved plants and house plants. It wasn’t till I left home that my interest in growing plants developed.
What do you think the future holds for you?
I’d need another 5-10 lifetimes to explore fully the world of horticulture – there are so many exciting jobs. I want to carry on learning new things and being excited by horticulture. I’ve learned this year that it is important to combine physical gardening with work indoors or “computer gardening” as it makes such a difference to your mental and physical health.
Can you tell us about your own garden?
My garden has been chaotic as lots of plants need to be moved into the greenhouses and the greenhouses protected before the cold weather comes in. I have two greenhouses but when I moved in, there wasn’t much there – lawn, gravel by the back door and a dead Christmas tree in a corner. As it is rented, I swore I wouldn’t do anything other than mow the lawn as any changes must be put back when you leave, and I was only intending to stay 6 months. That didn’t work! Now I have many flower beds, the two greenhouses which hold the National Collection of spider plants and lots of other stuff – at least 300 plants.
Tell us more about your National Plant Collection?
It is entirely possible to have a National Plant Collection in a small, rented house even though you have to have three of each accession in case a giant elephant falls from the sky onto your collection. In theory, I have one set in the greenhouse, one outside that has come through minus three degrees (although they did defoliate), and one in a polytunnel elsewhere. I’ve got a lovely counterpart called Sam Green, who is in Leamington Spa, who also has a National Collection of spider plants. We set up our collections at the same time without knowing each other but have since met. It was very exciting to see someone else’s collection. We have different identifications for different names, which we’re trying to preserve now as we’ve no idea yet which is correct. There is so much research to be done!
What is your favourite plant, garden tool and horticultural book?
The book has to be “Potted History: How Houseplants Took Over Our Homes” by Catherine Horwood which is a history of growing houseplants including how the Great Fire of London affected the cultivation of houseplants in the UK. Even if you are not interested in plants, it is still a fascinating read.
I don’t want to say hori hori as everyone says that but it is the tool I use the most. As an alternative, I have a cheap pair of florist’s scissors which are very good too.
A favourite plant is a challenge but I’ve made some notes. Obviously, I’d choose the spider plants or to give them their grown up name, Chlorophytum comosum. I’d pick Chlorophytum comosum ‘Hawaiian’ which has three possible cultivar names that all contain Hawaii – it is a gorgeous plant that looks very different in light and shade, and young plants look different to older plants. I have not tried seeds from it yet – there is a long story about spider plant seeds which I will save for another time. If I can’t have a spider plant, I’d have to choose a pelargonium as I’ve been growing them since I first bought a red bedding Zonal Pelargonium and loved the smell of the leaves. I’d probably select Pelargonium quinquelobatum which has weirdly coloured flowers that are somewhere between green-white-purple. It sets seed reliably too! You can view pictures of P. quinquelobatum here.