December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Can we talk?

Chat room residents at Garden.com abandoned their computer screens and flower beds long enough for an old-fashioned, face-to-face encounter this fall. The reunion, held in Mount Laurel, N.J., marked the third year that the site’s chatters have convened.

Garden.com’s chat room counts about 500 regular members. But chatters themselves, not the Web store’s PR department, have planned and carried out the reunions.

Garden.com couldn’t be happier. “It’s amazing to see the real world ripple effect from our online efforts,” says Tina Mabley, the Web site’s community manager.

Though Hurricane Floyd rained out travel plans for many, about 40 managed to get to the East Coast in time. Weekend festivities included seed swapping, tours of nearby gardens, a garden photo exchange, even a ((hugging)) contest.

Though scattered by age and background, Garden.com chatters have discovered their common ground goes beyond green thumbs. “Initially I went in for information,” says Connie Campbell of Milford, N.H., who plans to host next year’s reunion. “Yet there’s a lot of support. Gardeners are inclined to be philosophers. We look at things from a less cluttered viewpoint.”

The reunions have only strengthened virtual ties. “You feel even more drawn to other chatters after you’ve met them,” says Patsy Carrick in Ridgetown, Ontario, who helped plan the first reunion. Still, online is the next best thing to being there, she says. If the chat room is down for any reason “there’s a lot of withdrawal.”

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