So You Want to Be a Professional Gardener - Ten Things to Consider

Many of us have had that dream that you're outside under this big blue sky and all the sudden you realize if you flap your arms really really hard - that your feet start lifting up off the ground...and if you keep flapping, yes, CAN fly! Of course you wake up the next morning and realize it was just a dream, but still it seemed so real...maybe, just maybe it could really happen?
Dreams like that are great and for the lucky people in the world, dreams keep on coming their whole like. Some fulfilled, some not, but always making life exciting. Many people have career dreams that they fulfill. Some become wealthy executives, entrepreneurs, health professionals, teachers or professional athletes. But some of us have these secret little dreams, that we don't necessarily pursue or expect to happen, but just quietly pass through our mind every now and then like...."wouldn't it be cool to have a job working outside, under the blue sky, hearing the birds sing and butterflies flutter by as you work?" This was one of my now-and-then fantasies since the time I was a child. Didn't think it would ever come true, especially after I got into corporate America, had a great paying job, insurance and security. Or maybe not so much security. In 2005, three months after my little brother and dear friend passed away unexpectedly, I got "the call". Everyone in my department was being downsized. So much for security. The good news was that the downsizing came with a small severance package....just perhaps enough to get me through a couple semesters of that Horticulture program at the local community college I had daydreamed about for so many years.
The rest is history. With the angel on my shoulder telling me "Life is short, follow your dream" I signed up the very next day and started classes two months later and two years later had an Associate degree in Horticulture and a part time job at a beautiful 6-acre estate in one of the nicest parts of the metropolitan area. Has it been like my dream with the blue skies, birds and butterflies? Well, yes absolutely....but a WHOLE LOT MORE!!!! Here are some insights from a "New Pro Gardener" about what the profession is really like in Midwest America...
1. Weather extremes - heat and cold
I have never been a summer person, always hated to sweat. Office life was great - having to keep a sweater in my drawer even in the summer because the AC kept it so cool! Say goodbye to that when you work outside for a living. Putting up with extreme heat is part of the job. In some cases, managers will find jobs for you to do in the shade when it gets over 95 degrees but don't count on it. Surprisingly though, it is not as bad as I thought. When you are doing something you love, in a beautiful environment, you get used to the conditions.
Cold is not as much of a factor because of the fact that many gardening jobs are seasonal and so you are not working during the coldest months (which is an issue in itself) but there are many days in the working season when it is in the 20's and 30's so you must still be prepared! If you are dressed in layers and are moving around it is amazing how your body heat builds up and keeps you warm!
2. Weather pleasantries - spring and fall
When snow and ice melts and green shoots start poking up out of the ground, fresh scents start filling the air, it is an awesome time to be working outside! I have felt like one of the luckiest people alive on this earth when I have actually been earning a salary, working outside in the springtime. Same goes for fall. Days get shorter, brown tones with the autumn sunlight glistening, geese flying overhead - rich earthly smells. It makes the hardships of the previous summer heat all worth the toil!
3. Wind, weather fronts
When you are outside from 8am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon, day after day, week after week, you notice a lot of things about the world we live in than you would otherwise never be aware of. It may sound obvious but there is nothing like feeling an oh-so-subtle touch of a breeze on your cheek that within an hour turns into a significant breeze, then into a constant wind that is blowing from gray clouds and dropping moisture onto your horizon. It sounds corny but this experience truly brings you in touch with the earth. This is one of the things I love so much about working outside!
When you are leaned over, looking down while you are gardening, planting, dividing, pruning or whatever it may be, concentrating on what you are doing, you become very aware of light intensity changes. It is a joy to sense such a light change while you are focused on a plant, then look up to see that since the last time you looked up, maybe an hour ago, the entire sky has changed. And the day has changed and in a way you have changed by this whole experience. It is great! This is one of the joys of being a professional gardener!
4. Joints & muscles - moving soil, rocks, mulch and more
There are a variety of settings where professional gardeners find employment. There are public places like zoos, parks, golf courses and botanical gardens. Then there are private estates. There are large landscape companies, small garden maintenance businesses or you can start your own sole proprietorship. But wherever you work, there will most likely be big and/or heavy things that need to be moved like mulch, soil (in) and clay (out), mulch, rock and gravel! Moving, digging and throwing these heavy things require strength and strong joints.
If you are lucky, you have lots of muscle and can handle the lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying. If you are VERY lucky you have one of the rare jobs where someone else does the heavy work and you either supervise or are privileged to just be able to specialize in pruning, trimming and tweaking. Let me repeat, these jobs are rare and even then, some people are prone to issues from repetitive motions of the wrist and arm.
These issues are mentioned not mentioned to discourage but for awareness. They can be overcome by building up strength slowly, taking breaks and utilizing good stretching and relaxation techniques.
5. Fresh air, sunshine, mental and physical health
Since I've been a professional gardener, I'm the healthiest and in the best shape I've ever been. I burn off lots of calories every day so can eat as much as I want without gaining weight, get lots of sunshine (vitamin D!) and breathe lots of fresh air! My muscles are very tone and I am the strongest I've ever been. Becoming comfortable with power tools and machinery has given me a confidence and empowerment in a way I never thought I would achieve back in the days when I used to cry from frustration every time I had to try to start something with a pull-string.
6. Being dirty, errands after work
I don't mind getting dirty and being dirty at work all day. But one thing that is frustrating is that when you do get very dirty at work, you don't really want to do things other people do on the way home from work like get your hair cut or go to the dentist. Those things need to be done on a day off or first thing in the morning (probably making you late for work). I don't especially like to stop at the grocery store when I've got dirt all over my clothes although sometimes if I bring a clean pair of shoes so I don't track mud, mulch or "whatever" into a store, it is not too bad. But get ready for people to look "down" at you and not treat you with as much respect as when you are dressed in "office wear". Not that it matters.... just an observation.
7. Working alone, working with people - pros & cons
There are lots of interesting people in this business. Just as in every walk of life, most of the people are grateful, pleasant, supportive and "nice" to other people. But then there are the few people that are bitter, rude, sarcastic and not so nice to other people. And there is everything in between.
Working in the professional gardening business lends itself to a variety of levels of co-worker interaction. If you choose working with others, you will most likely end up working with other women or men that love being outdoors like you do, and appreciate all the same aspects of nature that you do, that are pleasant to talk to and enjoying occasional chatting while you work. As in any business environment, becoming good "work friends" is a great way to enrich your work experience.
On the other hand, you may find yourself with a completely different situation, working closely with a boss that is irritable, doesn't like you, wants to be left alone and resents you being there even though he needs the help. Someone like this can make the life difficult for you, but if you love what you are doing you can ignore it, enjoy the work and use it as an opportunity to develop character.
If you prefer working alone it is very feasible to create our own little business doing landscape maintenance. There are not that many startup tools required but getting into that will be another article. Anyone seeking employment in this profession should consider all the options and try different situations to find one that best suits their personality.
8. Not just nipping rosebud - weeds, ditches, mulch, dirt
Many professional gardener jobs are coupled with property management. You may find that while working in an estate situation you do spend a good time planting, fertilizing, pruning, dividing and transplanting roses, shrubs, perennials, annuals and trees just like you thought you would. But along with those obvious tasks often come other responsibilities. You may also be power-washing, blowing driveways, moving snow, cleaning up branches and fallen trees after summer rain and ice storms, mowing, trimming and even digging drainage ditches. You may feed the birds and care for water lilies and goldfish. You may also be creating lovely garden paths - sound funs but sometimes requires moving large heavy fallen trees to edge them or hauling wheelbarrows full of extremely heavy gravel and/or stepping stones to line them with.
Last but not least, along with flowers, butterflies, birds and pretty leaves come thorns, poison ivy and bee stings. All can be dealt with but just remember - they are out there!! When you interview for a gardening position look around and ask a lot of questions!
9. Storm damage, water runoff damage, water main breaks
One day an expected summer storm because quite active around 3 in the afternoon. We came to a stopping place in our work and started to head to our cars to go home. This storm developed quickly and became very aggressive! Within minutes winds were howling, rain was in torrents and I could not see out the windshield of my car. Adding to my tension was the fact that there were lots of huge old oaks on this property, and they were all along the driveway that led off the property. In other words I was not sure if I should stay where I was (under a large, old oak) or try to leave (and drive along the path of other large old oaks) or move a few hundred feet in front of the house garage doors which was "somewhat" shielded from trees. The latter is the option I took. I sat there by myself feeling, hearing and seeing the force and power of nature around me. After about 20 minutes it began to let up and I felt brave enough to venture out of my car to check driveway conditions.
Good thing I had not tried to leave! There were several large branches down across the driveway but that was nothing. The worst damage was an entire tree had fallen directly across the entrance to the property, blocking anyone or anything from getting in or out! Needless to say I was not going to get home early that night! Luckily the property manager was still sitting in his truck down by our work garage. I called him to report what I was seeing and within minutes we were sawing and hauling tree parts. Two hours later we had cleared the path.
This was one of the most dramatic on-the-job weather events I've experienced. There have been others evolving around ice storms, storm water runoff, water main breaks and several wild animal and bird romps. What an adventure these unexpected events are when you're making a living as an outdoor gardener!
10. Cycles of life
If you are a true plant and nature lover, one of the coolest advantages of making your living taking care of outdoor plants is that you get to see plants cycle through all the seasons. From the first fresh green buds breaking through melting snow in spring to the last brown seedpods against the low afternoon autumn sun to the bright red holly berries of winter, you see it all. In the spring different plants come out of dormancy in different ways. Unfolding fern fronds are one of the most glorious signs of life, while witchhazel dancing, crocus popping, yellow fragrant sumac daintily peeping are close seconds. Spring turns to summer with flowers blooming in every color of the rainbow. Grasses plume and leaves dazzle us in the fall and in the winter still-green hellebores hide their balloon-like buds till the earliest signs of spring when they ease open and life starts all over again.
Being one with these cycles of life is a beautiful experience. Being close to the earth everyday is awesome. It makes all the hard times and sore muscles worth it. As the earth is reborn so are you as you walk the earth, close to the earth, as a professional gardener!
Sharon Ward, Owner, Hearts Garden Services, specializing in garden maintenance in St. Louis, Jefferson County and St. Francis County Missouri.

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