Becoming a Horticulturist: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a career in horticulture? Get real job description, career outlook and salary information to see if becoming a horticulturist is right for you.
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A Career in Horticulture: Pros and Cons

A career in horticulture can encompass many things, from plant breeding to genetic engineering to landscape design. As a horticulturist, you could help improve the quality of foods by improving plant resistance to environmental stress and disease, increasing the nutritional value of plants and improving crop yield. Because of the wide variety of careers in the field, you could find some jobs that don't require any formal education, while other jobs require a graduate degree. Read on for pros and cons of being a horticulturist to help you decide if this is the right career for you.

Pros of a Career in Horticulture
A variety of career opportunities (crop inspection, retail management, research, teaching)*
A variety of work environments (offices, production fields, greenhouses, laboratories)*
Job growth is expected to be about average, at a rate of 12% for plant scientists over 2010-2020**
Employment is relatively stable in the food industry during economic recessions**
Some positions, such as nursery worker and landscaper, require little to no postsecondary education**

Cons of a Career in Horticulture
Some positions, such as researcher, require extensive training**
Jobs in basic teaching and research are limited**
Workers with less education, such as nursery workers and landscapers, make an average salary of $25,000 or less**
May be exposed to hazardous chemicals***

Sources: *Purdue University, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***California Employment Development Department

Career Information

Career Options and Job Descriptions

Your job duties will vary depending on what line of work you go into. For example, if you go into landscaping, you'll use your knowledge of plants, flowers, trees and irrigation to design and maintain landscapes on commercial and residential grounds. If you work in nursery production, you'll focus on growing plants from seeds and take the steps necessary throughout their life cycles to make sure they grow successfully. As a researcher in the agricultural industry, you'd typically work in an office or laboratory, and you might study how genes affect plant growth or search for ways to improve the quality and quantity of plant crops. You could also become a horticultural therapist and design gardening therapy projects as a form of cognitive therapy for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported salary information for the above occupations in May 2011. Landscaping and groundskeeping workers earned an average salary of approximately $26,000. The average yearly wage for farm, crop, nursery and greenhouse workers was roughly $20,000. Soil and plant scientists earned an average of about $64,000. Salary data was unavailable for horticultural therapists.

Job Outlook

The BLS predicted that landscaping and groundskeeping workers would experience an 18% increase in employment over the 2008-2018 decade, which was faster than average for all occupations. Agricultural workers, a group that includes nursery workers, were expected to see little or no change in employment during the same time period. As a group, agricultural and food scientists, including plants scientists, could expect to experience a 16% increase in employment. Information was not available for horticultural therapists.

Training and Licensing Requirements

Because a wide range of career options exists in the field of horticulture, educational requirements vary. According to the BLS, as a landscaping or nursery worker, you may not need any formal education and could learn all the skills needed for your work through on-the-job training. However, some employers may prefer that you have an associate's or bachelor's degree in horticulture. To work as a horticultural therapist, the American Horticultural Therapy Association indicates that you may need a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation, horticultural therapy or a related area.

The BLS also indicates that to work as a plant or agricultural scientist in applied research or product development, you'll need a minimum of a bachelor's degree in horticulture, agricultural science or a related area. If you want to work in basic research or teach at a university, you'll need a Ph.D. However, a master's degree could qualify you for some basic research positions. As an undergraduate horticulture student, classes you'll take could include plant breeding, plant physiology, entomology, pest management, landscape maintenance and plant pathology.

Licensure and Certification

If your job involves applying pesticides, you'll need to become licensed or certified by your state. This usually involves passing a test. If you work as a landscape contractor, some states may require that you become licensed or credentialed in some way. For example, North Carolina requires that landscape contractors pass a licensing exam that includes a multiple choice section, as well as a section on interpreting a landscape plan.

What Employers Look for

In addition to, or in lieu of formal training, some positions may require that you have certain practical skills. According to 2012 job postings on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, employers for many types of jobs look for physically fit candidates who have experience working with plants. Some specific job postings have shown the following:

  • A landscaping company in Cleveland, OH, seeks a physically fit landscaper with an aesthetic eye. The company prefers candidates who have experience working with plants, sprinkler systems, fertilizers and landscaping tools.
  • A nursery in Louisiana seeks a physically fit nursery worker who can lift 50 lbs. The worker will need to use tools to plant flowers, trim leaves, fertilize plants and pull weeds.
  • A research farm in Ohio seeks a plant breeder with a master's or doctoral degree in horticulture, plant science or a related field. The ideal candidate should have experience working in arid environments and working with guayule or similar crops.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

In general, it could be helpful to work on a farm or in a garden to become familiar with the plants and maintenance equipment, such as pruning shears, shovels, rakes and hedge trimmers. This is because many employers prefer to hire those who have experience working with plants, according to Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com job postings for landscaping, nursery and research positions.

Certification Options

If you're a landscaper, you could earn voluntary certification to signify your level of knowledge and skill to prospective employers, which could possibly improve your employment prospects according to the BLS. The Professional Landcare Network awards seven types of certification to individuals with different experience levels in landscaping. To earn one of these certifications, you'll need to complete a self-study course and pass an examination, then participate in continuing education and recertify every two years. Your continuing education options include attending conferences and seminars, taking college coursework, earning a contractor or pesticide applicator license, earning additional certifications, giving presentations and writing articles.

As a horticultural therapist, you could earn voluntary professional registration with the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA). To do so, you'll need to earn a 4-year degree with supplementary coursework in horticultural therapy, horticulture and human sciences, as well as complete a 480-hour internship. The AHTA mentions that the added education and experience efforts that you put in to earning certification could help you down the road in your career. You could also consider the Certified Horticulturist designation awarded by the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS). This certification could be useful if you're a landscaper, researcher or nursery worker and, according to the ASHS, may assist employers in selecting new employees. To be eligible for the certification exam, you'll need to have met a combination of education and paid experience requirements. You'll need to earn continuing education units and recertify every three years.

Other Fields to Consider

If you want to be more creative with your work than the typical horticulturist is, a career as a floral designer may be right for you. You'd use your eye for color and design to create floral arrangements for events, such as wedding, funerals and graduations. This job typically doesn't require any formal postsecondary training; however, certificate and degree programs in floral design are available. You could even apply a degree in horticulture toward a career in this field. The BLS projected that employment of floral designers would decline by nine percent from 2010-2020. However, job opportunities were still expected to be good since this career has a high turnover rate.

If you're more interested in the nature of things and how things work, you may decide to become a botanist. Rather than studying how to breed and grow plants, you'll study plants simply for the sake of understanding their nature. You could study plant diseases, the plant life cycle or how plants interact with other organisms. You'll typically need a Ph.D. to perform basic research, but a bachelor's or master's degree may be sufficient to work in applied research or product development. Employment of biochemists and biophysicists, including some botanists, was predicted by the BLS to grow much faster than average, at a rate of 31% from 2010-2020. However, because botany is a small field, job opportunities may be limited.

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