"The interconnectedness
of all life does not have
to be an abstract concept.
We can live it.
It doesn't matter whether
we garden indoors or
outdoors; we can honor
our world.
It is all a prayer."
Judith Handelsman


























































































































"All the issues of life and death reveal themselves through observing and caring for plants."
-- J.H.

Judith Handelsman, M.A., has been a professional author and freelance writer for twenty-five years. A philosopher and teacher, her current book,Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening (Plume, 1997) was nominated for a 1997 BOOKS FOR A BETTER LIFE AWARD in the spiritual category along with Thomas Moore's, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life and Jimmy Carter's Living Faith. A featured selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club and The One Spirit Book Club, Growing Myself has been translated into Japanese, Italian and German.

Ms. Handelsman's current work, Spiritual Gardening: Cultivating Love Through Caring for Plants. (audiotapes) was featured on the cover of the Sounds True catalog, Summer 1998. The leader in the field of audio cassette teaching tapes, Sounds True produces the highest quality audiotapes of ancient wisdom taught by modern spiritual teachers. Spiritual Gardening expands upon historical, philosophical and meditative perspectives that relate to our connection with the plant world.

Her last book, for children,Gardens From Garbage: How to Grow Indoor Plants From Recycled Kitchen Scraps (The Millbrook Press, Inc., 1993) was cited by the AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. as one of the best children's science books of 1993. The Child Study Children's Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education named it as one of the best children's books of 1993. Ms. Handelsman's first book, Greenworks:Tender Loving Care for Plants (Macmillan, 1974)sold 200,000 books.

Ms. Handelsman's life's work is to help the broadest cross-section of people reconnect spiritually to themselves, each other and the natural world. She is dedicated to inspiring and educating audiences to live a life honoring the spirit and to grow spiritual love through meditation and caring for plants.

She has completed the pilot for a proposed cable television series called "Inner Gardens" for the Odyssey Channel which she co-wrote and hosted.

A former monthly gardening columnist forVogue and New Age Journal and a former gardening correspondent for NBC All-News Network Radio, Handelsman now writes, lectures and gives workshops. She lived and gardened in Laguna Beach, California, when this web site was made (1999). Now (2005) she lives in Santa Barbara.

MARCH 1999

Digging for the Inner Gardener

Judith Handelsman, a Laguna Beach-based best-selling author and self-proclaimed "inner gardener," believes what the world needs now is a greener attitude. So it's not surprising that she's known in many circles as the lady who talks to plants. But is it possible the plants are actually talking back?


If your relationship to nature is the true measure of health, Judith Handelsman is in great shape. Among the well known I author and gardener's closest friends, she counts spider plants, queen palms and a I family of avocado trees. And she doesn't just take care of them; they have taken great care of her, too. According to Handelsman, the plant kingdom has gotten her closer to the meaning of life -- or at least the best way to live -- than anything or anyone else. Ask Handelsman why she talks to plants and she'll look you right in the eye and tell you it's because they supply the best answers to her questions.

In fact, she says plants can teach us all a thing or two, make better people out of us -- if we'd just slow down and listen. And while Handelsman readily admits that her message doesn't get through to everyone, enough people are listening to the former garden columnist for Vogue and New Age Journal to impress even the harshest critics.

Consider that she lectures nationally and will host an upcoming Odyssey Channel cable show; or that her third book, 1997's Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening& was nominated for that year's book For a Better Life Award alongside the efforts of Thomas Moore and Jimmy Carter. She's even received the royal nod of approval: recently, England's Prince Charles invited her to view his gardens at Highgrove. Throughout, her message has been simple and clear: by illustrating the interconnectedness of all life, gardening can heal both the body and the soul. Through gardening, she asserts, people reestablish their connection to nature and become more at ease with who they are and why they're here. But, says Handelsman, most people already know that, which is why gardening is now the number one hobby in America and the search for spiritual meaning is defining the '90s. Handelsman claims, based on the reaction she's gotten from her book, that most gardeners already have very special relationships with their plants, they're just hesitant to talk about it for fear of ridicule from family and friends. "I know there are a lot of inner gardeners already out there," she says. "I'm just calling for them to come out of the closet. Don't be afraid to communicate your relationship with your plants to other people. Plants are living, sentient beings and they have a lot to share with us."

If all this sounds very Zen, rest assured, it is. Handelsman sees gardening as one of the purest forms of meditation and meditation as central to successful inner gardening. And though Handelsman is decidedly unreligious, she is fond of saying "It's all a prayer." According to Handelsman embracing the passive, cleansing nature of the plant world causes those qualities to spread into all parts of a person's life. But as with a verdant garden, it takes time; the very 20th Century American mantra "I rush, therefore I am," has no place in the kingdom of plants. "A garden creates softness, stillness, awareness and appreciation for life," says Handelsman. "There's some magical process that happens in nature when you pay attention. Plants are teachers. They teach us more about love and allow us to cultivate more love within ourselves. That's true spirituality."

Listening to Handelsman's calm, unrushed voice speak these words, it's easy to believe that she was raised in some rural or tropical setting. She wasn't. In fact, Handelsman was born and raised in Manhattan. She was, however, always drawn to the world of plants. "I remember taking a botany course in college," she says. "When the instructor made us draw the life cycle of a plant I thought it was so beautiful. I realized the cyclical reality of nature. That * wasn't just 'you're born and you die.' It meant that there's no beginning and no end." Much of her free time thereafter was spent exploring Central Park and later she became obsessed with learning the names of every flower in local stands. But it wasn't until the late '60s that she became a bona fide gardener -- in her 16th floor Big Apple apartment. Married to a man who couldn't leave New York at the time, Handelsman surrounded herself with as many indoor plants and trees as she could. The more she grew, the more she loved it.

Then the '70s indoor plant craze hit and Handelsman started a business, called Greenworks, with a friend. The pair installed and maintained indoor and outdoor gardens around Manhattan, for residences and businesses alike. Meanwhile, Handelsman was going through a very difficult divorce. But when things got tough, the plants were there. "I felt really close to the plants; it was one part of my life that felt right," she says. "There's a lot of unconditional love coming out of the natural world. You can tap into that if you want. That's a great quality of plants. You can go into a garden without your suit of armor on. You can let your defenses down and just enjoy."

So in 1974 Handelsman and her partner wrote a book, Greenworks: Tender Loving Care for Plants, which became a bestseller and launched Handelsman's career as a freelance writer and journalist. Her passion became her work and her life improved. Still, the most defining moment was still to come in Handelsman's relationship with her beloved plants.

That moment came m the form of a humble spider plant that had outgrown its pot. She wanted to divide the plant and put it m two separate containers, but the roots had become a seemingly impenetrable ball. The prospects of dislodging it without killing the plant were dire. Coincidentally, she had been asked to attend an interview of Peter and Eileen Caddy, founders of Scotland's Findhorn Community, at ABC All-New Network, where she was a garden columnist at the time. The Findhorn Community had become a Mecca for European horticulturists because of its incredible success in growing giant flowers and vegetables in the most adverse of conditions -- the windswept sandy soil of Scotland's northernmost tip. "They told me the reason they were so successful was their meditations with the nature spirits, or divas, of each plant," says Handelsman.

After that interview, Handelsman says, she was convinced that the deep bonds she felt to her plants were valid and deserved exploration. She began to openly give her plants respect, instead of treating them as home decor. Following the Caddy's advice, she gave her spider plant 24 hours notice about her plans to divide its root ball and replant each half. This way, the plant could anesthetize itself and avoid going into shock. Though she was still a bit skeptical, and felt a little silly, she went to her spider plant, introduced herself and asked it to prepare itself for the operation ahead. Finally, she showed the plant where she planned to cut it in half.

What she came back to the next day was the beginning of her new life.

"I could hardly believe what I saw," she admits. "The leaves had parted along the line I had drawn. It was a clear sign to me that the plant understood our relationship." Next she prepared for a fight to dislodge the root ball. "But when I turned the pot sideways, it just fell away; it was amazing and convincing," she says. That first communion with a common house plant changed her perspective on nature, the plant kingdom, spirituality and her part in all of it. The result was her adoption of "inner gardening," a way of communing with plants to grow spiritually. In 1977 she migrated to California, where her relationship with plants truly blossomed and her philosophy of inner gardening became a way of life.

Probably the most convincing argument for Handelsman's inner gardening movement is not her bestselling books, not her three-hour video, not even her decades of gardening experience, but Handelsman herself. Spend any time with her and you'll become convinced she could remain calm during a train wreck. She walks slowly; speaks purposefully, yet enthusiastically; and listens respectfully. But it is in the garden where Handelsman is truly at peace. Her movements become even more fluid and calming and it's obvious she is where she feels most comfortable. "When you're around plants you have to slow down. Sometimes I'll come out here to do a few things and hours will go by -- I'll be so lost in what I'm doing," she tells me as we stand among decades-old avocado trees. "Nothing happens in a hurry in a garden and that gives opportunity to grow, to find your true self and grow love," she says.

This, Handelsman argues, is the thing that modern man -- primarily the westerner -- has forgotten how to do. "I think that a lot of the unhappiness, depression, and dissatisfaction in people comes from their disconnection from nature," she says. In fact, she would argue that Americans, instead of growing love and self-knowledge, have cultivated a pathological sense of isolation by turning away from nature. In this regard we are in the minority of the world. Indigenous people have from early on relied on the healing powers, both physical and emotional, of plants. "From the time of the industrial revolution," says Handelsman, "when some would say technology became our god, we have gradually become more and more disconnected from nature. We don't follow the seasons anymore and most people live an urban lifestyle, which is the most disconnected of all."

Handelsman's life, of course, has followed exactly the opposite path. Her home, a one-acre parcel in Laguna Beach, just blocks from bustling Coast Highway, is a place of green serenity. As one moves from the entry courtyard, lush with hundreds of ferns, ficus, papyrus shoots and a koi pond, the lines between indoor and outdoor disappear. The living room is dominated by an arching palm, large enough for two people to relax under; and everywhere there are windows and views of the surrounding garden. Out back is where the garden becomes a bit wilder. From the tangled trumpet vine embracing the house (and taking over the nearby telephone pole) to the 80-year-old family of avocado trees living on the far hill, everything seems larger than life and totally untamed. It is nothing like the glossy magazine idea of a "perfect garden," yet undeniably beautiful. The immediate impression is that Handelsman does little more than watch from her window as this veritable forest slowly envelops the house. One can imagine an assenting Handelsman, smiling and cross-armed, as the forest's shadow doses out the last rays of the sun. But, of course, that would be a misleading image. As Handelsman will point out, she spends long, pleasant hours every week caring for the garden. But she's also careful not lose her connection. Everywhere there are twisted wicker chairs -- under trees, covered with vines, holding rakes -- where one can sit and commune with nature. Do a little inner gardening.

The editor of Home and Garden Magazine may disagree, but in Handelsman's eyes, everything in her garden is in order. "There's a story I like very much," she says. "A student of a Zen master is in charge of taking care of the garden. So, trying to please the master, he cuts off every flower past its prime, sweeps every dead leaf away and makes the garden immaculate in every way. When the master checks the garden, he spreads a few leaves around and gives it a wind swept look. This is the way to make a garden look perfect, he tells the student. It must be touched by nature's hand, not overly manipulated by man's."

Pointing out some yellowing leaves on a young ficus and a citrus tree that doesn't seem up to the recent cold weather, I ask if she ever worries about losing some of her friends. Her answer is, of course, larger than my question. "No, it's all a part of the process," she says. Then, after a pause. "Just think if we had a society that accepted death as part of life's cycle. Instead of spending so much energy denying death we could spend that time understanding life."

Judith Handelsman's book, Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening, is available in local bookstores and her two-tape set Spiritual Gardening is available through the Sounds True Catalog (800 333-9185). She will also be teaching a course in writing through the UCI Extension program, April 23 and 24. For information, call (949) 824-5414.

Changes in Attitude

Judith Handelsman's top 10 tips to help you find your inner gardener, not to mention create a healthier garden:

1. See plants as the sentient beings they are, instead of mere home decor.

2. Give plants 24-hour notice before cutting back, moving or repotting.

3. Offer yourself in spiritual cooperation -- find out what they want to do and help them do it.

4. Communicate and relate to your plants in a genuine way (that doesn't necessarily mean talking out loud).

5. Before picking flowers or buying plants from a nursery, ask who wants to come -- you'll be surprised at the results.

6. Remember that spiritual gardening is about creating more sensitivity in yourself, so slow down and listen to nature.

7. The world is not a glossy magazine: appreciate every step in a plant's life, from dormant to blooming.

8. Compost, compost and more compost. Creating good soil is essential to successful gardening.

9. Don't let your kindness kill: remember you can never water too much at one time but can water too often.

10. Less is more: with plants that means garden less and enjoy more by not overburdening yourself.

Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, September 6, 1998

Tapping Your Inner Gardener

It's the instantly recognized symbol of humankind's humble beginnings: the garden. As soulful pursuits hit the mainstream, mainstream gardeners are looking to the plant kingdom for spiritual renewal. In her Laguna Beach garden, Judith Handelsman, author of "Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening" (Dutton) and host of the Odyssey Channel's upcoming cable show "Inner Gardens," talks about her meeting with another "spiritual" gardener--Prince Charles. (After reading her book, he invited Handelsman to Highgrove.)

Q: What's inner gardening?
A: It's gardening with the heart. It's putting your soul into the garden and making real connections. There's unconditional love pouring out of these plants all the time and it's not a question of "Is it happening?" It's a question of "Can we feel it?" It's not an intellectual thing, it's a love thing.

Q: What was it like to meet Prince Charles?
A: I was scared to death. But I'd somehow always felt like I knew his soul--that he was a soul brother. I always felt I knew his pain and understood the way he related to his plants and gardens.

Q: It was just you two?
A: Me and him and his dogs--the corgis. I found him very loving and gentle, an incredibly gentle person. very sensitive, very deep, very spiritual and sincerely concerned about people and what's happening in the world. And he's very handsome. His eyes are sharp blue. He's kind of translucent; there's a lot of light coming out of his face.

Q: Many people would be surprised that Charles wrorks the land.
A: You can't have a garden like he has--with so much presence and soul--and not
have someone working it who loves it. At one point he said excitedly "Look, look at these pictures. This is what it looked like. It was nothing, nothing!" I said, "I know. I know!" I told him, "The plants are really happy." And he said, "You see that, don't you, you see that?"

Q: The garden is a haven then?
A: I think he gets a lot of understanding from his garden. When I left, I said, "I hope, in the end, you have at least one person who loves and understands you." He said, "Yes, I do. Being understood, it's the most important thing, isn't it?"

Q: What's been the response to your book?
A: I've had so much mail from people who say they didn't know they felt this way until they read the book. They want to know they're not crazy, that talking to plants and having a relationship with zinnias is not nuts.

--Janet Kinosian



GROWING MYSELF: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening, (Hardcover, Dutton, 1996. Softcover, Plume, 1997).

Gardens From Garbage: How to Grow Indoor Plants From Recycled Kitchen Scraps, (The Millbrook Press, Inc., Brookfield, CT., 1993). Named as one of the best children's science books of 1993 by Science Books and Films, a publication of the AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., America's oldest, largest and most prestigious science organization. Also named as one of the best children's books of 1993 by The Child Study Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College, N.Y., N.Y.

Co-author of Greenworks: Tender Loving Care For Plants, (Macmillan, 1974). Five printings, sold 150,000 books. One of the first layman's guides to houseplants at the beginning of the plant craze in the early 70's. Another book at the right time.

Monthly plant columnist for Vogue magazine, 1979-80.

Monthly gardening columnist for New Age Journal, 1980-81, "The Intuitive Gardener".

Wrote and voiced five gardening spots a week for NBC All-News Network Radio in New York. Syndicated to all NBC affiliates nationwide, 1976-78.

Free-lance gardening articles for Harper's Bazaar, New York Magazine, 1975.

Sunday, November 3, 1996

of Soil and Soul


  Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light
      --Poet Theodore Roethke

Do you believe that getting your hands dirty planting petunias will sooth your soul?
      If so, you're not alone.
      Next weekend visit a local nursery, notice the crowds and you'll know there's a movement afoot to--as Joni Mitchell's early '70s song "Woodstock" pleads --"get ourselves back to the garden."

      "People are realizing when we garden, we're doing a lot more than just lawn maintenance," said Judith Handelsman, author of the book "Growing Myself, a Spiritual Journey Through Gardening" (Dutton, 1996).
      "We are nature [ourselves], looking after and tending nature, and that not very complex act somehow takes on a spiritual and healing overtone," she said.
      What happens when you garden, or even when you just spend time in the garden? Experts note many positive effects, among them:
      * One hour in the garden will reduce your blood pressure the same as if you had meditated for that hour.
      * Numerous hospitals and correctional agencies that have gardening programs report dramatic decreases in violent and antisocial behavior when gardening is part of the program.
      * Gardening is the one art that stimulates all of the senses: You can smell, touch, see and taste plants, and hear them blowing in the breeze.
      * Physiologists report heightened muscle relaxation, slower breathing and increased endorphin production among gardeners.
      * Psychologists say self-esteem, patience levels and generosity are boosted when people garden.
      Said simply: If you want to increase joyful feelings in yourself, find a garden.
      "It's hard to quantify joy, peace and serenity in a scientific sense," said Sarah Conn, PhD, an eco-psychologist who teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School. Eco-psychology is a burgeoning field that studies human mental and emotional health with regard to things such as gardening, prayer, star-gazing and marathon running.     
      "Nature and plants are relatively indifferent to humans, so there's no performance anxiety, no stress," Conn said. "That's why people like to hang out in gardens so much."
      Handelsman said most people intuit this, and that's why gardens and gardeners can be found in both Versailles and South-Central Los Angeles.
      "This might sound dramatic, but I think people realize things are disconnected and have concluded it's either transform or die," she said. "And they're reaching out to something very basic to help them do that: gardening."
      Gardeners agree on this: Tending plants teaches one about the true rhythm of life; that it can't be forced, only nurtured.

      "One of the most difficult aspects of my job is trying to sell the concept of a time lapse," says Sarah Munster, a Los Angeles landscape designer for 10 years. "Particularly here, where the perception of time is instant and so many people think in terms of illusion."
      Munster said she often will not hear from clients until a year after the garden is planted, and then comes the ecstatic call. "They'll usually say they can't believe it," she said, " 'It looks so beautiful,' almost as if they couldn't accept it until they saw the results."
      She believes that one reason gardening slows us down is that gardens can't be hurried.
      At the heart of gardening is the feeling that one is dropping a timetable constructed around dental appointments, car maintenance and freeways to enter a realm of unlocked time.
      "[In gardening] people plunge headlong into a world entirely outside their control," noted Anna Pavord, a British gardening writer. "This, of course, is not a conscious feeling. When I wander out the back door to do some casual gardening, I don't say, 'Fancy that. I'm part of the great diurnal round.' I just get on with the weeding."
      But with the absorption comes the notice of nature: the shrub in the dusk, the lavender in the light, "and that's the added dimension gardening adds," she said, "that you're actively involved in the process. It's like the good book and unlike TV."
      "Gardens are also a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the profane world," wrote Julie Moir Messervy, author of "The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning" (Little, Brown; 1995). "And most important, perhaps, a garden is a place in which to reckon with our inner being."
      There's something about a garden's silence, psychologists say, that lowers the level of self-chatter, allowing the inner eye a more unobstructed view of what's really going on inside.
      "I always tell people that I really just provide the environment," said Ginni Larson, head of the horticultural therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "I just bring people to the soil and let the earth do its own magic." She said that this therapy without words--like art, dance or music therapy--can be very powerful as it touches right-brain emotions.
      Katherine Sneed, a counselor with the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, is founder and director of the San Bruno Jail's Garden Project, an organic gardening and therapeutic counseling program that gives inmates the opportunity to both grow gardens and sell what they till. The effects, Sneed said, are profound.
      "Gardening changes the picture they [the inmates] have of themselves," she said. "When they see beautiful roses, lettuce, peppers that they've grown with their own hands, there is self-worth: 'I did this.' "
      Sneed tells of an 18-year-old crack addict with 3-inch-long fingernails. "Within only two weeks, she had cut off the fake nails and begged to stay working through the weekend. She told me when she took the garden's vegetables home to her grandmother, it was literally the first bit of praise she remembers receiving.
      "The garden helps them understand they can have a sense of control over their lives. If they plan, tend, water and persist, then can make their lives grow according to a plan. Sometimes, this is the only place they can ever learn that concept."
      "Gardens are also the great leveler, the great diffuser," said Kelly Ball, a gardener of 20 years living in Venice. "I like to say that gardens appeal to communists and fascists alike. Extremely different types of people can and sometimes do enjoy the same garden. How often does that happen in life?
      "People aren't angry very long in gardens," he said. "And they aren't angry about gardens. People can get angry about animals; people even get angry about the air. I think it's one of the few things people agree on: Gardens are good."
      "Most souls are defenseless against a garden," said Yana Rusika, a landscape artist in Laguna Beach. "The magic in a garden can't be bottled. And it's not just a soul healer, but also a physical healer." Rusika said that when the ancients were sick, they walked in tree groves and rose gardens and breathed fresh air.
      Today, formerly sterile hospitals are picking up on the ancient idea.
      The USC / Norris Cancer Hospital has a 9,200-square-foot meditation garden, the Sherry Hinderstein Meditation Garden, thought to be one of the largest such hospital gardens in the country.
      The garden's donors, Howard and Beverly Hinderstein, hope the place, with its white spire birch trees, jacaranda, floss silk and Hong Kong orchids, will be an oasis for those whose lives have been hurt by cancer. Howard Hinderstein, 70, lost his daughter, Sherry, and his granddaughter, Alyse, to the disease, and recently his wife, Beverly.
      Hinderstein remembers when he and his wife would visit their daughter, they found no place for repose. "I like to take people to the spot we had available to us," Hinderstein said. "It was a tiny smoking area, with overhead air conditioning making just enough noise to keep you alive." He says when he learned that Norris was planning a garden, "I knew it was Sherry's."
      The West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Hospital has its own garden therapy program. Started in the 1970s by Vietnam veterans, the Vet's Garden occupies 15 acres of the hospital grounds.
      Sponsored by the American Horticulture Therapy Assn., a national organization of health practitioners who promote the therapeutic benefits of horticulture, the garden allows patients to plant and care for their own gardens.
      Some of the plants grown by the patients are basil, mint, rosemary, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, peaches, plums and nectarines. Individuals and restaurant owners regularly buy the crops.
      Patients say they find something in the garden that many veterans find elusive. "The garden's helped me be at peace with myself and move on with my life," said Al B., a former patient at the hospital who asked that his last name not be used. "It has taught me to accept people unconditionally, just for what they are--sick or happy, sad or laughing."
      Ida Cousino, a West Los Angeles therapist and head of the Vet's Garden program, said that even the most severely disturbed psychiatric patients, who respond to little else, react positively to the garden therapy. Patients are calmer, she said, and outbursts and violent incidents are dramatically reduced.
      "No one is saying the garden has made them completely well," Cousino said, "but without question you can see the difference it makes. The patients know they come here to work, which gives them a sense of purpose and self-worth.
      "They grow and nurture life, something powerful for these particular patients," she said.
      So, if you would like to get in touch with your kinder, gentler side, the plant kingdom can help. Just as working with anything else perceived as smaller and in need of nurturance (children and animals, for example) releases a nurturing side in a nonthreatening way, tending plants helps people, experts say.
      Said Ball, the Venice gardener: "Plants help me see any little barbarian sides of my personality. If I'm not gentle, if I'm ripping away at the plants, it stands out. And I can translate it into my outside-the-garden life."
      Handelsman agrees: "The interconnectedness of all life does not have to be an abstract concept. We can live it. It doesn't matter whether we garden indoors or outdoors; we can honor our world. It is all a prayer."

- - -

Special to The Times; Kinosian Is a Los Angeles Freelance Writer

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