Professional Credentials and Gardening Expertise

This is the first post in a series in which we will explore the world of professional credentials and designations, highlight disciplines related to gardening with certification or licensing programs, and outline potential services professionals from each of those disciplines can provide to gardeners.

Professional designations are designed to help clients identify experts within specific disciplines. In upcoming posts I will highlight professional designations relevant to various aspects of gardening. Professional certifications, licensures, and credentials related to gardening include:

  • Board Certified Entomologist (BSE)
  • ISA Certified Arborist
  • Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg)
  • Certified Horticulturalist (CH)
  • Certified Professional Forester (CPF)
  • Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS)
  • Professional Landscape Architect (PLA)
  • Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA)

Before I highlight each of those professions and credentials in future posts, I want to first provide context and explain the purpose of professional certification and licensing.

A registered nurse checks a newborn’s reflexes. Photo by Jacob Sippel courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Most of us encounter professional designations on a daily basis without noticing. For example, you’re likely familiar with credentials such as Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Registered Nurse (RN), or Doctor of Medicine (MD). Such credentials are often identified with postnominal letters in the form of an acronym listed after someone’s name in print. In some cases these postnominal letters indicate both an academic degree and a professional certification or licensure, such is the case with medical doctors (MD). In some disciplines the degree and designation can be separate. I’ll use myself as an example (not as a humble brag, but as a convenient example). My business card says “Colby Moorberg, PhD, CPSS”. The PhD refers to the highest academic degree earned (Doctor of Philosophy, PhD), while the CPSS refers to the Certified Professional Soil Scientist professional certification. There are countless professional designations in current use, each of which comes with postnominal acronyms. That alphabet soup can become confusing. Yet to further complicate the matter, details vary greatly from one professional designation to the next. Such differences include the type of professional designation, education requirements, qualifying exams, codes of ethics, continuing education requirements, professional experience, and designating bodies.

Types of Professional Designations

Professional designations can take the form of professional licenses or certifications. According to Knapp and Knapp (2002), licenses are granted by government agencies and are required for people to practice or engage in their profession. The process ensures that licensed individuals have met the minimum education and experience required to be competent in their field without risk to themselves or the public. For example, engineers and physicians are required by law to have a license issued by a state licensing board before they can practice in their respective profession. Such professional licenses are somewhat analogous to the requirement that people operating a motor vehicle have a driver’s license – it’s illegal to drive without one.

An arborist tends to trees at the US Capital. Photo courtesy of the Architect of the Capital.

Knapp and Knapp go on to contrast professional certifications from licensing by stating that certification is a voluntary process administered by an organization (not a government agency) to recognize individuals that have met predetermined qualifications or standards. Such certifications help establish the credibility of a professional within a specific discipline when a license is not required. Consider a certified public accountant (CPA). Many people might think twice about trusting an accountant with their finances or tax preparation if that accountant was not certified, even though a license is not required for someone acting as an accountant. Professional certifications are typically administered by professional societies, and are usually used in professions where the immediate health and safety of the general public is not impacted by a professional in the respective discipline.

Education Requirements

Education requirements are put in place in most certification or licensing programs to ensure that the professional has the knowledge base necessary to be successful in their field. Certification and licensing programs often require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a related major, but not always. For example, a Certified Professional Forester is required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in forestry or a related major (Society of American Foresters, 2019), while a ISA Certified Arborist could become certified without a college degree if such an individual meets additional professional experience requirements (International Society of Aboriculture, 2019). Licensing boards or certifying bodies typically have panels of professionals within a discipline that review college transcripts of those applying to become licensed or certified in order to ensure each person with a credential meet the program’s minimum education requirement.

Qualifying Exams

All licensing boards and most certification programs have an exam that someone must pass in order to become licensed or certified. Similar to degree requirements, such exams help ensure the professional has the minimum level or expertise necessary to be proficient in their field. In some cases, professionals must pass two exams, one when they start their professional career fresh out of college, and a second after they’ve worked professionally for 3-5 years.

A multiple choice answer card. Photo by Alberto G.

Code of Ethics

Many licensing and certification programs require licensees or certificants to abide by a professional code of ethics. This is a useful feature for clients (gardeners wishing to hire a professional) because it provides a mechanism to report a professional if they are acting unprofessional or unethically. Such codes of ethics are also useful to licensed or certified professionals because it gives them an “out”, should they be asked to do something unethical by a client or an employer.

Continuing Education

Most licensing and certification programs require a minimum number of documented hours (continuing education units, or CEUs) dedicated to staying up-to-date. These hours are documented and must be met within a 1-, 2-, or 3-year cycle. Such continuing education requirements benefit gardeners hoping to hire a professional, because it ensures that professional is staying current in their field and is learning the newest technologies and techniques. Programs that require professionals to abide by codes of ethics often require professional ethics training for each cycle as well.

Books. Photo by Abhi Sharma.

Professional Experience

Certification and licensing programs often have a minimum number or years of professional experience required in order to become certified or licensed. Usually during the period in which someone is gaining experience, they are working under the wing of someone fully licensed or certified. Such requirements help ensure that fully certified or licensed professionals have documented professional experience, and have had the opportunity to apply academic knowledge to real-world applications.

Soil scientists inspect soils in a Christmas tree farm in North Carolina. Photo by David Lindbo via SoilScience.info.

Designating Bodies

Professional certificates or licenses often vary by the group, organization, or licensing board that bestows the professional credential on an individual. In some cases there are competing organizations that offer competing certificates.

Summary

The primary way in which gardeners benefit from hiring certified or licensed experts in their fields is that professional credentials ensure a minimum knowledge and competency by the professional. In addition, these professionals are often bound by their respective professional codes of ethics. As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. In the case of certified or licensed professionals, this often means it will cost you more for the services of a certified professional. As we explore the different professions and professional credential programs relevant to gardening in future posts, I will discuss gardening-related services that can be provided by each type of certified or licensed professional, and scenarios where spending the additional money to hire a certified professional might be worth the added cost. I hope this information enlightened you to professional designations, certifications, and licensing. Hopefully it will help start a conversation between you and gardening experts to determine how they might be of service to you.

Have you encountered certified or licensed professionals in the gardening world? Discuss your experience in the comments, or suggest certification or licensing programs I may have missed in my list above.

Disclosure: I am a Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS), and I am a member of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) Soils Certifying Board which oversees the CPSS program.

References

Knapp, L., and J. Knapp. 2002. The Business of Certification: Creating and Sustaining a Successful Program. 2nd Revised edition edition. Association Management Press,U.S., Washington, D.C.
International Society of Arboriculture. 2019. Types of Credentials. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Which-Credential-is-Right-for-You (accessed 29 July 2019).
Society of American Foresters. 2019. Requirements. Society of American Foresters. https://www.eforester.org/Main/Certification_Education/Certified_Forester/Requirements/Main/Certification/Requirements.aspx?hkey=7eae8378-e92b-438e-aba9-93e713cb38cc (accessed 29 July 2019).

Published by

Colby Moorberg

Colby is an assistant professor of soil science in the Kansas State University Department of Agronomy, and is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS). A major focus of his research is root ecology - studying how soil properties influence root development, and how the presence of roots impacts soil properties. He grew up on a small farm in Iowa, and has since researched soils in Iowa, North Carolina, Alaska, and Kansas in both agricultural and natural ecosystems. Colby and his family spend their free time gardening some plots at a community garden in Manhattan, Kansas. Colby also enjoys growing hops and other herbs for ingredients for homebrewed beer.

2 thoughts on “Professional Credentials and Gardening Expertise”

  1. I have great respect for the knowledge and professionalism of those who spend the time and money to gain accreditation in any of the disciplines listed. It must be frustrating that more people do not avail themselves of such services but, where I live, most people have small gardens and cannot afford to hire specialists – who may not even be in business locally.

  2. Thank you for this article. It is challenging to educate the public and be heard when discussing soil science, plant science, current studies etc.

    There are many gardening articles, big box stores, nurseries, neighbors, etc. that are misleading and perpetuate inadvisable methods. I believe for the most part it is due to a lack of education. This leaves the public vulnerable to taking advice from the first hit they get on a web search.

    Its disturbing that most people have no idea how to nurture a garden or grow edibles. And more disturbing that they don’t see the danger inherent in this. There is an unhealthy disconnect and ignorance of Nature.

    I would love to see horticulture/agriculture integrated into school curriculum from preschool through 12th grade. We need an army of people who value the earth. Most schools where I live have ample neglected areas of planting beds that could become outdoor classrooms. An elementary school two blocks from my home has created a very successful outdoor classroom garden program that the kids love.

    In eight years of practice as a landscape designer I have perhaps been asked about my qualifications by a potential client perhaps twice. Despite that it is important to me personally that I do have them, and my education, experience and ongoing learning instill confidence that I am providing the best value that I can to my clients. I always have their best interests at the heart of my work, despite their occasional efforts to thwart them!

    I happen to be a professional member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) which was not included in your article. apld.org

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