Pike Bartlett sits in one of the greenhouses he designed for his company, Maine Garden Products, based in Howland. Credit: Photo courtesy of Maine Garden Products

Pike Bartlett has always been an inventor. The founder and owner of three small businesses based in Howland, he daily puts his talent to work, “tinkering with and improving” products — and the tools and machinery used to construct those products.

“There’s a saying that a man’s business is his playground, and that fits me pretty good,” said the 68-year-old entrepreneur on a recent morning while sitting in his office.

On the desk in front of him, electrical components were scattered across paperwork, and on a whiteboard overhead, he’d sketched a wiring diagram for a part in his new sawmill. His most recent venture, Fair Trade Cedar, officially opened less than a year ago, and he’s still making alterations to boost the operation’s efficiency.

The sawmill, he explained, supplies materials to his other two businesses: Bartlett Bench & Wire and Maine Garden Products.

“Our biggest product right now is greenhouses,” he said. “In the past few years, that’s been the big focus.”

Under the banner of Maine Garden Supply, Pike Bartlett designed a solar-powered, fully-automated backyard greenhouse just over a decade ago, and he’s been expanding the product line ever since. With a cedar frame and walls of three-layered polycarbonate, the innovative design has been well received by gardeners throughout New England.

“I knew that there was no greenhouse out there that could do the things that I would want it to do, and that would be to only have to spend a few minutes on Saturday morning in the greenhouse, and the rest of the week, it takes care of itself,” he said.

A history of innovation

It runs in Pike Bartlett’s family, this drive to design. Greenhouses run in the family, too.

His father, John Bartlett, designed and patented the nation’s first commercially produced hoop house, which is a type of greenhouse made of large rigid hoops (of metal, plastic or wood) covered with heavy plastic that can be penetrated by sunlight.

“I was 5 or 6, and I can just barely remember him building in our backyard a hoop type of greenhouse,” Pike Bartlett recalled. “He’d inherited from his father some old wood-framed glass greenhouses that he was growing cut flowers in after World War II, but he didn’t like replacing broken glass every time there was a hail storm or something.”

John Bartlett’s three brothers were also inventors, each in different fields, from designing jet engines to developing ways to liquefy gases.

Raised in Sudbury, Mass., Pike Bartlett grew up playing and working at his family’s business, J.P. Bartlett Co., a wholesale greenhouse that specializes in annual flowers. At the time, it was the largest greenhouse in New England, covering 5 ½ acres. Today, the business is run by his sister, Laura Abrams, and the greenhouses cover about 10 acres.

Having spent time at his family’s summer house in Cushing, Maine, Pike Bartlett chose to attend the University of Maine in Orono and graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering in 1973. He then returned to his family’s greenhouse business for a couple years before striking out on his own.

“A friend of mine up here in Maine was a lobsterman with wooden traps, and he suggested I look at the wire lobster trap business,” he said.

In 1976, he founded Friendship Trap Company, where he designed and crafted lobster traps made of wire mesh coated with PVC of various colors.

“I was the guy that first started doing the coated wire traps in the state,” he said. “[The material] is very similar to the racks in your dishwasher.”

From ocean to garden

Over the years, the lobster trap company grew. Starting with one shop in the coastal town of Friendship, Pike Bartlett opened a second location farther east, in Columbia Falls, then a third location to the north, in Howland.

Working with Maine lobstermen to supply them with long-lasting and often custom traps, he continued to tweak his designs and create new ones. Along the way, he ventured back into the world of gardening.

In 1988, Pike Bartlett established Bartlett Bench & Wire, for which he designed (and continues to design) gardening tables or “benches” made out of the same wire mesh that he was using to construct lobster traps. And in 2002, he established Maine Garden Products with his first product: Pike’s Original Maine Garden Hod, once again forging a small link between the worlds of coastal fishing and backyard gardening.

The word “hod” has been used to describe a variety of tools over the years, including a device to carry loads such as bricks or coal. But in Maine, when you hear the word “hod,” it’s usually referring to a ½ bushel basket that clam diggers use to carry clams and hold them while rinsing the shellfish with water.

To create his garden hod, Pike Bartlett copied the shape of Maine’s traditional clam hod — a shallow, rectangular basket with a curved bottom and a long, curved handle spanning lengthwise. He then crafted the basket out of wood and coated wire mesh, and he marketed it to gardeners for carrying and rinsing vegetables.

“So just took the dimension and made it into a nicer, fancier basket for gardeners,” he explained.

This simple product quickly took off. To date, Maine Garden Products has customized these hods for about 100 companies, and currently sells between 10,000 to 15,000 garden hods a year.

Back to greenhouses

Having grown up in a greenhouse, it’s no surprise that Pike Bartlett, eventually, had to try his hand at making one. After all, building things is what he does best. But it couldn’t be just any greenhouse. He wanted to make one that could regulate its temperature and water the plants.

“Everybody’s so busy,” he said. “Back when I was a kid, there was always somebody home. Always. You know, a grandparent or a parent. Somebody was home to take care of the garden, take care of the plants, the greenhouse, whatever. But now we’ve just gotten so busy that everybody is gone. Houses are empty 12 hours a day all the time. Even retired people are on the go all the time. So my concept was to build a greenhouse for today’s family.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Maine Garden Products

He added that he wanted the greenhouse to be automated, so it would not need to use electricity or plumbing.

“That was a real challenge,” he said. “We worked concepts and designs for about a year and a half before we went to market with it.”

The resulting line of greenhouses are built of eastern white cedar and polycarbonate, which is a clear, textured, hard plastic that traps in heat and insulates by being built in layers with air pockets. The greenhouses have vents that are automated with thermomechanical openers, which open when it reaches a certain temperature. In addition, more advanced models of the greenhouse have solar-charged irrigation systems and rain gutters that funnel rain into a collection barrel, which can then be pumped into the greenhouse to water plants through a drip tube system.

“It’s self contained and self tending,” he said. “You don’t need electricity [from the grid]. You don’t need plumbing. And you don’t need to be there. You can literally spend five minutes a week in one and still grow vegetables.”

The cost of these greenhouses range from about $3,000 for a standard, 8-by-8-foot greenhouse (that does not feature an irrigation system) to more than $20,000 for much larger, fancier models.

With his focus shifting to greenhouses, Pike Bartlett sold his lobster trap company about seven years ago. Nowadays, he spends much of his time delivering and setting up his greenhouses throughout New England. At 68 years old, he thinks this will be his last big business venture, but he’s not quite ready for retirement.

“Problem is, I don’t hunt. I don’t fish. I don’t golf,” he said with a smile. “I like to work. I enjoy the challenge of making things.”

Some day, he’ll likely sell his businesses, he said. But he hopes his designs will live on for years to come.

“I didn’t invent the lobster trap, and I didn’t invent the backyard greenhouse,” he said, “but I’d like to think I made them better.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...