UNITY, Maine — Inside Richard Farrar’s greenhouse, the rich, humid air and the vibrant colors of the flowers make this crowded, lush space on the Waning Road feel a little like a tropical jungle.
For Farrar, 83, the greenhouse is his happy place. Even though he’s well over retirement age, he loves what he does and doesn’t want to give it up.
Beginning in the middle of February, when the growing season begins, he spends a lot of time there. He’s busy cultivating the flower and vegetable seedlings and colorful hanging baskets he sells at his Green Thumb stand at Clifford Common in downtown Unity, across from the Bangor Savings Bank.
“There’s a lot pushed into this little house,” he said.
That’s no exaggeration. There are flats and baskets of petunias, marigolds, zinnias, alyssum, pansies, geraniums and much more everywhere you look. Farrar, an affable gardener who keeps chairs around the greenhouse in case he needs to sit down and rest, said that it all began for him and his wife of 62 years, Edna, when they survived a catastrophic house fire.
The fire started on Christmas night in 1980. It might have been the Christmas tree, or the woodstove, Farrar said. No matter the reason, it quickly got out of control. He suffered terrible burns helping his family escape the house, which was reduced to ashes, and spent a month in the hospital in Portland.
When he got out of the hospital, Farrar, who had previously worked as a junkman, a lobsterman and a logger, decided he wanted to do something different. He was also busy building their new house, which was not without its hardships. After he began to frame it out, some people snuck by and knocked the frame apart to steal the lumber. The thieves were never caught, he said.
But things were going better in his new line of work: figuring out how to be a nurseryman.
From left (clockwise): Richard Farrar still runs his business, Green Thumb, growing and selling hanging baskets and other flowers; Flowers sit in the back of Richard Farrar’s truck to transport to his Green Thumb flower stand in downtown Unity; Richard Farrar picks out which flowers he will take from his greenhouse to sell at his Green Thumb flower stand at Clifford Common in downtown Unity. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
He’d always been interested in trying his hand at growing plants, so he built a makeshift greenhouse on the end of a rental trailer that was located where their house used to be. Then he and his wife went to a discount store to buy cheap seeds — 10 packs for a dollar. And they got to work.
“We didn’t know a thing,” Edna Farrar, 80, said. “I didn’t know a marigold from a petunia. I didn’t know anything.”
But they learned. Richard Farrar made potting soil by scraping sand out of gravel pits and mixing it with manure he sterilized on top of the woodstove. The couple kept their seedlings from freezing in the winter by moving them every night from the greenhouse to their trailer. In the spring and summer that first year, he sold plants door to door.
“Every time I saw someone working in their yard, I’d pull over,” he said.
Over time, they built the business to the point that their plants filled 11 greenhouses on their property. Richard Farrar cracked the wholesale market in Massachusetts, and drove down there twice a week with a truck filled with seedlings and hanging baskets. They sold flower baskets at Christmastime, too.
They’ve scaled back since then. Now, they grow in just one greenhouse, and sell only locally. They don’t have an online presence, although their customers know how to find them — the plant stand opens this week.
From left (clockwise): Richard Farrar and his wife, Edna, walk to the workshop area of his greenhouse; Hanging baskets of petunias; Richard Farrar has a collection of vintage plant markers in a work area of his greenhouse. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
Still, it’s a lot, especially for an 83-year-old. Richard Farrar said he thinks he grew 400 hanging baskets this year and plenty of flowers and vegetable seedlings, too.
“I’m exhausted,” he said, with a smile on his face.
Edna Farrar, who likes to garden around the house, said the greenhouse is her husband’s domain.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “I don’t know how he does it.”
He doesn’t want to retire completely. Not just yet.
“It gives me play money,” he said. “I like dealing with people. I hate to disappoint them.”
But the work can be difficult, especially all the hours he spends manning the plant stand.
“It’s very hot and tiresome and buggy,” he said, adding that otherwise, he loves his work. “I would do it forever.”