If you've got as far as reading this, you probably already have some idea of what horticulture has to offer, and may already see yourself working in it in some way. But do you know just how diverse it is?
Plants serve a huge number of roles in everyday life, from the fruit and vegetables we eat, to the trees that make our parks and streets more agreeable, to the turf we play sport on or just lounge about on, through to flowers that brighten up our gardens and homes.
This opens a huge range of potentially rewarding career paths - you might even say there's a place in it for every interest and aptitude. The case studies opposite give just a flavour of what you could achieve in a relatively short time.
So why aren't people queuing up to start horticultural careers? Well, part of the reason is that, as an industry, horticulture has a bit of an image problem. Many people who now have successful careers in horticulture will tell you that at school it was presented as an option only for the less able, offering low wages and few prospects.
Change of image
Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, director of finance and resources at Kent's Hadlow College, says: "The issues the planet is facing in relation to climate change, water shortages, pressures on land usage and vastly increasing population will result in a shift in focus and I believe that horticulture will become recognised as one of the most important industries of all."
Earlier this year, in fact, a poll of 70 heads of international scientific bodies placed climate change and food security as the most pressing issues facing the world in the years ahead.
However, there are also few role models with a high public profile in horticulture. Celebrity chefs and restaurateurs make that line of work seem glamorous and exciting, but there are few celebrity commercial growers or arboriculturists. And, while top architects enjoy household name status, how many landscape architects can you name?
It's true that not many people have made a fortune out of horticulture, but by providing products and services for which there will always be demand, it is a arguably a better long-term bet than many other careers. Certainly the current economic downturn has affected horticulture remarkably little, with some areas, such as garden retail (see p13), actually putting on healthy growth last year, led by the booming public interest in grow-your-own fruit and vegetables.
Away from the glare of publicity, other areas of the plant world have also been slowly growing in significance. The care of trees in towns and cities (p17) is increasingly recognised as crucial not only to their attractiveness but also to the wellbeing of people who live in them.
Innovative thinking is leading to other ways of making our neighbourhoods more pleasant and sustainable. Living walls and roofs are increasingly providing an attractive, wildlife-friendly and even productive way of cladding building surfaces. Sustainable drainage systems deal with our increasingly variable rainfall locally and in a natural way, which also helps wildlife while reducing the risk of flooding.
All very worthy, but horticulturists needn't be shy of simply providing beauty in our public and private spaces either. Even during the recession, garden designers continue to be commissioned to improve the properties of the cash-rich but time-poor - work which can also be a shrewd investment, given the boost to house values from an attractive garden.
In public spaces, high-profile sites provide opportunities both for bold new landscape designs and for sensitive reinterpretations of existing spaces.
Even what were once thought of as more routine jobs such as maintaining sports pitches have become high-tech (p15). With growing pressure for lower chemical use, groundskeepers are turning to sophisticated weather monitoring and prediction systems to anticipate problems before they arise. Better understanding of the soil beneath the turf is bringing with it a new range of grounds care products and control regimes that work with nature rather than against it.
In the pages that follow, we give a flavour of what's available in six different areas of horticulture, but we can't cover them all here. There are all kinds of specialist roles whose existence is not widely known, from medicinal herb grower to plant illustrator.
But then, part of the beauty of horticulture as a career option is that it lets you carve out a niche that meets your own talents and aspirations, whatever they are.
- There is a wide range of career paths available in horticulture. Here, six people explain what led them to theirs
David Mills, groundsman, John Lyon School, Middlesex
David Mills got into groundscare later in life, but is now making up for lost time.
He explains: "I worked for six years as an operations manager, but after travelling for a year I was looking for something new.
"I wanted to work in sport - I still play football for a county side, and coach cricket at the school - so I like to see a well-prepped pitch."
Mills has combined on-the-job learning with training on specific topics such as turf management and spraying at Oaklands College in St Albans. "My boss has been in the game for 24 years though, so I learned a lot from him," he adds. "You get a great sense of freedom doing this, especially in summer. I couldn't think of anything worse than going back to office work."
Paddy Faircloth, Faircloth Forestry
Paddy Faircloth has combined a love of outdoor work with an entrepreneurial flair to create a tailor-made career for himself in tree surgery and woodland management.
Having gained a National Certificate in Arboriculture while working as an apprentice, he trained as a practical instructor at Bicton College in Devon, setting up his own company in 2005.
"I took a different route from most of my friends, but unlike them I have no student loans," he says.
"I keep training as I don't want to stop learning. I am now doing a Degree in Forestry through distance learning, as well as training in tree consultancy at Westonbirt Arboretum. My plan is to work as a woodland consultant, with a team to do the tree work for me."
Isobel Blackwell, retail manager, Birmingham Botanic Garden
Isobel Blackwell worked for a department store for 16 years then for a charity for three years. When she was made redundant, she applied to work at the garden centre adjoining Birmingham Botanic Gardens last year.
"I do all the buying, which means going to trade shows like Glee, Spring and Autumn Fair and Harrogate for Christmas stock," she says. "But I also unload and display stock, and serve customers. I like meeting people, and it is a nice environment here."
She has already started to bring her vision to the garden centre. She explains: "We'd like to supply plants that are peculiar to Birmingham Botanic Gardens, along with gifts for the day tripper and, because we're an educational charity, educational toys."
Nick Lightfoot, head gardener, The Vyne, Hampshire
Not everyone enters horticulture straight from school or college. Nick Lightfoot was an archaeologist before joining the National Trust. He has since become manager of the Trust's garden at The Vyne historic estate near Basingstoke.
"I was working on short jobs such as new supermarkets, moving around a lot, between periods on the dole," he says. "But I'd always been interested in gardening. My grandfather was a professional gardener and my father a keen amateur. I started volunteering at Thornton Manor (a historic estate in Cheshire) and took it from there.
"What I love about the job is the variety. Not only is the work in the garden very varied, but there are lots of other jobs that form part of engaging with people, from preparing leaflet guides to organising Easter egg trails. You have to be a Jack-of-all-trades, but that makes it all the more fun."
Jemma Bryant, director, Bryants Nurseries, Hertfordshire
Jemma Bryant was recently made a director of her family's firm. But she admits that following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather wasn't always her intention.
"I actually studied travel and tourism at college, and only got interested in horticulture afterwards," she says. "It grows on you, especially once you have your own garden.
"At first I worked in HR and payroll at the nursery, and that evolved into sales, and scheduling the growing. Orders for young vegetable plants have tripled in the past year, and we can turn those around in three weeks.
"I also love going to the flower trials in different parts of Britain and Holland, where new varieties are launched. This season I will be working with our new sales manager to look at the mix of bedding plants we grow. There's a lot more to it than just sticking a plant in a pot."
Steven Hunter, garden design student, Edinburgh
After completing a National Certificate in Horticulture at Elmwood College in Fife, Steven Hunter then enrolled on a Higher National Certificate, followed by a Higher National Diploma in garden design at the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh.
"I've done various jobs, and always liked working with my hands," Hunter says. "But I want to do high-end, high-quality projects, so I extended my course from one to three years. I'm studying full time, and working in a pizza restaurant as my student loan isn't quite enough."
Before graduating, he will have worked as construction manager for a garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show - it's the first time that a team from a Scottish college has entered the prestigious event. "When we're finished, we'd like to set up in business together, offering a garden design-and-build service," Hunter adds.