There is great demand by garden centres for people who have plant knowledge. Such people may know about particular groups of plants or they may have a broader knowledge. Plant specialists can help customers to choose suitable plants as well as inform them about what to expect of plants they have decided to buy.
Scope of Work
Retail plant outlets may be small or large, and can include:
Market stands - Usually small businesses, grow or buy in plants and sell at weekend markets
Independent outlets - May be specialist growers, attached to production nurseries
Chains - Large multi store operations with plant outlets in each branch
Stand-alone stores which buy in all their plants and equipment
Online suppliers - May be specialists, and can vary in size
Some may only sell plants but others sell a broad range of gardening equipment
Plant knowledge can range from understanding everything to do with a particular group of plants like trees, or even fruits trees, to having knowledge of many different plants. The type of knowledge needed will include things like knowing what the plant’s flowers are like, when it flowers, what it’s fruits are like, how big it grows, where it can be grown or sun or shade, how to care for it (watering, feeding, pruning, pest and disease control), what soil it needs and how to plant it.
People working in this area how should be knowledgeable of new cultivars and varieties and keep abreast of current trends in plants. They may spend their time ordering in plants for stores or customers, learning about new plants or extending their plant knowledge, and liaising with clients. It may be necessary to have a broader knowledge of plants if working in a smaller retail environment where jobs are shared or there are no specialist plant departments as such.
Being able to advise customers on general horticulture principles and practices is also commonly needed.
What You Need to Learn
Plant science - Basic botany; biology, physiology, anatomy, ecology, nutrition
Plant knowledge - Plant species & cultivars, identification & cultural characteristics (commonly 500 to 2,000) different varieties, and weed species
Cultural techniques - Pruning plants, watering frequency and duration, how to repair & renovate, planting, transplanting, staking
Health management - Plant pests, diseases and environmental disorders
Soils - Potting media & soil structure, chemistry, management techniques e.g. improving soils, aeration, etc.
Drainage - Surface, subsurface, flood mitigation
Irrigation - Plant water needs, equipment selection, installation and use
Marketing - Consumer psychology, promotions, sales techniques
Management - Time, financial, stock control, biosecurity
Starting a Career
Some people come into this area of work later in life having had other jobs and careers where they may have accumulated specialist plant knowledge. Others may begin by working as a garden labourer but take an interest in plants. There are also those who start out as employees in a garden centre or similar environment as a non-skilled member of staff but develop a strong interest in plants.
Another possibility is to get general gardening experience with an emphasis on soft landscaping i.e. planting and maintenance of plants. This could be through working for a local gardening club or volunteering to help maintain the grounds at a local site. 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 garden retail outlets to take 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.
Progressing a Career
Individuals with extensive or specialist plant knowledge can make a long and rewarding career in this field so long as they are willing to keep learning. 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 and, in particular, ones which cover each of the points listed under ‘things you need to know’ . Learning should be provided by reputable course providers with qualified staff who are able to give up-to-date feedback. This will cement your knowledge and ensure you are desirable to employers.
Professional development is also important. Science, products, plants, equipment and techniques are constantly changing and improving in horticulture like every other industry. If you are disconnected from industry change, you will not remain competitive with others who are up to date. It is therefore a good idea to be involved with a professional or trade organisation.
Within horticulture retail there are opportunities to move up the ladder from general assistant to supervisory roles, team leader, or management. Some may even seek to move out and set up their own gardening or nursery businesses.