Horticulture is the second largest income-producing agricultural industry in the state of Maryland and the third in the nation. There’s way more to this field than digging holes or filling pots. Horticulture is an evolving science. The efficient production of fruits and vegetables, 60 percent of our daily diet, requires a thorough knowledge of plant and soil sciences as well as tons of experience.
Growers of greenhouse and nursery crops must understand many species of plants and their soil and climate needs. They must also keep up with ever-changing technology for growing plants as well as the steady introduction of new cultivars and varieties.
Horticulture also includes harvesting, shipping and storing fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and plants. Fruit and vegetables shipped from Chile, California and Mexico require special handling procedures referred to as post-harvest physiology. Techniques may include vacuum cooling, controlled atmospheric storage or the use of certain grades of plastic films to accumulate carbon dioxide to reduce respiration. You can eat fresh, plump strawberries year-round due to improved growing, harvesting and shipping methods developed by horticulturists.
Bananas are a good example. Bananas are harvested green. Three days before being delivered to market, they are exposed to natural-ripening ethylene in controlled chambers. Within 24 hours after being removed from the chambers and delivered to markets, they ripen, turning yellow and delicious. It would otherwise be next to impossible to ship ripe bananas from the tropics to Maryland without them rotting.
Horticulturists also supply the ornamentals that adorn our landscapes and the flowers for our homes. Floriculture requires extensive knowledge of methods of propagation, cultural practices, environmental requirements, habits of growth and soil requirements.
Some horticultural knowledge can be learned through on-the-job training. However, the science and advancing technology take some classroom learning. Some of this training can be earned in non-degree, two-year applied agricultural institutions. A four-year-degree program provides a better understanding of how plants grow and environmental conditions needed to make plants grow at their maximum potential, such as soil, water, nutrients, light quality and intensity.
I started my formal training by attending the two-year Thompson School of Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire. There I became so interested in learning more about plant science that I transferred into the four-year program. My desire to do research required that I obtain a Master of Science degree and a Ph.D. It has been a very rewarding career.
During my tenure at the University of Maryland, many cultural advances occurred, and for some of them I am responsible. When I arrived in 1962, 90 percent of nursery plants were grown in the ground and harvested balled and burlaped or bare-rooted. All greenhouse-potted plants were grown in porous clay pots. Today 85 percent of nursery-grown plants and all greenhouse-potted plants are grown in plastic pots. These technological changes required the development of specialized potting media, slow-release fertilizers and overwintering systems to assure the survival of plants with tender roots. Container culture of plants also created a market for compost made from organic waste.
Opportunities in horticulture are many. The demand for trained horticulturists in areas of crop production, management, teaching and research far exceeds the supply. Growers, produce shippers, landscape contractors and educational institutions offer premium salaries to capable horticulturists.