Career opportunities sprouting in horticulture field


Maureen Heffernan, 30, grew up on a farm in Perry, Ohio, and is education coordinator of the American Horticultural Society in Alexandria, Va.

"I really enjoyed growing organic plants," said Heffernan, who majored in horticulture at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Horticulturists are professionals who work with fruit, vegetable, greenhouse and nursery crops and ornamental plants, according to the Labor Department. They're employed as greenhouse managers, landscape architects, retail florists, nursery workers, horticulture therapists and athletic turf specialists.

Educational requirements range from a high school education to a two-year or four-year college degree. Certification is optional for horticulturists, but landscape architects must be licensed in 44 states.

Gardening is a booming $22.1 billion-a-year business, and jobs are expanding for horticulturists despite the recession, said Heffernan.

"There are always many more jobs than there are new graduates," she said. "There's a shortage of trained people."

After college, Ms. Heffernan won a fellowship to England, France and Ireland. She worked as a volunteer in Westbury Gardens in Long Island and at the New York Botanical Garden. She later became a full-time employee of the Botanical Garden and left it to go to Alaska, where she worked on farms and studied at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

"All the things you hear that can't grow in the Arctic aren't true," said Ms. Heffernan, who has a "pretty good" garden of perennials and vegetables at her home.

She said student enrollment in horticulture was high in the 1960s and '70s but began decreasing in the 1980s. Low enrollment has enhanced job opportunities for new graduates.

Julia Fitzpatrick-Cooper, coordinator of the horticultural program for the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, Ill., has a bachelor's degree in horticulture and a master's in agricultural education from Ohio State. College of Du Page offers a two-year associate degree in applied science in ornamental horticulture.

"Horticulture is a growing field, but not well-known yet," said Ms. Fitzpatrick-Cooper. "I truly feel it's something anybody can learn. You don't have to have a green thumb. You just have to have an interest in learning to do it."

Du Page students take courses in biology, chemistry, botany, plant identification and landscape design as well as general education courses. Graduates work for nurseries, retail garden centers, greenhouses and landscaping firms and do maintenance for park districts.

Starting salaries, she said, can be as low as the minimum hourly wage or as high as $22,000 to $24,000 annually. "There are people who have made a great deal of money in the field, but you work very hard for your money," Ms. Fitzpatrick-Cooper said. "You don't make millions quickly, but you can earn a living."

Horticulture, she said, is a good field if you like to work outdoors and have good people skills and a mind for business.

One of the best-known horticultural professions is that of landscape architect. The Labor Department projects that because of new construction and concern about environmental planning and historic preservation, some 5,500 jobs will be created for landscape architects in the 1990s.

There are 10,300 landscapers today and 65 accredited programs at the college level, said Ron Leighton, education and accreditation manager of the American Society of Landscape Architects in Washington. Salaries for those with undergraduate degrees start in the low $20,000s, he said, but median income of its members in private practice is $37,500.

Joe Dusek, a 1989 graduate of College of Du Page's horticultural program, is perennial production manager of Platt Hill Nursery Inc. in Bloomingdale, Ill.

"I had no trouble getting a job," said Mr. Dusek, who grew up in Elmhurst on a four-acre property, which he helped plant and maintain. "I started out as a volunteer for the Elmhurst Park District, was hired part time and then got my present full-time job," he said.

Mr. Dusek works with columbine, daisies, irises, day lilies and hosta plants, unboxing them, putting them in pots and pruning their roots. He waters, sprays and trims 60,000 plants a year.

What fascinates him about being a horticulturist, Mr. Dusek said, is "starting something from a small, tiny thing and watching it grow into something beautiful."

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