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Linton Weeks The Navigator - Live

Hosted by Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, April 8, 1999

Thank you for visiting "The Navigator Live." Today's chat ended at 3 p.m. EST.

Cliff Sharples
Spring has sprung and my guest was Cliff Sharples of Cliff launched the gardening Web site in the fall of 1995 with his wife, Lisa, and a couple of other folks. is an aggressive, from-all-angles site that offers original articles, gardening tips and lots and lots of merchandise for sale. We talked about roses, rutabagas and running a low-tech company in a high-tech world.

"The Navigator Live" appears each Thursday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time. It's a live, moderated discussion offering users the chance to talk directly to intriguing and sometimes unusual guests who are shaping the digital world. "The Navigator" appears in The Washington Post print edition every Thursday. You can read past columns by following this link.


Linton Weeks: Hello. And welcome to the show. Take it away, Cliff.

Linton Weeks: What exactly is

Cliff Sharples: is a one-stop shop for gardening information, products and services - we exist exclisively on the world wide web.

Linton Weeks: Do you have a real-life garden shop there in Austin, Texas, or are you just a Web-based business?

Cliff Sharples: Actually, we don't have a physical garden shop, though we have several people a day coming to our offices wanting to buy plants!

Linton Weeks: What are the positive aspects of running a gardening enterprise on the Internet? What, besides the fact that we can't smell the flowers we're buying, are the negative aspects?

Cliff Sharples: The two keys for our customers are convenience and access to customized information and inspirational content at the point of sale. A gardener can come to, type in his or her zip code, several characteristics of their yard, preferences, and get a customized plant list that are all availabel for sale. Additionally, they can select a particular subject matter, say Water Gardening, and read soem articles about the topic, and be able to act on any inspiration they might have by having all of the plants, photos and kits for sale.

Certainly the ability to touch and smell plants and flowers is not duplicatable on the Web, and we believe that gardeners will still find a trip to the local nursery on the weekend a fun experience!

Linton Weeks: You list your suppliers. Are you merely a clearinghouse, a middleman between customers and other garden-minded companies?

Cliff Sharples: Actually we consider ourselves a retailer. Our warehouse or store is a virtual network of growing fields and specilaty manufacturers who have been selected by's editirs and merchants as best in class. SOme of our suppliers include Mileager's Gardens (perennials), Antique Rose Emporium (Antique Roses), Papa Geno (herbs), Gardener's Supply COmpany (seed starting & composting products), and Waterford gardens (water garden plants and fish). We have over 70 supply partners that drop ship for at this stage.

Virginia: What is the best time to plant a vegetable garden ? Does it matter if you are using seeds or starter plants?

Cliff Sharples: It completely depends upon your location. Right now is definitely the time to be planting your vegetable garden in many parts of the country. Perhaps a little late for seed starting for come crops. My favorites are the seedlings, as you get a jump on the growing season, and we have found some really terrific heirloom varieties.

Washington, DC: Will your company put local gardening stores out of business?

Cliff Sharples: I don't think so. In fact, one of our goals is to make novice and beginner gardeners more successful in their gardening endeavors and have some early wins - so that they get more and more interested int he hobby and become lifetime gardeners - thus expanding the market opportunity for everyone in the industry.

Also, each retail channel has its own unique value proposition - whether physical retail, the Web or a catalog.

Bethesda: What if I order a plant from you and it dies?

Cliff Sharples: We have a one year - 110% guarantee. So, if you are not happy for any reason, we will either replace the plant, give you a full refund on your credit card, or give you 110% credit on - your choice!

Rockville, Md.: I have a small patch of land that used to have junipers and herbs growing in it that I would like to use as a garden. Unfortunately, there is a lot of gravel in the soil from an old driveway. We added a lot of topsoil and compost, the earth that is there is rich and black; do you think it will sustain a vegetable or flower garden?

Cliff Sharples: I am going to have to default to the gardening experts on that one, as I am not sure. We have a neat feature on called Garden Doctor where you can ask any garden or horticulture question, and one of our master gardners will answer your question... for free! It's in the Community area on the site.

Rockville, Md: I am looking for a relatively inexpensive but attractive shrub to plant along the edge of my house to replace numerous straggley azaleas. Any suggestions?

Cliff Sharples: I like a neat row of boxwood hedges, but feel free to get a more detailed consultation from's landscape experts by sending a question into our Garden Doctor, located inthe Community section of

Santa Barbara, CA: I was on your site the other day searching for plants typical of the Mediterranean region but didn't see that category. Will you recommend some plants that would work well in my area and provide the Mediterranean "look"?

Cliff Sharples: A coupe of suggestions - use the Plant Finder utility on, and specify dry soil conditions and any color preferences on foliage. Barry Landry, one of our resident experts on landscape design, may also have great suggestions. He's on e-mail at

arlington, va: How much capital and effort did it take to get your site off the ground.
Did it start as a profit motive or information source.
Is the site profitable today.

Cliff Sharples: We have raised $28 million for to date, in the past 3.5 years. We definitely started the business as a for-profit retailer of gardening products, though like many Internet start-ups, we have a long-range view of inveting heavily in the concept and brand before reaching profitability.

Virgina: Hello - same person that asked about when to start planting a vegetable garden. I live in northern Virginia - and I planted my garden last year after Mother's Day - in early May. I thought maybe it was a little early to plant vegetables - like tomatoes.

Cliff Sharples: Hmmm. It could be a little early, though it kind of depends on the weather situation. I think it's time to ask our Garden Doctor on that question, or call our Customer SOlutions line at 1-800-466-8142

Austin: Did you get the idea for because you were an avid gardener? or because it was a clear niche in the digital market? If you started because it had a niche, what are some other ideas for niche sites did you have?

Cliff Sharples: We did approach the idea from the Internet/technology side of the experience, rather than gardening. Three of co-founded the Company, including my wife. We were both novice gardenrs before we started the company, which is where the idea came from, though we did have a big white brd full of different ideas.

Stafford, Virginia: I would like to plant a sturdy,flowering plant in my front yard. My front yard is fairly bare and close to the street. I would like to plant something easy and low maintenance - yet pretty. My yard gets morning sun. Any suggestions ?

Cliff Sharples: My experts tell me that a combination of perennials would be good - depending upon the amount of light, try rudbeckia, cone flower, liatris, and verbena.

This group of plants has the added bonus of sttracting butterflies!

Washington, D.C.: Hello. The house I bought a couple of years ago has what used to be a rose bed in the back yard. I'm trying to turn it into a semi-shade perennial bed since it's in the shade of a large maple tree and roses don't do well there. Do you have any suggestions for shade perennials and also for bushes -to add height and also to camouflage an air conditioning unit-


Cliff Sharples: For an evergreen background, and to screen out the units, try yews (taxus), which does well in shade. Also consider boxwoods and hollies.

SOme of the best shade perennials include hostas, astilbe, various ferns, and dicentra (bleeding heart).

You may also find some great articles on shade gardening in's magazine area!

Linton Weeks: Okay, we're a little more than half-way through the hour. Keep showering Cliff with questions and he'll keep digging up the answers.

Washington, DC: Does your company also send catalogues through snail mail?

Cliff Sharples: We don't produce a catalog exactly - though we did just launch a national gardening magazine called Garden Escape. It's a 128-page magazine that has two unique components: almost every photo, plant mention or product we show is for sale on the site. And, each page is mirrored on the Web so you can link to additional information and online utilities about a particular subject.

It is available on or in Home Depots, Lowes Home Improvement Centers, and selected nurseries and book stores across the country.

Washington DC: I'm curious - why a gardening site?

Cliff Sharples: Becuase gardening is a HUGE American pasttime! Over 70 million househods participate in some form of gardening. And, it is an incredibly information intensive hobby, where customization become very important - the web and information systems do a nice job delivering this information in the form you as a consumer want it.

Washington, DC: What is the history of gardening in America?

Cliff Sharples: That's an interesting question... It certainly dates back to the very beginning of the country and now Gallop says it is one of the most popular pasttimes in the country.

Because I am a bad typer, I'll default to the many books on that very subject that you can find in's book department!!

Linton Weeks: How is business? You have a phone bank that receives calls all the time, but aren't there some very slow months?

Cliff Sharples: Business is booming! Gardening is seasonal, however there are many seasons in gardening. Really the summer is our slow time, but by August people are getting into fall bulbs, then holiday decorating and Christmas gifts.

Damascus, Md: My neighbors have a pet monkey that is constantly stealing the baby pears of my dwarf fruit trees. Is there anyway to keep this miserable little beast at bay without actually harming him? Chicken wire is so unattractive.

Linton Weeks: And that brings to mind another question, Cliff: What can Washington do about the beaver that is gnawing down the cherry trees?

Cliff Sharples: Well, I think you'll need physical protection form the primate - maybe some other fencing that is more attrative than chicken wire. There's also bags that you can put around pears that are used in orchards to keep bugs away - it may work ?? Netting the entire tree often works against pests as well. And if all else fails, how 'bout a dog???

As for the Cherry Tree, how about a gaurd on the tree trunk, and also at the base, if you bury chicken wire, it can keep burrowing animals form harming the roots... Diatomacious Earth is a marine-mined product (from the sea) which is an irritant to digging animals.

Bethesda, MD: What do you think about these roll-out, no-mess gardens? Do they really work?

Cliff Sharples: In general, I'm not a big fan. We haven;t had good luck in germinating all the seeds included in the matt successfully. They dry out too fast!

Linton Weeks: What is the most popular item you sell?

Cliff Sharples: It depends on the time of the year, but one of our best products is Animal Crappers - time released fertilizer made of zoo-doo (an animal by-product) shaped in the form of an animal cracker!!

Linton Weeks: What is the most exotic thing you sell?

Cliff Sharples: We just added rare, terrestial orchids from the Great Plant Company. Also Angel's Trumpets and Gingers are exotic and colorful.

Linton Weeks: Does anyone grow rutabagas any more?

Cliff Sharples: Our experts says in colder climates they are indeed still grown, along with turnips and beets.

Linton Weeks: What is the most expensive item you sell?

Cliff Sharples: An $8,000 green house delivered to your door!

Santa Barbara, CA: What is your business background and do you plan to take the company public -or is it traded publicly now-? What is the business experience of your other company executives?

Cliff Sharples: My background is in technology marketing, entrepreneurial start up experience, and information systems. We have a great management team made up of marketers, supply chain experts, technologists, gardening executives, and publishing experience.

We are not a publicly traded company.

Washington, DC: Cliff, are there really people who have green thumbs? Has there been some kind of scientific research into this possibility?

Cliff Sharples: I beileve given the right information and encouragement, everyone has a green thumb!

Linton Weeks: Who uses

Cliff Sharples: All kinds of people. Of the 1.5 million visitors we get each month, they range from experts gardeners, beginners, and all in between. 70% of our customers are women.

Alexandria, VA: About the roll out mat with seeds... I just "put down" some butterfly and hummingbirg seeds from a bag mixed with what appears green colored shredded paper. Instructions state to water thoroughly "twice" a day until the seeds germinate. I would hope this care will keep this or the roll out application from drying out.

Cliff Sharples: I think heavy watering is the key!

Linton Weeks: Who are your competitors?

Cliff Sharples: Everything from the local nursery to gardening catalog companies who have web sites.

Linton Weeks: And that brings us to the close of another episode of Navigator--Live. Next week my guest will be Declan McCullagh, chief Washington correspondent for Wired News. Declan lives and works in Washington DC. He knows a lot about a lot of different things, including the interweaving of politics and the digital world, and the Year 2000 Puzzle. He wrote the Y2K entry for Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia and he runs a responsibly minded Web site called Y2K Culture. Until then...

Linton Weeks: PS: Thanks to everyone.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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