Greenhouse grower, engineer and industry innovator Hugh Stevenson, whose expertise in protected cropping, together with collaborations with key growers, resulted in highly successful businesses in the very different sectors of pot plants and tomatoes, died in April. He was 90.
After studying at Swanley horticultural college in Kent, Hugh joined the family nursery his grandfather Joe had established growing sweet peas in New Milton, Hampshire. Once his father Hector decided to sell the nursery Hugh and his wife Sylvia started their own business, Hugh Stevenson Nurseries, on a 16-acre site close by.
Hugh built his first wooden glasshouse with a well-designed 30ft truss, which became the standard width, and produced one of the first 100 plus tons/acre crop of tomatoes, a record for the time. In 1962 he designed and erected the first 60ft widespan greenhouse with friend and structural engineer Phil Bulson.
The high light levels of the widespan greenhouse began to attract interest from other growers and soon he started to take orders. He subsequently formed Hugh Stevenson Engineering and built a factory to manufacture greenhouses and other structures.
He moved into AYR chrysanthemums in the early 1960s when the crop began to take off and became closely involved with cuttings production in Malta by Mediterranean Flower Products, which UK chrysanthemum growers had set up. He inspired the construction, at that time unique in Europe, of a sewage treatment plant coupled to a reverse osmosis system to overcome the shortage of water the Malta nursery faced, and designed the 6ha of plastic greenhouses built on the site.
In 1967 Hugh met Helmut Gimmler and together they started Double H Nurseries at New Milton. The company went from strength to strength, investing and innovating, and today grows orchids, pot mums and pot roses with a 200-strong team now led by Hugh’s eldest grandson Andrew Burton.
By the late 1970s Hugh could see the profitability of growing cut chrysanthemums in the UK was becoming increasingly squeezed especially in the winter. He set about getting ahead of the competition once more by forming a joint venture in southern Spain to grow crops under polythene structures and import them to the UK. “The venture was ahead of its time but proved to be one of the forerunners for much of modern-day cut-flower growing,” said Hugh’s son, and Double H chairman, Neil.
With Eric Wall, a former director of the Guernsey Horticultural Advisory Service, he established the tomato-growing business Eric Wall Ltd at Pollards Nursery, Barnham, West Sussex in 1979. When the Wall family decided to withdraw from the business in 2019, the Stevenson family took 100% ownership and it has since expanded to include the operation of the state-of-the-art nurseries at Ely and Norwich, part of The Green House Growers company.
“Hugh had immense drive as a serial entrepreneur of his time,” said Neil Stevenson. “He was determined, sometimes bloody minded but he commanded huge respect from all around him.
“He would never expect more than he was prepared to give himself, and led by example and from the front.”