Propagation is the key to creating new plants. Some nurseries may rely solely on seed or cutting propagation. Others rely entirely on grafting or another vegetative technique. Most use different forms of propagation. Skilled propagators are a valued asset - highly sought after by most nurseries.
Scope of Work
Propagators take pieces from a plant (living tissue or seed), and create new plants. Their work can involve:
Selecting Propagating Material - Quality disease free seed, cutting material or other material
Treating Plant Material - Handling, storing, transporting, reducing deterioration or contamination
Propagating - Preparing materials, executing technique with speed and accuracy, achieving results
Managing Environment - After care of cuttings, seed, propagules in greenhouse, growth cabinet, or elsewhere
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. Some grow plants to maturity; others may only produce small plants for others to grow on before selling to landscapers or garden centres.
Propagation is a very skilled area of horticulture, preparing vegetative material from plants for use in propagation, and/or pre-treating seeds to stimulate germination.
Tasks include making up propagation mixes, treating prepared material with hormones, monitoring and misting cuttings, and keeping records.
Other tasks 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 cuttings or grafted 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 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 plant propagation side of things and build up knowledge of propagation equipment. 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 may also be needed depending on the size of the nursery and everyday roles.
Progressing a Career
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.
Those who specialise in propagation 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’.
Within the nursery 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 or horticulture business.