Being a professional horticulturist is fun. I can say that from experience, having held quite a number of different plant related jobs over the years. Visiting a new garden or new habitat, stumbling upon a rare and unexpected bloom, or the satisfaction that comes with vibrant flush of new growth on a plant that you are caring for: these things really can’t be summed up into words, but they were a big part of what drew me to a career in horticulture.
I’d also argue that professional horticulturists are important. Plants give us life and are the main backdrop of our lives. They create the environments that we live in, feed us (and many other organisms), produce the air we breathe and so much more. Plants deserve plenty of human attention and professional expertise. In decades to come we will live through unprecedented environmental change, and with that the need for largescale human interventions to prevent the worst outcomes of the climate and extinction crises. During that time, the importance of plant knowledge and technical skill will only grow.
I could go on and on about the joy and importance of the horticulture industry, but that is not what this blog post is about. Instead, I want to take a moment to examine a topic that is often overlooked. For all the importance of plants to our society, those who choose to spend their careers working with and caring for plants are often severely undervalued.
A great horticulturist holds a combination of so many skills and qualities. Openness, awareness, knowledge, attention to detail, memory of the past and comfort with a changing future are just a few of the attributes. They have the knowledge to build and maintain things that will stand the test of time while dealing with an ever changing present. It is a true skill. But so often we overlook, underappreciate and undervalue that skill.
Our colleagues at Terremoto Landscape recently published a fantastic call to action for the landscape architecture and design community to reconsider how labor is valued and acknowledged. We applaud their leadership and efforts in this regard. We hope that programs such as our California Native Plant Landscaper Training will help catalyze greater respect and valuation for the deep knowledge and skill of the horticulture industry. With all of that, comes a basic question: How much are workers in this industry paid?
To start a conversation on compensation, I can share some numbers from my own professional start in the field. My first job with plants paid $240 per week (with housing), the second paid $9 per hour (housing not included). Granted this was over a decade ago, but even with inflation, those rates come to $7.50 and $11 respectively in 2021 dollars. I was fortunate to be able to work for these low wages and survive, but I suspect that many eager candidates could not without considerable hardship.
Entry level pay rates fit within a larger issue. Devaluation of workers throughout the entire landscape industry is rampant, particularly to those hands on workers who care for and grow plants for a living. Various employment companies list national averages for the profession of ‘landscaper,’ and though these vary considerably, most hover at or below $15. This labor, often performed by immigrant communities, is very often deemed to be ‘unskilled.’ This could not be further from the truth. A seasoned landscaper brings a lifetime of skill to their craft. Plant knowledge, technical knowledge, physical knowledge and so much more. Those skills are required of everyone who works with plants. And for botanical gardens and nonprofits, even the ‘entry level’ staff often have years of experience.
All of these things play into a recent change at Theodore Payne Foundation. In our 2022 budget, we will raise our base pay to $18 per hour, a 20% increase from our previous base pay. We know this is an intermediate step, with $18 per hour still falling below an LA county living wage. It is, however, a step in the right direction. We ask a lot of all of our employees, and even the most ‘entry level’ positions require high levels of knowledge and skill. That expertise is priceless, and this increase is a small step towards equity in the industry.
This change would not have been possible without the incredible support of our community throughout the pandemic. Theodore Payne is a nonprofit organization, operating year after year without a large endowment or perennial state funding. Every donor, member, customer, follower or friend that makes the choice to connect with Theodore Payne Foundation supports everything that we do. I am especially thankful for that connection in your support and investment in our team. I hope that this step for TPF will foreshadow a broader shift in the landscape industry, a shift that values the importance of the people who keep our plants and landscapes alive and thriving.
It is a lucky thing to spend your life working with plants but it’s also an important skill that will guide us through an environmentally uncertain future. Now is the time to invest in a future where humans thrive in a diverse biosphere. That means that it’s the time for us to invest in the people, knowledge and skills that will make this possible. I am proud that TPF can take its own small step in this direction. I encourage you to contact me directly if you’d like to support this effort together.