Commercial plant production is undertaken in nurseries. Nurseries may vary in what they produce growing a wide range of plants. Hardy plants require less attention and equipment (such as greenhouses).
Scope of Work
Nurseries vary in size from huge nurseries spread over many acres to smaller family or single-owner businesses. Some grow only one type of plant, e.g. trees, and some may be even more specialised, e.g. only growing Christmas trees (conifers). Some may grow mature plants whereas others may only have the space to grow tube stock or punnets of seedlings.
Hardy plants are those which are able to withstand variations in temperature and other adverse growing conditions like lack of water. In temperate zones it chiefly refers to those plants that can withstand frost. In warmer climates it can refer to those which are able to withstand extremely hot conditions. The type of hardy plants you work with will depend on the location of the nursery and whether it is producing indoor or outdoor plants - but it could include alpines, woody plants and non-woody plants.
The nature of work undertaken will be influenced by the size of the operation and the variety of plants grown. However, typical tasks include propagating plants, nurturing plants via feeding and watering, monitoring plants for pests and diseases, checking soil pH and adjusting if necessary, pruning plants, digging holes for rows of plants, and potting up plants. If the nursery is open to the public for sales, then talking to customers, advising on plant choices and making sales may also be part of the daily work.
What You Need to Learn
Plant science - Basic botany; biology, physiology, anatomy, ecology, nutrition
Plant knowledge - Plant and turf species & cultivars, identification & cultural characteristics of many different varieties, and weed species, biosecurity
Cultural management techniques - Pruning plants, watering frequency and duration, how to repair & renovate, planting, transplanting, staking
Health management - Plant pests, diseases and environmental disorders
Propagation - Leaf, root, hardwood & softwood cuttings; division, layering, budding, grafting, tissue culture
Environmental control - Ventilation, irrigation & misting, heating & cooling, lighting, carbon dioxide injection
Soils - Potting media & soil structure, chemistry, management techniques e.g. improving soils, aeration, etc.
Drainage - Surface, subsurface, flood mitigation
Irrigation - Equipment selection, installation, use
Starting a Career
To get a start in nursery work, there are a number of possible routes. One way is to offer your services as a volunteer at a local nursery to get some experience. If this is not possible then volunteering for a local gardening club or society may get you some general gardening experience where you could learn about propagation and plant care.
Another option would be to try and secure work as a nursery hand or assistant and learn on the job. Taking work as an employee in a garden centre or similar environment as a non-skilled member of staff can also be a good move because you can eventually move towards the plants side of things. Going to trade shows and garden events can also be good ways to network and get a feel for what openings might be out there.
You could also consider doing some study whilst working part-time.
Once you have gained enough experience you may be able to approach nurseries for an entry level job. If you can demonstrate enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, many employers will be willing to give you a start providing they have vacancies.
You'll need to learn about different types of plants and propagation techniques. Being able to advise customers on general horticulture principles and practices is also commonly needed.
Progressing a Career
As you progress in nursery work you may find there are gaps in your knowledge. If there are, then it is advisable to try to fill those gaps. This can be done through attending workshops and seminars. These may be provided by employers or arranged by keen individuals themselves.
Another option is to take some courses, especially ones which address each of the points listed under ‘things you need to know’. It is important that any study undertaken is relevant and of a high standard. The main areas that nursery workers need to know about are different types of plants, plant cultural techniques, plant health, propagation and working in protective structures like greenhouses or glasshouses. A lot of propagation is undertaken inside greenhouses or other structures where the environment can be controlled.
Within the nursery industry there are opportunities to move up the ladder from general assistant or nursery hands type roles to supervisory or management positions. Some may even seek to ultimately establish their own nursery or horticulture business.