First jobs: fresh faces in horticulture

Seven newcomers to the horticulture profession discuss their motivations, inspirations, challenges, hopes and expectations


BY ANNE MARIE VAN NEST

For some, a relative instilled a love for plants. Others like the outdoors. Some left a career behind, while others creatively meld current careers with horticulture. And many are taking to horticulture for altruistic reasons — wanting to produce healthy food and lifestyles in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. All seven fresh faces were generous about sharing their reasons for joining the landscape profession.

Vivienne Blyth-Moore is in her first year as a landscape designer and sustainability officer for Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ont. She switched to a horticulture career after first getting a BA in history and an MSc in environmental sustainability. “I’ve always been a gardener at heart,” she explains. “Although I have no formal horticultural/landscape design training, I have learned on the job, through internships in plant nurseries and landscape design companies in Switzerland and a previous job experience in Scotland.” Vivienne gravitated toward landscape design because it combines her passion for gardens and design with her desire to create a more sustainable world.

Meghan McCarthy, a 2015 graduate of the Pacific Horticulture College Landscape Horticulture program, also didn’t start down the landscaping path. She explains, “I was a climate-change organizer for many years, and was burnt out doing environmental work from behind a computer. I wanted to get outside, to explore and reconnect with the outdoors, and help others do the same.” Now Meghan is a landscaper with Island Horticultural Services based in Victoria, B.C., and she has also started her own business, Solidago Landscaping. 

Jano Wright, a 2015 graduate from Pacific Horticulture College as well, changed her career to landscaping and gardening after years in the service and hospitality industry. She decided it was time to work at a job where she would be outside enjoying nature and working with plants. Jano now works for Finlay’s Landscapes in Victoria, B.C. 

One recent horticulture graduate, who wants to remain anonymous, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, and realized she didn’t want an indoor office job. This revelation changed her career plans; and she went on to volunteer with organizations focused on growing food and educating the public about the beneficial uses of plants. This made her realize that she had a love of plants and working outdoors. She signed up for three more years of schooling — this time in horticulture — and graduated in 2016.

Nick Marchio is a student gardener at Niagara Parks in Niagara Falls, Ont. His primary reason for choosing horticulture is enjoyment of the outdoors. He started at Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., thinking he would eventually work at a golf course. In the first week of school he was drawn to courses about plant science and deciduous trees, changing his career direction. 
 
Emma Chesher, a recent graduate of the two-year horticulture program at Niagara College, just finished her second season working for Niagara Parks. 

A chance happening isn’t often the reason to pick a career, but Andrew Guay credits his mom for spotting a “Now Hiring” sign at the local garden centre. Andrew recalls, “My 15-year-old self had little interest in working with plants, considering I knew what a rose and cedar were and that was basically it.” Four years later, Andrew had worked his way up from guest services to Assistant Perennial Supervisor at the garden centre. After another three years, in 2016, he graduated from the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture and started work at Ground Covers Unlimited in Bethany, Ont., as nursery staff responsible for many tasks. He is currently employed at Sheridan Nurseries.

New job challenges 
Every new job comes with challenges, surprises, and excitement — more so when starting a new career. 

Nick Marchio, talking about his job at Niagara Parks, says, “My job as a gardener exceeded my expectations. When most people hear the term “gardener,” they just picture someone planting flowers all day — not even close to what this job title entails. I was happy to know it was a very physical job which I enjoyed, and that there was a lot of moving around from worksite to worksite, which made the day go incredibly quickly.” Nick also enjoyed being trained on power equipment such as the rototiller and sod cutter.
 
Having worked at Ground Covers Unlimited for 10 weeks during his school internship, Andrew Guay knew what to expect. What surprised him most, when he returned after graduation, was how much water it takes to keep 25,000 square feet of plants alive and growing. The weather this past summer was challenging. He reflects, “We experienced one of the worst summer droughts in recent years, and water became a critical resource for all growers. Thankfully, our operation had enough reserves to keep everything going strong throughout the heat wave of July and August. As the months went on, watching the level of the retention pond drop at an alarming rate made me realize just how valuable and critical a resource water is for nursery operations.”

Emma Chesher, who had previously worked at Country Basket Garden Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont., faced a challenge familiar to many young workers. “I have been working since I was 17 or 18, and most of it has been at the garden centre or at Starbucks. I have always had to interact with people. The only problem is that I look like I am 16, even though I am 23. A lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously until they actually got talking to me for a bit, and then realized that this person actually knows what she is doing and this isn’t just some summer job while she’s away from school.”

The move to Canada gave Vivienne Blyth-Moore an unanticipated surprise. “Coming from the UK where landscaping is a year-round activity, the seasonal nature of the industry here surprised me.”

Learning on the Job
There’s a steep learning curve for most people when starting their first real job in a chosen career. The seven newcomers were asked what they learned.

Vivienne reflected on her first summer, “There was a big learning curve, due in large part to my previous European experience. I had a lot to learn about North American horticulture and the predominant issues. I overcame it by asking lots of questions and spending a lot of time reading and researching on my own time.” After starting at Fern Ridge, Vivienne became aware of a huge need for educating the public when it comes to sustainable landscapes. She found customers specifically wanted more information on sustainable water management and biodiversity.
 
After just one season, Meghan acknowledged that the industry has taught her a lot about herself. “Having to make decisions in the garden, communicating with clients, managing the challenges of changing weather, and all the aches and pains has taught me a lot about who I am and what I am capable of doing.”

Andrew learned many things at Ground Covers Unlimited he expects to use the rest of his career: IPM, plant health care, watering, raising livestock, fertilizing techniques and plant sourcing. What impressed him the most were the demands that plants place on their growers. “One thing that stands out the most for me is the benefit of a strong work ethic. Plants are living things that require certain inputs at various times that may not be the most convenient for humans. Plants don’t care if Sunday is your day off; they still need watering and fertilizing when they are dry in their pots.”

Helping hands
Mentors can take many forms: peers, bosses, or teachers. For new recruits, it is important that mentors provide support by listening, explaining expectations, demonstrating techniques, being open to new ideas, and willing to step back and let new recruits try their own ideas — even if they suspect those ideas might not succeed. 

Vivienne felt both her supervisor Mike Prong, and company owner Sean James, have been incredible mentors. She says, “I can ask them any question at any time, and they allow me to try things my way and learn through doing, even if it involves making mistakes, which has allowed me to learn and grow very quickly.”

Andrew experienced the unusual situation of both working and living with classmates. He says, “My two roommates were my best mentors at that job. Having both recently graduated from the same school, they were able to relate to me better than anyone else could. They helped me improve on so many things, from growing many different types of plants effectively, to harvesting and processing food items, to even cooking full meals that weren’t toast and peanut butter. Both of them were patient with me and always willing to teach me new things at any point in time. As good mentors, they naturally have become good friends.”

Emma says she learned the most from people that worked by her side. She explains, “When I worked at Queenston Heights Park, Marvin Fast was kind enough to take me aside and show me how to use a lot of power equipment. Chris Semenchuk, at the Floral Showhouse, taught me a lot about plant maintenance. Everyone took the time, even though it was extremely hectic and they were busy.”

Meghan keeps in contact with her school community. “I have constant mentorship and support from my friends and instructors at the Pacific Horticulture College. They are the reason why I can get up in the morning and go to work with confidence and competence. On the job, Kevin and Sandra Bunting at Island Horticultural are an incredible resource. They are so open and willing to share their boundless experience, and are great role models in how to run a successful business.” 

Jano finds the best mentors share their knowledge freely, and also ask for her opinion and input, making a collaborative discussion instead of a lecture.

Big challenges
The new workers found themselves faced with both common and unexpected challenges.
 
A recent horticulture graduate working for a municipality in Ontario says her challenges included many of the usual new-job anxieties, such as fitting in with a group of co-workers who have known each other for years, learning how the department operates, and learning who to talk with to get answers for different subjects. She learned a lot about interpersonal skills and morale during her first season. She explains, “I’ve learned a lot about how important (and difficult) it is to stay positive at work. It’s easy to get frustrated and complain, and once one person starts being negative, it quickly spreads throughout the team and lowers morale. Once morale is down, it can be really hard to shift things and create a positive work environment. As a result, I’m really trying to stay focused on being positive and not giving in to negative conversations.”

Jano also commented about finding her place in a new work environment, “The most challenging aspect as a new graduate was finding that rhythm you fall into at work. You feel like a ‘fish out of water’ for the first while, but it didn’t take long to get sorted out.”

The next season
After their first season, are our new recruits optimistic about the next? Will they return if they are asked back? 

Our anonymous recent graduate is looking forward to being trusted more so she can take on a larger leadership role. She understands, until her bosses know her better, they will hesitate. About next season she says, “I know I could take on more responsibility and be more of a crew leader than a crew member. If I am asked back, I will likely say ‘yes’ unless a better opportunity arises (such as a full-time position in a municipality). I will return because it is a good paying job with benefits and a pension.”

Andrew started a new, full-time job last September as Nursery Sales Supervisor at Sheridan Nurseries in Toronto. He is looking forward to the spring rush of 2017. Starting his job in the fall allowed him to gradually get comfortable with the position. He says, “I’m looking forward to seeing the spring dynamic and how things operate during the busy season. This will allow me to analyze operating procedures and adjust or implement new ones to better manage the spring rush.”

Digital connectivity
The younger generation is known for its digital savvy; do they think the horticulture industry using digital to best advantage? 
Fern Ridge Landscaping’s social media presence has been enhanced by Vivienne’s digital skills. She is in charge of all social media, except the externally-managed website. Vivienne doesn’t have the HTML skills required to manage a website, but she suggests, “It would be useful to have a simpler interface such as WordPress, which would allow me to manage it on my own, bringing the website into sync with the rest of our online presence.” 

Andrew observes that social media is huge in our society today, and its absence can exclude a whole population from a customer list. “I also feel it is our duty as professional horticulturists to educate the public on different facets of our industry … and what better way to do that than on social media?” 

How can horticulture attract new talent? 
Today’s instant gratification society provides many things whenever we want them. Horticulture is at a disadvantage in this world. 
Andrew suggests industry leaders must find ways to bring the younger generation back to the field, otherwise horticulture will turn into a minor industry. He says, “We need to solve the puzzle of how to attract Millennials into horticulture, using new techniques and targeted strategies, while maintaining support for the current horticulturally savvy members of the public.” 

Meghan suggests promoting the diversity of horticulture. She says, “I think there has to be more of an effort made to educate people on how broad horticulture can be, that it isn’t only about pruning tiny boxwood hedges or mowing acres of lawn. There are exciting opportunities for projects that encompass community development, environmental education, and food security, which are all things that a lot of people really care about right now. I think making those connections could draw some really great people into the industry.”

A future in the Landscape Profession? 
Are our newest horticulture professionals optimistic about what is ahead, or worried about their long-term prospects? 

Our anonymous recent graduate would like to gradually move toward either a career growing food, or a career focused on ecological restoration and conservation. She doesn’t think she will be doing landscape maintenance forever, but for now, it is a well-paying job and she is working toward paying off student loans.

Vivienne is optimistic about the future and says, “As a designer, I have a great deal of stability. It’s an industry I expect to stay in long-term, although I expect to eventually combine landscape design with urban planning.”

Nick loves the work environment and says, “My thoughts about working in the horticulture/landscape industry are all positive. Everything I have encountered in my short horticulture career has been very enjoyable. Spending my work day outside has been everything I imaged it would be, and I know I could never work indoors again.”

Jano is equally enthusiastic about her future, and says, “I hope to be gardening and landscaping as long as possible! There are so many different aspects to the field; I know it will keep me interested for many years to come.”  

Anne Marie Van Nest is a freelance garden writer, author of Niagara in Bloom, and a greenhouse grower for Niagara Parks.

Landscape Trades, January 2017