ONE of Huntingdonshire s best-kept business secrets has set its sights on ambitious growth after blooming during the recession. Westland Horticulture, based in Alconbury Hill, Alconbury, supplies seeds and gardening products across the UK and Ireland, and

INNOVATION LAB: Seed quality analyst Caroline Fabian in Westland Horticulture's new product laboratory. Picture: HELEN DRAKE 4366HD0410.

ONE of Huntingdonshire's best-kept business secrets has set its sights on ambitious growth after blooming during the recession.

Westland Horticulture, based in Alconbury Hill, Alconbury, supplies seeds and gardening products across the UK and Ireland, and has trebled its workforce in three years, and its turnover in five.

The company, which owns the Unwins seeds brand, has grown from 50 staff members to 150 at its seasonal peak, and now aims to take advantage of the number of people returning to their gardens.

Jarlath Quinn, Westland's group finance director, said that far from being a negative force, the recession had in fact benefited the company.

"Our business has been growing dramatically at a time when many others are cutting back," he said.

"The recession has actually been a good thing for the business in many ways - people aren't going to the South of France anymore, and they are looking after their homes instead of going away. Gardening is coming back as a popular way for people to spend time together.

"We're hoping to use the recession as an opportunity - we've had rapid growth in the past few years, but we believe it can continue. When we moved in we wondered how we would fill the warehouse, and now we're looking for more space."

The premises in Alconbury include offices, development and seed testing laboratories, the mail-order arm of the business and packing and distribution facilities. Seeds and plants arrive from as far away as New Zealand and the USA to be packed and distributed around the UK.

Keith Nicholson, Westland's head of marketing, said the company had invested heavily in developing new products, with the aim of bringing to domestic customers the products that are already available in commercial circles.

"New products are essential for a business such as ours - they are central to our momentum and future growth. We like to think that we approach the marketplace in a different way," he said.

"For example, at the moment we are working on a lawncare product that is often used in sports turfs: the grass grows to a certain height and greenness, then stops growing upwards and starts to grow sideways. It means you get thick and durable grass without having to cut it all the time."

The company is also focused on reaching new customers with its new products, having already picked up awards for its marketing, and a national television campaign due to launch this month.

Innovation is not restricted to generating new products but supplying - and helping to create - emerging markets. After identifying the potential in the grow-your-own market three years ago, Westland invested over £1m in machinery to increase their home produce offering, and has seen a fivefold growth in their sales.

Mr Quinn said that Westland had received guidance from Business Link in the East of England to assist them in their expansion plans.

He added: "We have already seen huge recent growth, but we have done it the hard way, without grants or assistance. We're now looking at how we can make use of these facilities to move to the next stage, and that could be very good news for the region.