December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

A green thumbs up

Garden.com is a perennial favorite. By sourcing plants from 60 different growers around the country, this virtual retailer easily one-ups any land-based nursery. Launched with about 2,000 SKUs, the site has blossomed into more than 16,000, including some 130 varieties of peonies.

Yet Garden.com’s real green thumb is its use of personalization. Visitors can design their own gardens based on geography and environmental conditions. What’s more, try to put a plant in your wheelbarrow that won’t thrive in your neck of the woods and Garden.com will warn you. “It’s a smart use of the medium,” says Harley Manning, an analyst at Forrester Research. “They stop you from making a mistake.”

Garden.com is the brainchild of Cliff and Lisa Sharples and Jamie O’Neill, business school pals who moved to Austin in 1995 to work for a software developer. Ten weeks later the trio quit, convinced that gardening was fertile ground for an Internet start-up.

A one-stop horticultural haven, Garden.com offers plants, education and community. There’s a magazine for readers, 24-hour chat for extroverts and a Garden Doctor to consult if your azaleas are ailing. In the pipeline is even more personalization. Garden.com plans to introduce a “Personal Gardener” this spring. Customers who sign up for the service will be contacted by e-mail and reminded when it’s time to put out seedlings, prune roses or fertilize tomatoes.

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