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.
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.
P H O T O S B Y C Y N T H IA E V A N S
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)
Changes in Attitude
1. See plants as the sentient beings they
are, instead of mere home decor.
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.
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
by JANET KINOSIAN
their roots, all flowers keep the light
Special to The Times; Kinosian Is a
Los Angeles Freelance Writer
Copyright Los Angeles Times