Clueless about a future in Horticulture

greenhouse_girlApril 2, 2013

Hi everyone! I have been frequenting this forum for a while and have seen many posts like this, but was hoping to get some individual advice.

I graduated from college last year with degrees in political science and business, of which I have little interest. During my time in college I spent my springs and summers working at a local nursery and since graduating I have been working with ornamentals in a greenhouse. I also write and edit articles for two online gardening magazines. So, I have about 5 years industry experience. My local college, University of Maryland, offers a 2 year degree in Ornamental Horticulture, and I am extremely interested in attending. My dream job would be to one day curate a botanical garden or open my own organic nursery. However, my parents are very concerned about my interest in this career path. Initially, they pushed me into the undergraduate degree and I wanted to comply with their wishes since they were the ones paying. Now, they are encouraging me to go for a graduate degree in law or business because my future would be "secure". I believe I would be a good lawyer or businesswoman, but have little interest in those fields and much less interest in going to school for 4+ years more. Man, do those classes sound dull.

However, I am also concerned about having a secure future. Money is not everything but I grew up very comfortably and would like to be able to provide well for a future family. I think I could earn my degree in horticulture, and with my previous experience, find a good job, something I love doing. But, my parents (and a little voice inside my head) tell me that maybe I would not be living up to my potential? Maybe in 40 years I will wake up and say, "Man I could have been a really successful lawyer". I love plants and I love working outside and I dont think I would like working in a stuffy office for the rest of my life. I am very confused right now and don't know what to do. I want to be a horticulturist and work in this industry, but I also want to be successful and not just stay in the same greenhouse position I have right now.

Can I make a living in this industry? What other degrees or certificates besides or in addition to Ornamental Horticulture should I consider? Thanks for all of your time!

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oh f*** "living up to potential." There's a phrase guaranteed to lead to misery.

As for security? Look around you. Who besides the 1% has security?

Don't go to grad school unless it's what you want. My wife is a college professor and she counsels her students on this all the time, Grad school eats your soul, so it has to be a part of your path - not where you go to find your path.

Part of what makes this industry so fascinating is that it is filled with a dizzying mix of artists, dreamers, miscreants, dropouts, burnouts, mad scientists, happy scientists, winners, losers, geniuses, and everything sprinkled in between. Some headed here as if drawn by a magnet but a lot of us sort of drifted in and realized we were home. It's ok.

I'm on the design/install end of things so I can't speak to your specific goals. They sound hard. I imagine jobs at botanical gardens are as scarce and competitive as symphony orchestra slots, and I have a friend who is busting her tail to make an awesome little perennial and annual farm work. But who's to say you'll end up where you think you will? My career's taking a turn that I never expected and it's still pretty awesome.

Look, since you're talking about parental approval still I assume this is your first pass through school and you're in your early 20s. Stabbing someone will follow you the rest of your life. Making a career choice and realizing two years later it was wrong will not.

Your best bet is to start really networking within the nursery, landscape, and hort communities and really try to find people who can give you guidance re: what's out there and what you can expect, especially in terms of compensation. Year Three in my business I almost hung it up, figuring I'd be better off making six figures selling to the government or something than scraping as a designer. Love for this is what kept me in it. You have to love it enough to stick it out when it sucks and you're making no money. If you can't handle it, there are plenty of desks out there.

Are you in the Baltimore area?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2013 at 9:48AM
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I seldom post on forums but can really relate to your position. I also have a bachelor's in business and 4 years ago was torn about which direction to go in. I had to decide whether to take a gardening job, with seemingly had "very little future," continue the job search for a "respectable" job, or return to school for a master's in something "important." Cutting a long story short, I took the gardening job and have never looked back.

I would love to tell you my many thoughts on this, and the future of careers in this field, because I have thought long and hard about it, spoken to colleagues and mentors, and done more than a few searches. However, I'll get straight to the conclusions I have come to. I can only really speak about California and the Bay Area in particular but I'm sure it applies in many settings.

1. There is a chronic shortage of educated people willing to get their hands dirty, learn the crafts of horticulture through doing. This is a great pity because in my experience "sweat equity" engenders respect not only from co-workers and future subordinates but from people hiring, especially if you have an education behind you. I got an interview at the UC Botanic Garden at Berkeley for a full time horticulturalist job, with less than 3 years experience, and I believe it's because my resume presented a person working in a field they truly love. I didn't get the job, but was so encouraged to have got the interview, that I kept going on the gardening path.

2. Taking classes in horticulture is a huge help. I learned a huge amount taking evening classes at 2 different community colleges and I loved every minute of it. I was working as a gardener at the same time so could put new knowledge straight into practice, which maybe made me a bit of a geek, but I am now very confident in my gardening methods, and I enjoy talking about them with anyone who will listen - including clients and prospective employers.

3. There are 2 general gardening directions to go in: private and public. There are more jobs available in the private sector, and they are easier to get, but they don't pay as well as the public sector. I started as a seasonal worker with the county parks departement, but really learned the ins and outs of ornamental gardening as a maintenance gardener for a high-end contractor. I now work for the county, a stable job with decent pay. In the coming few years there will be many more jobs in the public sector becoming available, as baby boomers retire.

4. I have almost stopped since I started this job, but I would always keep an eye on job listings, and apply for every job I would like to have. Of course they don't all work out, but each application and interview is more experience under the belt for when the right job does come around. I recently saw another horticulturist job at the UC Botanic Garden in Berkeley but I won't be applying for it because now I can't afford the pay cut!

5. I don't know if it's feasible but I would love to go back to school, possibly for a masters degree. If I did, this would be the absolute ideal: The Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture at the University of Delaware. (

Good luck in your decision, I hope my experience helps!

    Bookmark   April 7, 2013 at 3:00AM
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the OP must be REALLY invested in her question.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 7:22AM
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These are great responses! Today I am actually meeting with the curator of the US Botanical Gardens in DC to find out more about what qualifications one needs to work in a botanical garden at the higher level. Per your advice antonyb I started looking at job listings for botanical gardens and found a few open (and well paying!) positions at the NY botanical gardens for jobs I think I would absolutely be qualified for after getting my degree. Thank you so much for these encouraging words, I am officially applying to get my degree in ornamental horticulture!

And I thought I wrote you back Marcinde! I am in the DC area, but travel to Baltimore pretty frequently.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2013 at 11:13AM
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no worries, this is my crankypants time of year.

Reason I asked is I think to do what you want to do, it's important to know someone and that can come via networking opportunities. PGMS (Professional Grounds Management Society) is local to the DC area and could provide really good opportunities to meet people, locally, doing what you want to do. I'm not a member but several of my friends are and they do some cool stuff.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2013 at 12:46PM
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Ok! Thats a great idea, I'm looking into it. A friend of mine also mentioned that being a member of the APGA and the American Horticultural Society are good networking opportunities too :)

    Bookmark   April 16, 2013 at 12:43PM
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Propaganda Garden Design

You may want to look into the 2 year programs at Longwood or the New York Botanical Garden to get some real hands on experience and connections in the field if that is what you really want to do.

That said there are times when I wish I had gone into something more lucrative and kept horticulture as a hobby. But I have friends and classmates that are doing reasonably well for themselves so there are ways to make it work.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2013 at 5:52AM
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Find someone who has the career position you want and ask them how they got there

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 9:06PM
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do what you love and make it work, all it takes is really hard, quality work, and persistance. Nothing worse than getting up everyday to a job you hate!,

hope you by now are on track

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 3:59PM
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The biggest decision to staying in this industry is accepting a moderate level of living. Wages aren't great and typically are limited in growth from where you may find yourself starting out at. Benefits are typically limited to poor compared to any other industry, it is probably better in a public position vs private (I have only been in private). These may seem OK now at your age but there is some sound reasoning from your parents for the security that typically is inconsistently found in the Horticulture or Green Industry.

Life in your later years can be quite different: health, family, children are unpredictable and the benefits needed to take care of them have a different priority later on in life. If someone is going to be in this field they need to understand that. The best advice I would have is to have a spouse/partner who is outside of this industry that has good to great benefits and use this industry job as the 'fluff' income. This can be a good secondary income industry, but inconsistent as a primary one. Budget to live solely on the other income and benefits so you can roll with the punches that happen in this industry. Trust me, the nature of what we do just makes it very cyclical with the high's and low's. Living well below your means is just the way people make it work, and find an area with low cost of living. Most of us accept we don't need to live well off, but safe neighborhoods and good schools that have cheaper housing options just don't exist in a lot of metro areas.

I don't agree with some of these posts on accepting the lower levels of income just because the work may be enjoyable. That becomes more of a hobby or side passion vs making a career choice that you need to depend on to help support yourself/family. Most jobs in other industries have career positions that have certain deadlines, pressures, responsibilities and goals that we don't. That is how they provide better income levels. The companies in this industry that do work towards specific goals and financial responsibilities will typically be the ones that offer more income and benefits but people respond they are the worst to work for. That seems to be the ongoing reason why we can't break the cycle of this industry being always associated with lower or limited income potentials. And after 30+ years in this Industry, I don't think people work as hard at anything as we do, but with far less to show for it. That is another decision that you need to be able to live with in the long term.

If your passion is to be a successful businessperson and have some rewards and security that come with the acquired skills and hard work needed to accomplish some form of business success, this is not the industry to be in. That may be OK for now when you are younger but it may be a regret in 15-20 years when you want to provide the most options for your own children/family members. Having two kids of my own in high school and jr high now, I am having many regrets with my career choice in this industry seeing the limited college options I can help provide for them.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 5:28PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

If you build or buy a retail or landscape business that has a substantial annual gross from which you get a good cut you can do quite well. I've worked for or know multiple local horticulture business owners that take annual vacations in Hawaii or do other things that make it clear they have extra money. The key point is that they are at the top of the pyramid, whether that pyramid is a multimillion dollar independent garden center with layers of employees including management staff that stay with the owners for years or a garden maintenance business servicing mostly small urban residential clients and using only seasonal or temporary help.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2014 at 12:12PM
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Dear Clueless.
While I agree with the postings about the lack of money in horticulture I would also like to add that the reason for this financial shortfall is due to the horticulturists themselves, NOT the industry. If they, and I include myself here, believed in their own worth they would ask for top dollars. If customers or employers didn't want to pay it, then the horticulturist should not do the work. For while ever we agree to work for low wages the customer and employer will continue to pay it. My theory is if a customer can't afford my fees I don't want them as a customer, for they will cause more problems then they are worth.As for earnings to be made from our industry, I would suggest you look into the lawn mowing side of it. I am kept constantly busy doing this somewhat mundane job, but it pays the bills and some of my clients have been with me for 8 and 10 years. These same clients don't mind when, every two or three years I raise my price a little. hen these clients want other work done around their yards and garden I get first choice. Nice work thank you. Physically it can be a challenge but I am managing ok, at 65 years old.
Hope this helps

Bill Griffith ( Buffalo Bill Lawn Maintenance )

    Bookmark   January 12, 2014 at 3:39AM
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