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In full bloom: An 'old Maine family business' gets down to its roots

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In full bloom: An 'old Maine family business' gets down to its roots

CUMBERLAND — Terry Skillin makes his way between multi-colored rows of blooming geraniums and pansies, smiling almost as brightly as the flowers around him.

Skillin is the fourth generation of gardeners to run Skillins Greenhouses, with its three locations in Falmouth, Cumberland and Brunswick, and it's clear he enjoys his job. His son, Chad, who does landscape design for the company, will be the fifth generation.

"We opened the Falmouth store in 1885. We're just another old Maine family business," Skillin said as he plucked loose leaves from a row of pale, pink geraniums recently put out for sale at the Cumberland store.

The air all around was heavy with the earthy smell of wet soil, and the tangy, sharp scent of the geraniums. Skillin's hands moved methodically, unconsciously, twisting leaves and arranging pots in the rows as he talked.

"We're owed this great weather," he said. "We haven't had a good spring since 2004."

The warm spring has people turning to greenhouses earlier this year. But they're not just coming to buy seeds.

Skillins Greenhouses began offering gardening classes to its customers in 1986 at the Falmouth and Brunswick stores, but since opening the Cumberland store in 2003, Skillin said he's really seen attendance take off.

"A small class is around 20 students, but most of them are between 35 and 40," he said.

The classes range in topic from vegetable gardening to cut floral design, and generally run on Saturday mornings and afternoons during the spring and summer. While the classes are free, Skillin said they've needed to require reservations lately because so many people are attending.

He attributed the interest to several things, including doing more online marketing. However, he said that after many years in the business, he has noticed a trend: when the economy does poorly, people want to grow their own food.

"I think we're hitting a point in time, with the economy, that it's the sort of thing people are looking for. People want to stay home. Gardening involves the whole family, it's inexpensive. People can provide for themselves. It's becoming vogue again," Skillin said.

And if gardening itself is a trend, it has sub-trends. As the organic food movement has become more mainstream, Skillin said that is translating to people seeking organic flowers, shrubs and trees.

"For me, organics make more sense than chemical solutions," he said, explaining that chemical fertilizers need to be applied multiple times, while many organic fertilizers encourage biological activities in the soil that act as renewable fertilizer sources.

In keeping with the environmental theme, Skillins Greenhouses have gone, well, green. The company has turned to a more energy-efficient style greenhouse that is popular in colder climates, particularly in Canada.

The pit greenhouses, as they're called, may look conventional from a distance, but the floors are actually about 10 feet below ground level. This way, the ground acts as natural insulation. In the evening, the top portion of the pit can be closed off to block out the cold chill of a Maine winter night. In addition, the walls are made of polycarbonate, which holds in much more heat than traditional plastic covering.

But even with all the energy efficiency, Skillin said the company still has many of its flowers and plants trucked in from warmer southern climates.

"It's far less fossil fuel per plant to truck them in than to heat the greenhouses all winter," he said.

The plants are packed tightly when they travel, and arrive at only a few inches tall. Then it's up to the greenhouse to pot, water, and turn them into marketable plants.

In addition to going organic and pushing for environmentally conscious products, Skillin said his customers seem to be growing larger ornamental gardens.

"We're seeing people have more garden space than lawn space. People are giving up lawn for bigger gardens," he said.

For Skillins Greenhouse, that means more business. Skillin said the company is doing very well and that his son, Chad, who handles most of the landscape design requests, has been busier than ever.

Skillin said for beginning gardeners, the best thing people can do is get to know their property, from the amount of light to the quality of the soil. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension program offers soil testing for $15, which will reveal what kinds of fertilizer the soil needs to create a successful garden.

"You want to match your crops to the light. If you don't have full sun at the garden, do a container of tomatoes somewhere else on the property," he said. "And get to know your local gardener. We want you to be successful."

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net