Commercial horticulturists are involved in the growing, distributing and selling of food crops and plants.

Commercial growers may specialise in field crops, protected growing (for example, under glass), soft and top fruit, hardy nursery stock and cut flowers. Clients include plant and tree nurseries, supermarkets and DIY stores.

The work is increasingly complex, requiring managerial, business and IT competence, alongside scientific understanding and the traditional skills of cultivation.

Ultimately, the role involves the management of horticultural enterprises and this is reflected in the variety of job titles, for example:

  • crop manager;
  • production manager;
  • horticultural manager;
  • grower manager.

Responsibilities

Initially, graduates will be more concerned with hands-on cultivation but, with experience, they will supervise teams of others at all stages of growing, harvesting, packing, distribution and selling.

Produce is sold to the food processing industry; plants are sold to major retailers, wholesalers and the garden trade, all of whom demand increasingly high standards of quality. In addition, the traceability of crops from seed to customer is of prime importance to the food industry.

Typical work responsibilities include supervising and assisting in all stages of crop production and harvesting. This may include:

  • undertaking all aspects of husbandry and production including preparation, growing and harvesting;
  • managing pest, disease and weed control programmes, commensurate with hygiene and health standards;
  • marketing and selling produce, depending on crop, season and market demand;
  • the planning and running of transplanting lines in glass houses as products change throughout the year;
  • responsibility for the 'carrier area' that sets stock down and also picks it up ready to be dispatched;
  • analysing yields, operational costs and financial returns of horticultural operations;
  • identifying technical and business problems, investigating the causes and formulating solutions;
  • planning and organising trials to assess their effectiveness;
  • preparing new or modified operational and business plans;
  • developing new products and markets and negotiating with suppliers and buyers;
  • managing produce-supply-chain systems and the supporting infrastructure for processing, storage and transport of produce;
  • organising presentations, technical visits and demonstrations;
  • ensuring that UK, European Community and international quality, hygiene, health and safety and employment standards and regulations are met;
  • communicating effectively with customers, working colleagues and professional groups, both orally and in writing, through briefings, reports and presentations;
  • training and instructing others and helping them to develop their professional skills and experience;
  • performing essential administration, including records, budgets and accounts;
  • keeping up to date in your specialist area and in developments in the whole horticultural sector.

At management level, the work involves meeting agreed deadlines and operating within agreed budgets, so a high level of competence in project management is required.

You will also be involved in the recruitment and management of staff.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for new graduates range from £16,000 to £18,000.
  • Salaries for more experienced entrants depend on ability and experience and can vary widely according to level of responsibility. Salaries after training may range from £22,000 to £30,000.
  • The range of typical salaries at senior level/with experience is £30,000 plus.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours and workloads vary according to the crop, season and the position of the employer in the supply chain, but early starts and late finishes are common. Flexibility is essential at peak times, for example before bank holidays, with long hours at harvest times. High standards of quality and quantity control are demanded and tight deadlines have to be met. Self-employment, part-time work and career breaks are all possible for growers.

What to expect

  • A general 'hands-on' post is usually the first job for a new graduate. Specialising in a particular area may come later.
  • Depending on the role, work can be outdoors in all seasons, either dirty and wet or hot and sweaty. Work under glass is also common. Work in a chilled factory environment may involve exposure to the cold for long periods of time.
  • Progression up the career ladder usually involves more time in office-based activities such as management meetings, strategic planning and report writing.
  • Jobs are available in most areas in the UK, with many posts in rural areas.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent and may be between sites or visiting suppliers and buyers. Absence from home overnight is uncommon.
  • Overseas work or travel may occasionally be required as some producing companies have links with, or their own, growing operations overseas.

Qualifications

Although a degree is not essential for entry into commercial horticulture, the following degree subjects could improve your chances of developing a professional career:

  • agriculture;
  • commerce;
  • crop and plant science;
  • environmental science;
  • food science/technology;
  • horticulture;
  • soil science.

Relevant foundation degree/HND subjects include agricultural and horticultural sciences.

Although the opportunity to work at a basic level in horticulture is still open to all, it is now more common for new entrants to have a horticultural qualification. There is a wide range of non-degree level qualifications available, including certificates and diplomas.

The subjects you can study also wide-ranging and include:

  • horticulture;
  • nursery horticulture;
  • propagation;
  • horticultural sciences;
  • landscape and garden design;
  • organic production.

Beginners' courses are also available for those thinking of a career in horticulture. For details of courses, see the Lantra CourseFinder.

A postgraduate qualification is not essential.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • excellent planning skills;
  • the ability to organise and manage your own workload;
  • problem-solving ability;
  • communication and interpersonal skills;
  • project management skills;
  • comfortable working in a team and using your own initiative;
  • management skills and business awareness;
  • financial awareness;
  • a hands-on, practical and realistic approach to work;
  • administration and IT skills;
  • flexibility and a willingness to work in a busy and varied environment;
  • knowledge of health and safety regulations and procedures.

A full driving licence is usually required and applicants should be physically fit and able to work in physically demanding environments.

Fluency in another language is helpful if you are thinking of working abroad.

Work experience

Practical experience is essential for entry into this career. Experience in retailing and/or gardening and evidence of an interest in fresh produce and plants is useful for those seeking work on the commercial side.

Try to obtain a work experience placement or a vacation job within the industry, at a plant nursery or on a farm producing crops.

Voluntary work with local gardening projects is useful. There are also opportunities to undertake work experience placements in all areas of horticulture abroad.

Look out for job vacancies as they arise in the industry's press, for example Horticulture Week.

Short-term and project-based contracts are a good way of gaining relevant experience. Be prepared to start in posts where you get your hands dirty before taking responsibility for a workforce.

A network of personal contacts in the industry is a valuable source of job information.

Employers

Typical employers include companies growing and/or supplying fresh produce and plants to consumers. These vary in size from businesses employing just one person to large nurseries and farms. They include pick-your-own enterprises and organic farms and gardens.

Production nurseries, many of which offer training schemes covering all areas of production including propagation, container and field-grown stock, also employ graduates.

Other typical employers include food companies that process, package and distribute fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, and commercial companies supplying products, equipment and services to the industry.

Opportunities exist in the media with the industry's professional journals or with the BBC. Roles may include features editor or manager of a journal, or horticultural researcher for a gardening programme.

Further and higher education establishments also have opportunities for trainers and lecturers in horticulture.

Opportunities arise with organisations such as include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and consultancy companies such as ADAS.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies advertise vacancies, for example:

Many employers only have a small number of vacancies each year and do not recruit on a regular basis. Such posts are advertised as they arise. A network of personal contacts in the industry can be valuable for finding out about vacancies.

Colleges and university schools of agriculture and horticulture usually have established contacts within the industry.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Training varies from minimal on-the-job training to well-structured training schemes and in-house training programmes.

Some employers provide opportunities to take management qualifications, health and safety training, training in the use of chemicals and pesticides and training in the use of biological alternatives in pest and disease control.

A number of institutions offer postgraduate study in horticulture. For example a range of postgraduate taught and research-based courses, on areas such as crop production and fresh produce management, are offered by Writtle College.

A small number of awards for postgraduate research studentships are offered by the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) each year.

The Wisley Diploma in Practical Horticulture, a two-year course of paid work experience with academic studies, is run by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

The RHS also offers a whole range of qualifications in horticulture, from courses for beginners through to qualifications for experienced professionals. The Master of Horticulture is the RHS degree-level qualification and holders of the award may use the designation MHort (RHS) after their name.

It is important for commercial horticulturists to keep up to date with industry developments as well as with their own specialist area, through undertaking relevant training and reading the industry press, such as:

  • Horticulture Week
  • Farmers Weekly

Graduates aiming to become technical consultants or senior managers in crop production should look for employers who will provide the training necessary to obtain Basis (Registration) Ltd and Fertiliser Advisers Certification and Training Scheme (FACTS) qualifications.

Career prospects

At first you will most likely be concerned with hands-on cultivation and maintenance tasks or routine retail and commercial tasks, rather than line managing other people.

With experience, you will typically go on to supervise teams of workers in the production, marketing or retail operations of commercial horticulture. Specialisation can come later into areas such as:

  • commercial sales;
  • crop protection;
  • marketing;
  • propagation;
  • retail;
  • research;
  • stock development;
  • teaching and training.

Ultimately, graduates will be concerned with the management and business development of commercial enterprises. Promotion depends on the development of both practical and managerial skills. A portfolio containing details of successful projects is a valuable aid to progression. Geographical mobility may be necessary for promotion

Career progression in large organisations is likely to be along the following route:

  • grower;
  • team manager;
  • crop manager;
  • business manager;
  • specialisation or general management post.

There may be opportunities in consultancy work or to transfer across to the amenity sector or to commercial posts in other industries, such as retail and services and agriculture and horticulture.