The horticulture industry needs to market itself better, improve the promotion of job opportunities and do more outreach work with secondary schools, delegates at an RHS careers conference in London were told last week.
In addition, the conference heard that with the industry facing a "looming skills crisis" the sector needs to lobby MPs more aggressively about making horticulture a core subject in schools.
An RHS survey published last week revealed that 70 per cent of all adults had not had the horticulture industry "highlighted as an opportunity" by teachers or careers advisers.
RHS director-general Sue Biggs said this partly explained why the industry is facing a skills crisis and highlighted sector skills council Lantra statistics that show the industry will need 11,000 new entrants over the next eight years.
"There is a lack of knowledge about how skilled the profession is," Biggs said. But she acknowledged that the sector must share some of the blame for such ignorance. "We have not communicated that the sector is skilled as well as we could have done."
Speaking to Horticulture Week, television presenter Alan Titchmarsh, who opened last week's conference, said it was important for the sector to get involved in outreach work.
"Individuals need to go into schools, colleges and garden centres to let the public know about the industry," he stressed.
However, he conceded that the sector did have an image problem. Titchmarsh argued that there were roles for young people of all academic levels in horticulture, highlighting the "intellectually and practically challenging" student courses at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
But he also lamented what he saw as an obsession to encourage all young people to go to university regardless of whether they are academically suited to it and the associated underappreciation of "manually-dextrous men and women".
Hillier Nurseries managing director Andy McIndoe said the industry needed to offer more work placements and cited the example of a horticultural degree course at Bath that closed due to a lack of support from the industry in filling placements.
He added that Hillier offers work experience to school pupils, but acknowledged that it is difficult to attract heavily-indebted graduates into the industry because, with a "lot of people in horticulture working for £14,000 per year", the financial rewards are small.
Jekka's Herb Farm founder Jekka McVicar agreed that it is difficult to live on £14,000 a year but said she was unable to pay high salaries because supermarkets drive down the price they pay suppliers, including nurseries.
In response, Sainsbury's product technologist Theresa Huxley argued that the supermarket chain's teaching orchard at Pershore College in Worcestershire was "helping growers to improve their techniques, which can help reduce their costs and improve yields".
Garden centres are at the front end of the horticulture industry and are therefore in a good position to promote it, according to Hillview Garden Centres chief executive Boyd Douglas-Davies. One of his suggestions was to put up careers boards so the public can find out about working in horticulture.
He also pointed out that not all jobs in horticulture are poorly paid. "Multimillion-pound garden centres are paying respectable wages. We have to, otherwise we lose staff to other retailers."
Highgrove head gardener Debs Goodenough said one reason the industry struggled to attract new entrants was that young people were unsure about where to hunt for jobs, particularly work in private gardens.
Biggs said the RHS would be engaging with head teachers, particularly in secondary schools, by producing "downloadable content", including a presentation, promoting the sector.
She added that the society would also be setting aside part of its marketing budget to target the Government, communities and careers advisers as part of a push to get horticulture included in the school curriculum.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Horticulture is pursuing chartered status for horticulture with the Privy Council to create a class of chartered horticulturist to promote as a qualification of choice with raised status.
Biggs warned that the consequences of inaction could be dire. "Horticulture could die out in decades to come if we don't encourage more young people to make it their career," she said.
The number of new entrants to the horticulture industry needed over the next eight years, according to Lantra statistics - 11,000 industry entrants
Schools strategy - Case argued for a core subject
Capel Manor College principal Steve Dowbiggin proposed that the Government should require every school to employ a professional horticulturist.
The failure to promote horticultural education and training was tantamount to "failing in something as important as literacy and numeracy because people don't know how to grow their own food", he added.
"We need a GCSE in horticulture and schools should be forced to employ a professional horticulturist as a condition of their grant funding because horticulture should be part of teaching art and science."
Dowbiggin also said he believed that it was vitally important to educate the general public about the range of economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits of horticulture.
"We have to be aggressive with the Government," he added. "Horticulture should be seen as a core subject - we need a focused strategy to ensure that everyone is exposed to it."
For horticultural careers information see www.growcareers.info