How to cultivate an interest in professional gardening

My nephew mentioned that his daughter was quite taken with plants and flowers. He said that he wanted to nurture this interest but was at a loss how to go about it. I'm sure you've given a lot of advice to young career-minded would-be gardeners. My nephew and his daughter would be very grateful for some of your wisdom. - G.U. -

 

Our advice is to learn about as many positions in the green industry as possible, with at least half of your time spent learning in a hands on way.

Combine classes with practical application

So enroll in landscape technology classes at a community college, while also working part-time at a garden center. Take the Master Gardener training through your State's land grant university Extension and do the required volunteer time only on projects that involve actual planting or answering the Extension hot line to learn how to find answers. (Search online "Extension offices (State name)".) Volunteer at a public garden if the program includes working alongside the pros. Become a member of a professional gardening or landscape organization (Association of Professional Gardeners, Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association, Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, etc.) so you can attend continuing education seminars. At the same time, take a part-time position with a landscape- or garden company.

Find a mentor

An interested person may not have to commit to a membership to talk to career gardeners, horticulturists and allied professionals. Some professional groups open educational seminars and conferences to the public. If this young person was our niece or grandchild, we'd look for organizations like this in our area, and help her meet people who may not only become mentors but may offer her a valuable part-time opportunity.

Learn while getting your hands dirty.

Learn while getting your hands dirty.

Maintain a broad perspective

Look at as many jobs as possible. If you take summer work at a garden center, ask for time in retail, time with the design team, plus time on a garden maintenance crew. Look into an internship at a landscape architect firm but insist on going out to sites as well as working in the office, even if it means going on your own time. Sign on to an irrigation company's crew if you can split your time between installation, sales and design.

Consider work in almost-gardening jobs, too: Shops that sell garden art; tool manufacturers; environmental restoration firms and volunteer groups; companies that sell garden clothes; etc. Wherever an intelligent person is in touch with gardeners, he or she will learn more about gardening and what gardeners need.

Who knows? A person keeping an open mind may become a top-notch entomologist or crop scientist because he or she knows exactly how their work with insects or new seed strains will be applied.

What we don't want is to learn that a person was disappointed after completing a university degree in horticulture, when they find that a grower or garden center will still start them at the bottom of the business because they lack practical experience. We'd like to see more college graduate horticulturists like those we know who worked in the field first then decided to go back to school to pursue education that will help them to a particular position. That's why we included hands-on components in the curriculum at our gardening school (sorry, we closed the school in 2008 after 13 years, and switched to e-outreach), why we have developed as many workshops as we have lectures, why we are more likely to accept speaking requests that involve opportunities for attendees to accompany presenters into the field, and why we continue to invite interested people to come observe or help as we work (Garden by Janet and Steven).

 

We have learned a great deal by looking close but we try always to look at the bigger picture, too. Encourage the potential garden pro to do the same.

We have learned a great deal by looking close but we try always to look at the bigger picture, too. Encourage the potential garden pro to do the same.

Cultivate your business sense

A final, important note: Anyone thinking about a garden career should study business, too. There is plenty of opportunity for those willing to work outdoors but we see a shortage of the kind of garden-savvy supervisors and managers businesses need in order to prosper. We love working in this field in large part because it is full of passionate people who sincerely love plants or planting. However, those people usually don't pay enough attention to economics, personal advancement or growing a business. For instance, most professional gardeners we know keep their businesses small -- we are in this category! They themselves love the work too much to become full time managers. As a result, they can't capitalize on the good reviews and referrals they receive from clients because they cannot accept additional work.

We wish your friend good luck and hope to meet her in the field one day.

Be aware that working outdoors means being in all kinds of weather.

Be aware that working outdoors means being in all kinds of weather.

Many of the jobs in the green industry are seasonal so it helps to think about off-season work... although this almost always means doing two things at once in the "overlap season." We opted to photograph, write and teach in winter rather than push snow around as many landscapers do.

Many of the jobs in the green industry are seasonal so it helps to think about off-season work... although this almost always means doing two things at once in the "overlap season." We opted to photograph, write and teach in winter rather than push snow around as many landscapers do.

Maybe we'll see you out in the field!

Maybe we'll see you out in the field!