WHEN Darby Borough cops found what they said were more than 200 marijuana plants inside Daniel Thomas' rowhouse Tuesday morning, he told them that he was an out-of-work horticulturalist.

Technically, that's accurate, police say — if by "out of work" Thomas meant that his massive pot-growing operation featured an automated lighting and irrigation system that could function without his daily participation.

"This guy is a major-league grower of marijuana," said Police Chief Bob Smythe, strolling in borough hall through a knee-high forest of pungent cannabis plants, which police had transported, using a rented Budget truck, from Thomas' house on Glen Avon Road.

Smythe said that Thomas had equipped two bedrooms and his basement with ceiling tracks so that grow lights could move slowly over the plants to ensure proper lighting. He also allegedly used humidifiers, soil testers, a propane carbon-dioxide generator and a venting system that prevented his neighbors from smelling the marijuana.

"It was a very sophisticated and elaborate lab," Smythe said.

Thomas, 52, who is facing drug charges, told cops that he was growing the marijuana until he started receiving disability payments, according to Smythe. "He said he hurt his back," Smythe said.

Thomas appears to be a fan of former High Times columnist Ed Rosenthal — cops found copies of the Big Book of Buds and Marijuana Grower's Handbook— and, it seems, he's a devout Catholic.

"In the basement, where all this was, he has a shrine to the Blessed Mother," Smythe said. "I don't know whether he was praying for help to grow it or what."

Police made the bust after three armed men broke into Thomas' home Monday night and tried to steal his crop. Several shots were fired during the botched home invasion, which ended with a brief car-and-motorcycle chase involving one of the suspects and another man who was in Thomas' house. The three unidentified intruders remain on the loose, police said.

Thomas, who declined to comment, could also face code violations for the electrical wiring at his house, which Smythe described as a potential fire hazard. n

Contact William Bender at 215-854-5255 or benderw@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @wbender99.