June 1, 2007
Rolf Hokansson, Swansons Nursery Perennial Assistant Manager
Rolf Hokansson's horticultural career didn't blossom until later in life. After 30 years working as a social-service administrator for the state's Department of Social and Health Services, he decided he wanted to work outdoors with plants. Although he had no formal horticultural training, he landed an entry-level job at the legendary Herbfarm, back when it had a nursery. Today Hokansson celebrates his ninth year at Swansons Nursery; eight of them have been in his current position of perennial assistant manager. At the height of the spring/summer gardening season, he co-supervises 10 employees, fields dozens of customer questions and oversees thousands of plants on any given day.
Q: How did you move from social service to a career in horticulture?
A: After I retired from state government I said, "What do I really want to do?" And what I came up with was that I really loved gardening. So I decided to try a job in the world of horticulture. On a whim, I applied for a job with the Herbfarm in Fall City. My last job there was managing the small nursery. I started as a sales clerk. I was there for three years.
The Herbfarm really took a chance on me because I did not have a horticulture background other than practical experience: I was raised on a farm and had a large garden at my home. So I did a lot of self-study and took some courses in the world of horticulture.
Q: What's a typical day at Swansons like for you?
A: A typical day for me would be coming in and doing a walk through the nursery to see what plants we have available in my department. And I supervise the work team that comes in. We unload truckloads of plants, get them priced, get them out onto the floor where they're available to customers. I water plants, guide the staff, work with the management team twice a week. And I close up one night a week, which means securing the entire nursery.
"It's competitive out there now and you need to put your best foot forward. A lot of people do come here with a horticulture degree or they're in a horticulture program working on the degree at one of the local community colleges. When I made this transition, it wasn't a popular thing to do. People were sticking with their office jobs. That was 13, 14 years ago. Now the baby boomers are coming up [for retirement] and they're available for part-time and full-time jobs, so there's more competition."
Q: How much time do you spend working with the plants?
A: It's definitely hands-on management. I'm not sitting up in an ivory tower. I'm out there on the floor all the time, working with the plants, and the customers, and our team. I would say 75 percent of my time is spent with customer service-handling plant disease questions, designing containers, helping them work with plant selections, possibly from landscape plans they bring in.
Q: Is there a fair amount of physical work involved?
A: My gym membership is out here working. It's a double-edged sword because it's very hard physical work, but you don't have to go the gym. A typical thing to move is a tray that has eight gallon-sized plants on it. Those trays are about 30 pounds. So it's lots of bending and squatting and twisting and lifting.
Q: Do you work less in winter when the gardening frenzy dies down?
A: All plant departments are very slow in winter. We have 100 people working here right now [in late May], but we'll probably have about 35 people here in December, January and February. We cut back our season in mid-October and go down to minimal staff. We have a big Christmas tree operation here and then January becomes kind of a slow month.
I usually volunteer to take time off during the winter months. Even though I have seniority, I volunteer to work in another department [the holiday department] so others can stay on. Then I take off work mid-December through January. It gives me a chance to travel in the winter.
Q: What advice can you give those interested in working at a nursery?
A: My first recommendation would be that you enroll in one of the community college horticulture programs. I would start at the two-year program. That is more attractive than somebody like me that's just coming off the street who says, "I love gardening and you need to hire me because I have good communication skills."
We also pride ourselves on customer service. So we're looking for two things really: somebody that has a customer service background, and somebody with a plant background.
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