Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Training opportunity - Passive solar greenhouse operator

M R Gardens in the Oakley community of Asheville is introducing a nursery training opportunity as part of our educational program for professional gardeners. We are offering a Greenhouse Operator track, in which we train participants in all they need to know to operate a commercial passive solar greenhouse, including marketing and basic native landscape design. Participants have the opportunity to make income depending on how much time they can devote to the operation.

We are only reviewing applicants who are certain they want to reside in the Asheville area for the long-term. Our plan is to transition at least one of the students to a contractor position in one or two years (or less depending on previous experience). They would assist in operating M R Gardens' small-scale greenhouses on a seasonal or part-time basis, and work with landscape design clients in the summer when the greenhouses need less attention.

If you are a seasoned nursery worker and question whether you need additional classes but are interested in the opportunity, please do apply. We can tailor the program to suit your needs, interests, background and skill level. Please see this post on how the position might evolve for you. M R Gardens is unique, so anyone would need to be trained regardless of experience. If it’s your dream to own your own farm, please let us know during the application process.

M R Gardens’ one-of-a-kind passive solar greenhouse requires practically no heat other than solar gain to maintain its warmth in the cool season. Manual vents keep it from over-heating on sunny days. We also have an 800 square foot unheated hoophouse to overwinter perennials. We aim to be as sustainable as possible in every aspect of the nursery operation, including using peat-free microbe rich potting mixes made primarily of byproducts from other manufacturing processes. We also offer customers an opportunity to wash and return plastic pots, which we then disinfect and reuse. We primarily propagate plants via seed, which encourages diversity in the ecosystem, and the passive solar greenhouse allows for a quick growing time similar to root cuttings.

Participants are involved with all aspects of the business, including plant propagation, sanitation, temperature control and other management duties for this unique passive solar greenhouse. They also take part in marketing and sales, which includes developing their own landscape design clients—typically small backyard gardeners. Participants should be willing to perform administrative tasks such as ordering supplies, updating plant inventory, and keeping records. Our evolving farm business has many aspects, so you might eventually work alongside other professional gardeners, students, entrepreneurs and vacationers.

Your trainer is primarily Megan Riley, owner of M R Gardens. She has grown plants for sale since 2011, as well as provided garden coaching, edible landscaping and other educational opportunities on and off-site since 2012. The nursery started out very modest—under grow lights in her basement—and is now thousands of plants in two greenhouses, which she has mostly cared for herself.

Photo of Megan by Lisa Kruss

The most important characteristics for you to have success in this program are:
--Acute attention to detail, yet you also know which details to prioritize in the aim of efficiency in the busy season;
--Excited about cleanliness, but you remain calm and productive when things get disorganized temporarily;
--Have enough familiarity with plants to know you have a green thumb, and also enough experience to recognize that you learn for a lifetime in this line of work;
--Revel in monotony and routine, yet you also appreciate getting out of your comfort zone;
--Enjoy people from all walks of life, and are comfortable in various sales scenarios, whether that be on-site sales, off-site markets, landscape design clients, online stores, and retail, which entails developing relationships with stores. (Our primary plant customers are landscape design clients, but participation in other outlets boosts all aspects of our business.);
--Excellent skills in managing your schedule and multiple clients;
--Comfortable with Microsoft Office, particularly Excel (for record keeping and making plant lists); online software such as,, Blogspot and; and Adobe products (In-Design is a plus);
--Generally self-motivated, with the understanding that we give you the tools you need to succeed;
--A good memory! Plant names become easy to remember because you write them numerous times on tags and plant lists. It's most useful to have the capacity to recall tasks to be done, the things we agreed upon, and the lessons learned each session. We encourage note-taking, tape recording and dedication to memorization;
--An interest in native plants, the bulk of our selection at this time. We also currently grow groundcovers, herbs and vegetable starts, and are open-minded about other ideas if you are drawn to any particular species.
--Eager to be a part of a sustainable business, and also appreciate that there are steps involved in achieving the ideal. Maintaining motivation is more helpful in achieving sustainability than feeling frustrated in a lack of perfection.

If you don’t fit all of these qualifications but are enthusiastic to learn, go ahead and apply—we are understanding of the time needed to grow into this position, and it’s okay if more than one person is required to fulfill the diverse duties of the greenhouse. Entrepreneurs in the field of sustainability and plant propagation benefit if they are humble, have patience and can recognize areas for professional growth before speeding ahead. 

It’s best if you have your own computer and printer, as well as access to some of the above mentioned software. 

Nodding Onion. Photo by Lisa Kruss.

Participants meet with Megan in person at the farm at least twice a month for 2.5 hour sessions (usually much more in the busy season), and she is also available via email and phone when not in session. We find a time and days that works with your schedule. It’s recommended participants also reserve approximately two additional days each week—particularly in the busy season between March and early June—to work on assignments. The more you can devote to the program, the more potential for income. We can start as soon as you are accepted, or on a date that is suitable for you.

The cost of the program is approximately $500 per month depending on your background and skill level. We can assist in running a crowd-sourcing campaign for your tuition if needed. A portion of the fee goes to advertising plant sales and your landscape design services. During your interview, we can discuss what income is possible for you in your first two years, as well as potentials for when you transition to a contractor role. Income largely depends on your experience and the amount of time you can devote to the program. Submit your resume at no charge, but if you are selected for an interview, the application fee is $50, which includes a tour of the greenhouse and farm and three initial training days.

At certain times of the year, you have a flexible schedule so that you can pursue other endeavors. If you hope to make a full-time living at this work in the long-term, it is possible — if you have adequate motivation, skill and ability to juggle tasks. It takes dedication, self-care, enthusiasm and groundedness, yet the payoffs—particularly as you are growing as a person in your interaction with plants and other people—are way beyond income. The sustainable and native plant industries are quickly expanding—you are wise to invest in your education so you can be a leader in these fields. 

During the two-year program, students and program leaders check in with each other for at least 15 minutes each month to make sure that all parties feel like their expectations are being met. While we only accept applicants who are certain they can finish the full two-year program, we also understand life is unpredictable and unexpected events happen. As long as we continually dialogue about the possibility of the participant transitioning to a contractor role, we can be certain everyone is clear on the outcome after the program is complete. No matter what happens, our goal is for you to have the tools to operate a passive solar greenhouse nursery, whether it’s at M R Gardens or elsewhere. We aim to be as ethical and fair as possible. Be ready to compassionately communicate your needs, as well as understand ours.

Please contact to apply. Voicemail (not text) is 828.333.4151. The Greenhouse Operator training is a part of Emergence, our program for professional gardens.