Tips and Tricks for the Best Horticultural Internship

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By Holly Scoggins, Director of Educational Programming, AmericanHort

A good portion of my academic career has been spent advising horticulture undergraduates in both coursework and internship/career options. At Virginia Tech, literally hundreds of internship opportunities come through the “hortmajors” email listserv each semester – public horticulture, landscape design/build, greenhouse and nursery growers, garden retailers, interiorscapers, vegetable or fruit farms, turf management, cooperative extension, non-profits, and more recently – hemp and cannabis.  

With far more internship opportunities than students to fill them, competition among businesses and institutions can be fierce.  The top internships sell themselves – and receive more applicants than they can accept.  Without fail, these experiences are well-organized, rewarding, creatively advertised, and easy-to-apply for – congratulations!  However, if you are new to creating an internship program, struggling to find sufficient applicants, or dissatisfied with the internship experience, read on for some tips. 

The best and brightest students plan ahead.  Decisions regarding the following summer are being made in the fall. Internships advertised over final exams, the winter holidays, or spring will receive fewer quality applicants.  Students in two-year programs usually take one “middle summer.” Motivated four-year (often five-year) students will take advantage of multiple internships.

Beyond the three-month option. Obviously for grower and retail positions, the heat of the battle is in Spring.  Unfortunately, most students aren’t available until May and then only for 12 weeks (unless graduating). However, if an amazing opportunity presents itself, the student may be willing to forego one semester in addition to summer.  Or perhaps a student is graduating in December but prefers an internship experience to a job commitment.  Be sure the benefits of the longer-term internship outweigh the financial burdens of an additional year of college expenses incurred – a student may have to attend for an additional year to snag offered-only-in-spring courses. 

Seek out academic advisors and office administrators in horticulture and related departments to help distribute the announcement on student listservs and/or websites. In addition to the usual listserv, most colleges and universities have career centers that maintain job and internship banks, host career fairs or other events, and are happy to help you. Consider reaching out to the student horticulture, agronomy, or turf club and offer to speak at or sponsor a meeting.  For the price of a few pizzas, you can share your internship message with a highly motivated group.

Does your internship description speak to Gen Z?  Emphasize experiential learning and that they will have the opportunity to make a difference.  Help the internship stand out by highlighting sustainable practices, collaborative company culture, investment in technology, etc.   

Keep the announcement focused and upbeat. Describe in a few bullet points what the student will learn, experience, gain, etc. Do not deploy a laundry list of skills required or tasks to be performed.  Those kinds of details can be conveyed in a follow-up message or conversation when things get serious. Know that email is not the favored means of communication for this current crop of students. Minimize the steps needed to get your message across.  I’ve seen plenty of internship announcements distributed to the listserv that are PDFs or Word docs attached to an email, subject line ”internship,” with no indication of who/where/what in the body of the email.  That…is not going to get opened.

Provide a diverse but well-organized program.  If at all possible, allow the student to work with as many facets of your organization as reasonable.  Rotating through the organization with Spending a week or two in propagation, growing, sales, design build, whatever you’ve got. Students are comfortable with a syllabus format – outline specific start and end dates for each segment, describe topics and experiences, along with the point person for that facet. Some schools require a sort of “contract” with the previous information-both parties sign at the beginning, then review/debrief at the end.  This is a wonderful extra effort that really formalizes the process and helps hold both the intern and the employer accountable. 

The search for housing can be intimidating.  Many students default to hometown internships (which can be few and far between in some parts of the county) and miss out on life-changing opportunities simply because of fear of the unknown.  It’s also an additional expense – standard college-town apartment leases can be 12 month – so the student may be already paying rent for an unused apartment.  Offering a housing option – whether a sublet, Air B&B, or other – could really widen your pool of applicants.

Offer a professional development/ learning opportunity beyond the day-to-day responsibilities. This can be as simple as a field trip to a business in another part of the supply chain. For example, if the internship is with a finishing grower, visit cultivar trials, a young plant grower, or a fantastic retailer.  Public garden visits are a popular option as well.  Next level: paid travel to and registration for a local or regional symposium or conference.  

Good things can indeed come to an end. Though internships can certainly serve as a pipeline for future employees, there does not have to be an open position waiting at the end of it all. Be upfront about the situation, and it won’t be an issue. Finally, just as important as that light-bulb moment of “THIS is what I want to do!”, an internship is just as valuable (and a lower-impact situation than a job) for the student to discover what they DON’T want to do.

For a list of internships/fodder for ideas, check out Seed Your Future for links to internship announcements for every conceivable facet of the green industry and public horticulture – sorted by category. Once your announcement is prepared, they’ll post it there as well! 

This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paul Thomas (University of Georgia), whose boundless enthusiasm for quality internships and experiential learning impacted countless students over his career.

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