How to Become a Great Landscaper
People interested in entering the landscaping industry have many options. Your particular path depends on what you'd like to do.
A professional landscaper might work on a lawn maintenance crew, maintain gardens, build retaining walls and patios, or design outdoor spaces. They may even run their own company. If this kind of work intrigues you, there are multiple paths to becoming a pro landscaper.
What Landscaping Requires
Jeff Rossen, owner of Rossen Landscape in Great Falls, Va. near Washington D.C., says work ethic is the main thing he seeks in potential employees. “You’re looking for anybody who’s willing to work,” he says. Rossen feels he can train people on the job for most positions in his company, but landscaping is not for the lazy. It requires demanding, physical labor, and workers better be up for it.
Lawn crews spend much of the day outdoors wielding grass trimmers or riding behind stand-up mowers. Install crews dig trenches, carry and set heavy wall blocks, and lay sod and mulch. Horticulturalists and landscape designers work more in offices but need experience in the field to be successful.
Landscaping may not require a high school diploma or GED, but most employers prefer that minimum standard. Reliable transportation is a must because of changing job sites, so a driver’s license is desirable. The job also demands frequent bending and lifting. Work may be seasonal, but in northern states it often transitions to snow removal during the winter months.
Finding a Path
For aspiring landscape designers and horticulturalists, a trade school offering an associate degree provides a reliable route into the profession. Landscape companies such as Rossen’s recruit from these programs.
Whether enrolled in a degree program or not, Rossen offers internship training for promising newcomers. Interns develop basic skills while also learning the business side of the operation. From there they can develop into crew leaders, salespeople, or designers and horticulturalists.
Of course, many tradespeople start out on a crew and work their way up the ladder. Some tasks, like applying pesticides and fertilizers, require a state license. Otherwise, states usually don’t regulate general landscaping tradespeople.
Only recently, a formal apprenticeship program for landscapers has emerged to pair job seekers with employers struggling to fill crews. The program combines 2,000 hours of on-the-job training with 144 hours of classroom/online instruction, equal to about a year of continuous progress or 18 to 24 months of seasonal work experience. According to the National Association of Landscaping Professionals, apprentice wages start slightly higher than a general employee and increase as the apprentice reaches program benchmarks.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, opportunities for landscaping tradespeople are expected to grow nine percent in next few years. The department lists the median wage at $15.43/hour or $32,360/year, with top earners approaching $50,000/year. Crew leaders and foremen can make $23 to $25 per hour according to Rossen. Wages for landscapers with a specialized degree increase to recognize those skills in design or horticulture.
Rossen says he starts new employees at $12.50/hour, but after as little as a week of demonstrated effort he usually bumps it to around $14/hour. “It’s a tight labor market,” he says. “Anyone actually willing to put in an honest day’s work is making at least $14 an hour with no experience whatsoever. You don’t have to be very skilled to prove you have a strong work ethic when you’re digging a ditch for an irrigation system.”