Most of George and Cindy Martin’s customers at The Tasteful Garden will never stroll through their four Cleburne County greenhouses.They’ll never see how the Martins display and label their plants as if they were museum exhibits, never chuckle at names like Stump of the World and never pinch off a tiny piece of stevia to taste its sugary sweetness.In fact, most of the 10,000 or so customers of The Tasteful Garden will never set foot on the rolling wooded hills where the Martins go about the business of selling tomato, herb, pepper and vegetable plants. That’s because The Tasteful Garden does most of its business over the Internet, shipping plants all across the United States each year.”If we had to survive on local sales, we wouldn’t be able to make it,” declares George Martin. “But through the Internet, we have 48 states that are our customers. So we’re able to ship all over the whole country, and there are millions of people online all the time, so we’re able to get our names out there in the search engines so that we’re found.”Oddly enough, being “found” was never much of a problem for the Martins, who began selling from the Internet in 1995 when Web-based businesses were in their infancy. At the time, the Martins were transplanted Southerners living in Los Angeles where George was working in the film industry and Cindy was raising herbs and other plants in a leased greenhouse and selling them at farmers markets. “I was working with computers in my job, and I saw where other businesses were starting up on the Internet,” said George.”Cindy was having trouble selling at some of the farmers markets, and I said, ‘Why don’t we at least try it?’ She said, ‘Nobody will buy a plant on the Internet.’ And I said, ‘Well, at least try it.'”She agreed, and before long, they were ready to build their own greenhouses. But the price of real estate in Los Angeles forced them to look back to the South where they were born and raised. Setting up shop on a 16-acre, pre-Civil War farmstead, the Martins quickly settled into their new digs in 2000, and built their first 3,500-square-foot greenhouse, followed by another and another and another.Inside, you’ll find dozens of heirloom and hybridized tomato plants with names like Stump of the World, Boxcar Willie and Cherokee Purple. You’ll also find parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, dill, stevia, lettuces, mint, horseradish, arugula, chives, lavender, spinach, strawberries, beans, peas, squash, cucumbers, etc.”Anything that’s edible is free game for us,” says Cindy. “We’ll try anything.”Everything but ornamentals, that is. “We call ourselves The Tasteful Garden for a reason,” says George. “We like to grow things that you eat, and we prefer to keep it that way.”What’s more, the Martins put their plants to their own taste tests. “We try to avoid any plant that doesn’t have good flavor or doesn’t grow well,” Cindy says. “A lot of the heirlooms are really fussy, and if they’re too fussy, they don’t make our cut. There are 2,000 heirlooms out there, (but) most of them aren’t worth growing because you only get one fruit! So we try to go with the ones that are well known, but also produce well. We also have a rating system that we’ve been able to establish that identifies which ones are easy to grow and are always going to be real productive for someone who’s a beginner.”While The Tasteful Garden lacks organic certification, the Martins say their plants “are as natural as they can be without using that word.””The only reason we’re not certified is because it’s expensive,” says Cindy. “One of the things we would have to do to get certified is use organic potting soil, which is expensive, and we don’t want to pass that cost along to our customers. The paperwork alone, for a business of our size, is detrimental to us. We’d have to spend all our time doing paperwork and spending money we don’t feel is needed.”This year, the Martins expect to ship between 35,000 and 40,000 plants, marking yet another, typical 30 percent annual increase in sales.”The economy is bad, but people still want their backyard garden,” said George. “Actually, it helps when you don’t have to go to the grocery store, but just go out in your backyard and get fresh vegetables that are better for you anyway.”While backyard vegetable gardens are hardly new to most of their neighbors, the Martins found they had struck a chord with a different crowd — young, urbanites whose passion for gardening is fueled by Food Channel chefs who extol the virtues of fresh herbs and garden vegetables.”We are going in the backdoor by going through the cooks and finding the gardener in the cooks instead of trying to find the cooks in the gardeners,” said Cindy. “We figure the gardeners would eventually find us anyway because, if they’re looking hard enough on the Internet, they’ll eventually find us.”Today, Cindy said, their Web site, www.TastefulGarden.com, receives 27,000 “hits” a month, and their email newsletter list of customers has grown to 10,000 subscribers.”We just try to educate people, but you can read only so much on gardening,” said Cindy. “There are like 50,000 books on gardening, and most of them will confuse you even more because they are trying to cover every aspect of it and make it so thorough that it’s more than most people need to know. If you need to go look up something, you should be able to go look it up. But if you just need to know how to plant a tomato plant in your backyard, you really don’t need to be a science major!”Shipping, however, did require a bit of ingenuity. Initially, the Martins relied on the U.S. Postal Service as its primary shipper, but later switched to the United Parcel Service and FedEx.”That’s our main expense — shipping,” said Cindy. “As much as we don’t want to charge for it, we have to. It’s a big chunk out of our business, but at least we don’t have to pay for space in a mall.”Of course, there are a few who can’t wait for their plants to be delivered. Inspired by articles in the Martins’ newsletter, a few show up on their farm to make their purchases in person.”The only reason we have a retail place at all here on the farm is that our Birmingham and Atlanta customers have come to us and said, ‘Can we come pick up our plants? We want to come see your farm,'” said Cindy. “They hear a lot about the farm through the newsletter. So when they ask, if they can come to the farm, we say, ‘Yes, and we won’t even charge admission!'” For more information about The Tasteful Garden, visit www.TastefulGarden.com.
VIRTUAL GARDEN: The Tasteful Garden Reaping Success Online