Honestly, those who earn good income from the retail nursery industry are those who own nurseries. To make matters less appealing, few nurseries actually make good money for the owners. This is a very risky industry, with way too much competition from big box store garden centers selling cheap plant material of inferior quality. With few exceptions, those who take horticulture seriously and want to market the best quality material appeal to the smallest market. Modern society really wants what is cheapest. Ah well. No one ever said you were going to hit pay dirt while rooting through soil all day.
“Hosers,” those quiet high school kids who keep everything watered through the heat of summer, start out at not much more than minimum wage. They can earn a bit better if they come back for a second summer or stay after graduation, but really not enough for a decent lifestyle. This is why Canada isn’t a wealthier nation. Nearly everyone up there is a hoser. (Their words, not ours.)
After several years of the unglamorous work of dragging hoses, loading cars, raking leaves - there is plenty of unglamorous work around a nursery - hosers get to drop their unflattering title and are qualified for work that is not quite as unglamorous. They still drag hoses, load cars, and rake leaves - so maybe it’s not much better - but they can get paid well enough to actually want to stay on. They might earn $25,000 to $30,000 annually for a few more years.
Raises are necessary to keep good employees, but do not often amount to much. Career retail nurserymen can easily max out at $40,000 annually. Some of the most educated horticulturists actually max out at about $50,000 annually! (In case you’re unsure, that ain’t much in this day and age.) Those who engage in horticultural consultation or rudimentary landscape design might earn a bit more. But few of these will own second homes in Antigua.
Sadly, those who own nurseries very often earn less than their employees! Only the fortunate ones who really know how to manage their businesses earn more than $50,000 a year; and yes, some make more than double that. The biggest retail nurseries can actually be quite lucrative, but they are rare. Like a Gibraltar Campion. Won’t find one of those babies in your backyard.
The really interesting specialty nurseries are unfortunately those that are typically the least lucrative. The big box garden centers that market “factory grown” plant material of inferior quality can be dreadfully boring to work at, but have the best rates of pay and benefits for their employees. They can do this because the many other departments in their big box stores are, ironically, the ones raking it in. Really, the garden centers of big box stores generate less revenue (relatively) than other departments, but are there to draw customers who reliably spend money in the other departments. A shame that the garden department has to be like that free sample of frozen yogurt you get before plunking down cash for a pint, but that’s the way it is.
Most people who work in retail nurseries or other horticultural industries do so because they enjoy the work. Many agree that it is more of a lifestyle than a career. But hey, if you spend most of your time doing it, it should be enjoyable. Nurserymen may not make much money at work, but probably save considerable money by not paying for therapy because they work at an abusive job that they hate. They generally cannot afford fancy vacations, but really do not need to get away from a job they can't stand. To many, it is a fair trade off. To those who aren’t willing to make that concession, then enjoy your week in Puerto Vallarta. We’ll leave all 300 of your messages on your desk for when you get back.
Horticulture is so under-appreciated and under-respected that the retail nurseries that market plant material are not likely to become any more lucrative in the near future. Besides, to most gardening is a luxury activity that can easily be done without when there is not enough money to go around. The retail nursery therefore takes a serious hit along with the rest of the economy.