Interested in greenery and looking to get in on the ground floor? Good – you should have plenty of company. Those nurseries that grow groundcover or “color,” which includes blooming annuals and perennials, do not grow many plants that are taller than a foot. There is therefore a whole lot of work that is not very high above ground level. Good news if you happen to be vertically challenged.
Other wholesale nurseries work with good sized trees for landscapers. These trees are too big for retail nurseries to stock, so they stay in the wholesale nurseries until the landscapers buy them and have them delivered to their job sites. Good news if you happen to be a giant.
The main difference between wholesale nurseries and retail nurseries is that the wholesale nurseries do not need to bother with retail marketing. (Which is why you don’t see the word “retail” in the name.) They lack the fancy boutiques that sell aromatherapy candles made from recycled plastic grocery bags, greeting cards made from recycled tires, and books about achieving sexual liberation via spiritual affirmation. They also lack the happy and pretty sales staff needed to sell plant material for somewhat inflated prices. Facilities are basic but functional. Plant material is most often lined out in production fields instead of on display. A wholesale nursery is like someone who is 100% natural, while a retail nursery has had a little cosmetic work done.
Some wholesale nurseries are happy to bring in plant material that was grown somewhere else to make it available to landscapers and perhaps a few small retail nurseries. These nurseries are mostly in or near suburban areas where land is too expensive for those who need many acres to grow plant material, but the plant material is needed by so many landscapers who work in the surrounding urban areas. Although they might be in town, they are not much to look at from outside, since they do not need or want to attract a retail crowd. For all most passersby know, it could be a new Super Target that’s under construction.
These nurseries often grow at least a bit of the plant material they market. They like to get good deals on overgrown or cheap surplus plants from their suppliers and can transplant them into larger sizes to sell later. Landscapers can call in their orders, and often visit wholesale nurseries to select certain items. They should know what they want when they get there because the limited sales staff is only there to give them directions to find what they are looking for... not to help them with selection of plants or to design a garden. They are like the Soup Nazis of the nursery world – all business, and if you don’t like it, you can keep on moving. Orders can be picked up or delivered. You might want to have them delivered.
Larger wholesale nurseries with plenty of space do less stocking of plants grown elsewhere and more growing. Most grow all the plants that they sell. Really, who wants to sell someone else's goodies? Some specialize in crops that have similar cultural requirements, such as citrus and citrus and more citrus, or rhododendrons and rhododendrons and some azaleas (which are really just small rhododendrons). Others grow all sorts of plants that are in demand by retail nurseries and landscapers.
“Factory” growers are the biggest types of wholesale nursery. They typically grow cheap and sometimes inferior landscape material for the cheap garden centers in big box stores. These plants have faster turnover than the specialty crops like citrus and rhododendrons, so are the most profitable. Jobs here pay slightly more and include better benefits. However, factory work is not nearly as much fun as growing better quality plants or the specialty crops that factory growers do not bother with. So take your pick – fun or money. It is just as it sounds... “factory.” You might as well be assembling Fords on an assembly line. At least new Fords are pretty.
Money, power, fame and glory are uncommon in wholesale nurseries. Those who take on this sort of unglamorous and demanding and degrading and dirty and... well, you get the point. The bottom line is that they do this work because they love it. It really does have certain advantages that are not obvious to outsiders. One of the main advantages is that stress is about as uncommon as money, power, fame and glory. The work can be stressful upon occasion, but most of the time does not cause too much anxiety. Yeah, there are extremes of weather, like frost, heat, wind (a problem for those who grow boxed trees), the potential for the Dust Bowl and the rare appearance of a crop circle. Yet, in the big picture, it is not as bad as what people in other types of work have to worry about. Many people who work desk jobs have a fake or transplanted fern in the corner of their office. You’ve got the real thing, baby.
Like those who work in retail nurseries, you really need to have a love of plant life. Take a look at your hands. If you don't have two green thumbs, move along. You won't be dealing as much with people as you would at many other jobs, so those trees and bushes are your real friends. If you're going to tire of them or start picking fights (which isn't really fair, since it's tough for a hedge to properly defend itself), then don't get into this business. Your leafy companions are going to need some TLC, and if you can only provide the "C" part, none of you are going to last very long.