July 5, 2023

Cultivating IMS’s Indoor Garden: A Conversation with Our “Plant Whisperer,” Kathleen Conrad

The natural world is a big part of what makes sitting retreat at IMS so special. Hundreds of acres of woods provide a peaceful backdrop for all who come to reflect on the Buddha’s teachings, and elements of the natural world adorn the rooms inside our centers, too. A wide variety of plants and trees live in our meditation halls, hallways, coatrooms, and other spaces.

Affectionately known as the “Plant Whisperer,” Kathleen Conrad has cared for IMS’s indoor botanical garden for nearly two decades. Here, she talks with IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz about how she came to care for IMS’s indoor garden, her favorite plant at IMS, and what’s on her plant wish list.

How did you come to IMS and what is your role here?

I’m from Napa, California, and I began my somatic/meditation practice with Robert and Alyssa Hall at the Lomi School in Mill Valley in 1970. That experience led me to Spirit Rock and then to IMS. In 2003, I joined the housekeeping team after a two-month retreat at the Forest Refuge and have been here ever since. Today, my role involves housekeeping at the Teacher Village, assisting IMS co-founders Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, and looking after all the plants at IMS.

How did caring for the plants become part of your job?

Jeanne Demers, who was the housekeeper at the Forest Refuge when I first arrived at IMS, started my training with the plants. She introduced me to the experts at the Hadley Garden Center who I also learned a lot from. I covered for Jeanne at the Forest Refuge when she was on leave and then joined the team at the Retreat Center and began to help with the plants there. For many years, I shared the plant care with other members of the housekeeping team. During the pandemic, I became the main plant person for all of IMS.

Do you have a favorite plant?

I created a Bodhi tree for Joseph that is one of my favorites. I made it from the Bodhi tree at the Forest Refuge that was donated by Amita Schmidt, one of our former resident teachers. I’ve learned a lot from that tree. For one thing, a tree is not a house plant, so you only need to water it about once a month. Michael Freeman, who originally made this Bodhi tree, came on retreat one time when it wasn’t doing too well. He taught me how to care for it. It needed less water and more sun. He also taught me new ways to make Bodhi trees from existing ones, giving me more faith in the process.

Since then, I’ve made about 10 Bodhi trees, including the one I made for Joseph. I made one for Sharon, too, and that one is now almost as big as the original. I put all the Bodhi trees outside in late spring and summer because the sun and the elements really strengthen and empower them.

What are some of the challenges you face with caring for the plants at IMS?

The heat and the air conditioning in the buildings are big problems. The heat dries the plants out in the winter and the plants do not like the air conditioning blowing on them in the summer. Many of the plants we’ve tried on the stage in the Retreat Center meditation hall have had to be moved because of the air conditioning. Though we’ve got a monstera there now that is doing well.

Some of the plants develop scale, which are tiny insects that look like armadillos. They feed on the sap of the plants and they’re hard to get rid of. Mealybugs can also be a problem. They look like cotton candy and also feed on the plant’s sap.

Are yogis able to help with the plants?

There have been times when yogis have helped me with a plant, and I am so grateful to those people for their care and assistance. Generally though, it’s best if yogis leave plant care to me, particularly with watering them. Yogis are welcome to leave me notes with the front office at either the Retreat Center or Forest Refuge if they are worried about one of the plants, and I will make sure to check on it.

What’s on your wish list for the plants at IMS?

Many of the plants are donated by yogis and staff, and we’re grateful. But what’s donated doesn’t always work well in the spots we have. It would be good to have a budget to be able to buy plants with the specific conditions of a particular spot in mind.

For example, the fireplace and the windowsills in the Retreat Center upper walking room are tricky. That room gets hot from the heating in the winter, and there’s not a lot of sunlight. As another example, the Retreat Center dining hall doesn’t get enough sun, so we’ve stopped putting plants on the tables in there. But in the Forest Refuge dining hall, we have an aglaonema on the table that likes low light, so it’s doing well.

The plants at IMS must tell some of the history of the place?

In the Retreat Center meditation hall, there used to be a dracaena. We called it the “dinosaur” because it had been there so long. It was there when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited [in 1979], and all these other amazing teachers had taught in that room in its presence. Knowing that it was there when all these teachers were there too is deeply moving. There are cuttings of it throughout IMS today.

Any final thoughts on the plants and your work with them?

There’s just something about plants. I think they help us recognize our interconnectedness, and they’re like gentle bodhisattvas. They emanate this peace and love. It’s something very positive. You have the troubles of life and the world and then you see a flower and it’s so uplifting.

It’s been so rewarding taking care of them, and I’m grateful that the plants bring joy to everyone. I’m happy when I can make the plants happy, even though caring for them can be challenging at times. Plants teach us about patience, beauty, awe, and impermanence. Afterall, there is a discourse in which the Buddha taught the Dharma with a handful of simsapa leaves.