A commercial horticulturist is involved in the growing, distribution 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. Their clients include plant and tree nurseries, supermarkets and DIY stores.

The role is complex, involving the management of horticultural enterprises and requiring business and IT competence, alongside scientific understanding and the traditional skills of cultivation. Other job titles include crop manager, production manager, horticultural manager, grower manager.

Responsibilities

As a commercial horticulturist, you'll need to:

  • undertake all aspects of husbandry and production including preparation, growing and harvesting
  • manage pest, disease and weed control programmes, commensurate with hygiene and health standards
  • market and sell produce, depending on crop, season and market demand
  • plan and run transplanting lines in glass houses as products change throughout the year
  • take responsibility for the 'carrier area' that sets stock down and also picks it up ready to be dispatched
  • analyse yields, operational costs and financial returns of horticultural operations
  • identify technical and business problems, investigate the causes and formulate solutions
  • plan and organise trials to assess their effectiveness
  • prepare new or modified operational and business plans
  • develop new products and markets and negotiate with suppliers and buyers
  • manage produce-supply-chain systems and the supporting infrastructure for processing, storage and transport of produce
  • organise presentations, technical visits and demonstrations
  • ensure that UK, European Community and international quality, hygiene, health and safety and employment standards and regulations are met
  • communicate effectively with customers, working colleagues and professional groups, both orally and in writing, through briefings, reports and presentations
  • train, instruct and supervise others - depending on your role
  • perform essential administrative tasks, including record keeping, budgets and accounts
  • keep up to date in your specialist area and in developments in the whole horticultural sector
  • meet agreed deadlines and work within budgets - if you reach management level
  • assist in the recruitment and management of staff - if you work at senior level.

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. You may be able to specialise in a particular area 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.

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 and 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 are a range of non-degree level qualifications available, including certificates and diplomas.

The subjects you can study also include:

  • horticulture
  • horticultural sciences
  • landscape and garden design
  • nursery horticulture
  • propagation
  • 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
  • ability to work in a team and use 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
  • physical fitness and the ability to work in physically-demanding environments
  • a full driving licence (usually required).

Work experience

You will need to gain practical experience to enter 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.

Employers

Typical employers include companies growing and supplying fresh produce and plants and those that process, package and distribute fruit and vegetables. These vary in size from businesses employing just one person to large nurseries and farms and include pick-your-own enterprises and organic farms and gardens.

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

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies advertise vacancies, for example:

Professional development

Training varies from minimal on-the-job training to well-structured schemes and in-house programmes and may include management qualifications, health and safety training and training in the use of chemicals and pesticides.

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. The Horticultural Development Company (HDC) offers a small number of awards for postgraduate research studentships each year.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) offers a whole range of qualifications in horticulture, from courses for beginners through to qualifications for experienced professionals. Including the two-year RHS Level 4 Diploma in Horticultural Practice and the Master of Horticulture, which is the RHS degree-level qualification and holders of the award may use the designation MHort (RHS) after their name.

It's important to keep up to date with industry developments, as well as with your own specialist area. Undertaking training and reading the industry press, such as Horticulture Week and Farmers Weekly, is helpful. If you wish to become a technical consultant or senior manager in crop production, look for an employer 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.