Commercial nurseries rely on new plant cultivars to maintain public interest in landscape, edible and other plants. Some new plants come about by chance mutations. Others are man-made. At the forefront of this industry are plant breeders and those who purposefully hunt for new species.
Scope of Work
The variety of plants being grown and sold in horticulture keeps changing. New varieties emerge. Old varieties are lost, only to sometimes emerge again in the future. Plants go in and out of fashion. What people want and need to buy keeps changing. Plant developers understand this; and recognise that there are tens of thousands of different plants being gown and sold every year.
The work of plant developers can include:
Research - Identifying needs and demands, finding appropriate plants, testing (trialling) those plants under varied conditions
Breeding - Creating new cultivars
Hunting - Exploring in the wild, in old gardens or obscure nurseries, internationally
Marketing - Raising awareness, understanding of target cultivars, promoting, licensing IP
Nurseries today rely on the work of plant breeders and explorers to develop or find new species or cultivars. Some plant breeders run their own nurseries, others develop, patent then license their cultivars. Some plant breeders work in public or university research.
Plant breeding can be as simple as dusting pollen from one parent plant onto another to try to produce a cultivar, or it could mean using much more complex practices. Breeding a new cultivar can take years or decades. Some are found by chance. Once identified, a new cultivar needs to be propagated in large numbers before being marketed. That can sometimes be a challenge, requiring further R & D undertaken in secure greenhouses or other protective structures, in a controlled growing environment.
Other work undertaken could include nurturing plants via feeding and watering, monitoring plants for pests and diseases, checking propagation media pH and adjusting if necessary, pruning plants, and potting up plants.
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
Cultural management techniques - Pruning plants, watering frequency and duration, how to repair & renovate, planting, transplanting, staking
Health management - Biosecurity, 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 on the road towards plant breeding, 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 growing plants.
Another option would be to try and secure work as a nursery hand or assistant and learn about breeding plants on the job. Taking work as an employee in a garden centre or similar environment as a non-skilled member of staff could also be a means of getting a foot in the door. 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.
Plant breeders themselves may have openings for people who can show that they are keen to understand more and prepared to sacrifice their time learning the ropes.
Progressing a Career
Plant breeders need to have a sound knowledge of plant biology, anatomy, reproduction and propagation, as well as working in protective structures like greenhouses or glasshouses.
The work of plant breeders is protected under various rights programs in different countries. Understanding how these work and how to use them is an important part of a plant breeder's knowledge since it protects their livelihood. As you progress your career, this will become an integral part of your work.
Those who specialise in plant breeding must have sound knowledge of how to control the environment inside protective structures and how that influences plants growth. It is also essential to know about a broad range of propagation techniques and what the best methods of propagation are for different types of plants.
Joining trade associations or bodies is a good way to keep up to date with current trends and technological advancements in the industry. Attending garden shows, agricultural shows and trade shows is another way to learn by networking with like-minded people.
A good way to fill any gaps in your knowledge is through attending workshops and seminars, or undertaking further study, especially courses which cover the points listed under ‘things you need to know’ above.
Within the plant breeding and propagation industry there are opportunities to move up the ladder from general assistant to supervisory or management positions. Some may even seek to ultimately establish their own nursery to produce their own lines of new plants.