Pinetops Nurseries is 50 years old this month. The supplier of lilies, poinsettias and hellebores began life on greenfield land in Lymington, Hampshire, in 1959 when Derf Paton and his wife Jean chose what he calls a "classic site".
Now the business is coming full circle. In 1956 Derf Paton helped build the Horticulture Research Institute (HRI) in Efford, Plymouth, and Pinetops is set to move there next year.
Derf Paton says: "We have bought a big chunk of Efford. We're going to plant 21,000 trees and shrubs as part of a green plan along the roadway.
"We're taking advantage of the recession because the prices of glasshouses and equipment were on a high last year but the recession means the price of steel and aluminium has dropped 50 per cent, so we think in this area there are green shoots of recovery showing up. By the time we're ready to go, we could save significantly."
Pinetops bought Efford from the Government in 2005 after a campaign from Derf Paton, Robert Hillier and others to keep the site open.
The £1.25m-turnover nursery has permission for 4.5ha of glasshouses - it currently has 1.3ha at Lymington and the Patons plan to phase the build. The levelling of the site is about to start, although suppliers of glasshouses and equipment are yet to be decided on.
"There are some very impressive companies out there," says Derf Paton, who explains he would be happy to move. "I'm looking forward to going to the new site. Most of the planning has been agreed, other than for building houses. We're still some time away there."
The plan to build 80 houses on the site relies on gaining permission from New Forest District Council, which may not go through until May 2010.
Derf Paton's sons Rory, Ian and Stuart have followed their father into the business. Rory Paton directs logistics, his parents are directors and Ian and Stuart Paton are production managers.
Five people work in the office, with five in the glasshouse and up to 10 students in the season.
"We split the work between us," says Rory Paton. "We're lucky because Ian and Stuart are brilliant growers. My passion is more for logistics and numbers. We balance each other out. Staff stay here a long time. Their knowledge and skill is important to the business."
As well as their more run-of-the mill duties, Ian and Stuart Paton are also working on growing record-weight vegetables and appeared on BBC1's The One Show last year with a 680kg pumpkin.
Like his father, Rory Paton is keen to move: "We're surrounded by housing on three sides. The village has encompassed the nursery," he says. "That's one nice thing about moving to a purpose-built glasshouse - decent access for lorries to load efficiently."
He adds: "Moving would totally change the whole business. The glasshouse at the moment is already ahead of its time because it's a galvanised aluminium structure and at the new place it will also be automated.
"Plants will come to us in the new glasshouse. In the old one, we have to go to the plants. It's a long walk to the benching. This will be a much nicer and more efficient environment to work in."
He estimates that this will cut 30 per cent of labour, as well as helping to cut overtime and staffing and spreading the skills base more evenly, resulting in double the ouput.
He says: "We'll have the ability to expand and increase production numbers. We have to plan sales to meet demand. Demand for our product is still strong but competition is fierce, both in the UK and overseas."
He adds: "At the moment, people are not going abroad because the euro is so strong. They will spend more time in the UK this summer and gardens will be more important to them."
Pinetops grows 100,000 poinsettias planted in June/July and marketed in November/December; 20,000 hellebores planted in May and marketed from December to February; and 600,000 lilies in pots with three stems, planted in December and sold from Mother's Day to September.
The nursery stopped growing Chrysanthemum in 1994 because of "ferocious competition from Kenya, Holland and Israel". Heating costs made the plants uneconomical to grow.
So Pinetops developed lilies, with Stuart Paton working on a breeding programme. He looks for compact habit, smaller than the cut flower to give better balance in the pot. Bud count is important, as is developing new bicolours. Shiny foliage, gained through using pumped water, counts as flowers are sold in bud. The nursery now sells short, fat, chunky Oriental and Asiatic lilies to a major multiple.
Derf Paton says supplying supermarkets has helped Pinetops: "The disciplines that have been put in have been good for the business."
Pinetops runs its own variety trials on poinsettia. High light levels close to the Hampshire coast help flowering and give 30 per cent more light than in southern Holland, Derf Paton claims.
He adds that people are tired of low price, low-quality loss-leader poinsettias. Rory Paton says: "People don't feel good about that. They'd rather spend £5 on a plant as a present.
"The important thing is a plant that will last and has impact. The public are better at reading plants than you think. There are some very good Dutch growers out there, don't get me wrong, but the product is being pushed too hard to get the prices down. You have to provide value. People want something they can be proud of. The public will pay more for a decent-quality plant.
"A lot of the competition supply for a date and only get one chance a year but for us, we supply over six or seven weeks, so we need to be able to supply consistently. That's why we're different from the Dutch who supply one crop in one hit."
Hellebores come from a German supplier and are a "newish" crop for Pinetops. Rory Paton says: "There are cheaper crops on the market but we concentrate on the high-quality end.
"People look for clean flowers and lots of flowers face up. Clear white has a price premium. Retailers are under massive pressure to sell cheaper but that is not the answer. We wouldn't be around if we didn't have such good-quality plants. The most important part of our business is the service level. If you're going to deliver on a certain date, you deliver it."
Derf Paton says changing water supply from mains to drilled water has helped the plants because it adds a little carbonate to help leaf shine and has less calcium than mains water. Pinetops is also looking for an alternative to peat. It uses a 75 per cent peat/25 per cent coir mix.
Rory Paton says: "If trials are successful we'll bring it down. But we need something that is not going to damage the environment more than peat. We're doing 50 per cent trials and more - but we don't want a solution that makes the situation worse."
Derf Paton studied horticulture in Somerset from 1951-53 on a scholarship and became the first student to gain honorary life membership at Writtle College, Essex, where he studied from 1953-55. Then the Government picked 12 of the best students to build experimental research stations around the country.
He says: "At Rosewarne, I got involved in mobile glasshouses and realised the potential. We're here because of the microclimate near the Isle of Wight. When I left college, I came down to build Efford. There was nothing here at all. I got married 50 years ago and had no money. I was going to have a career in banking but got the sack after one week because I was incompatible with customers."
He says the site was ideal because it slopes slightly to the south, is near a railway station to go to Covent Garden, near a small town for labour and near enough to the sea to avoid frost but far enough away to dodge salt spray.
"I started by growing 4,500 Chrysanthemum with 100 sheets of glass. Whatever else I am, I am a plantsman."
Derf Paton also had a hand in starting New Forest Growers by sharing cardboard-box buying with a neighbour, and now buys all sundries and energy from the "successful and honest" company.
Derf Paton has had numerous roles in local and national associations, and has been a long-time NFU campaigner. Rory Paton admits: "Dad loves stirring."
Derf Paton says: "Defra has worked very hard but could do with some more funding." He also praises HDC research and believes there should be a British marque on flowers, but is sceptical about the use of the Red Tractor logo.
He has instigated campaigning ideas such as "Flowers Say ... I Love You". He is also a keen campaigner on supply-chain issues, pricing and pests and diseases, particularly aphids.
His newest idea - to use a "Good Neighbours' Day" to push plants - failed to find favour with the UK Government and so is now on US president Barack Obama's desk.
Derf Paton says: "Mankind has a serious need for a worldwide day to promote goodwill between neighbours, not just domestic neighbours but national neighbours, to provide an opportunity to say 'sorry' or 'thank you'."
His suggestion is a good neighbours award run by the local council. He has designed a logo with two houses, with a leylandii hedge between them. A hand depicts a thumbs up and there is a gift of flowers included.
This sums up the caring, industry approach that Derf Paton and Pinetops have always taken. He concludes: "I have the site and my wife and family to thank for my success."