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  • Jennifer Jewell





"Unprecedented – Never to Happen Again." This Zen idiom referring specifically to the transient nature of time and the preciousness of each and every moment no matter how seemingly mundane is at the heart of our Dispatches from the Home Garden today when we visit an American Tea Garden in Tivoli, New York.


Today we enjoy another of our Dispatches from the Home Garden when we visit a long time gardener from New York State. Her garden holds hands with her similarly longtime study of Zen Buddhism in its meditation practice as well as in its arts.

It’s interesting – heartening even – to me that a large number of the comments I get from listeners and readers about Cultivating Place mention how much you all enjoy the Dispatches from the Home Garden series – listening to gardeners tell the story of their own private gardens. I agree. I’m a big believer in the fun and mystery of each garden being different from all others – of its being a signature of some kind for who we each are.

“Show me your garden, and I shall tell you what you are,” the English poet Alfred Austin is famous for saying.

The gardener we hear from today is a writer, a gardener, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and the natural world. She joins us today via Skype from her home and garden in Tivoli, New York.

Bettina Mueller is the author of “A Taste of Heaven and Earth” and “The World in a Bowl of Tea” both from Harper Collins, and “A Tea Garden in Tivoli” a documentary of the making of her home garden from her own imprint - Tea House Press. Bettina has lived and grown in her ¼ acre home and garden for 18 years. It features traditional perennial flower gardens out front of the Queen Anne Style house built in the late 1800s, as well as a contemplative tea garden built in something of an American Style in her back garden.

She mentions in her telling of the tea garden’s story, the Zen saying “Unprecedented, Never Before”, being at the heart of the idea that every moment is unique having never come before, and never to occur again and thus worthy of being treasured. This incentive for being as present as we can in the works and day of our lives is – as we all know – incredibly difficult to hold onto in the more mundane and repetitive of our tasks – washing dishes, the morning commute, whatever it might be. The Zen arts of the Tea Ceremony, of Calligraphy and of Ikebana flower arranging – these are art forms to help us practice bringing present in everyday activities.

The garden reflects the environment around it with the incorporation of trees and shrubs and flowers of her zone 5 region interwoven with and into a garden that also reflects her own life history and her study of Zen Buddhism and the Zen Art of Tea.

Bettina describes the carefully designed space leading to the Tea House nestled into her back garden, with an outer entry garden through which you walk to get to an inner garden, which has a small – slightly open gate as both a delineated threshold and a sign of welcome. In neither the inner nor the out garden are flowering plants used in an effort to create and maintain a sense of visual quiet.

"This is something I do, so my energy is there, my intention is there. It’s so subtle that people don’t remark on it - but they feel it. I am convinced that people feel the gardener's intention whether they know it or not."”

Bettina Mueller, A Tea Garden in Tivoli

The green and simplified plantings, the materials and the design and lines of the walkways, the handcrafted fence, they are all intended to help visitors slow down, look at where they are going and move inward from the demands of the outside world – to, as she says, leave the dust of the ordinary world behind.

At various times Bettina has been a cook on a working tugboat, a news photographer, owner and chef of a pioneering vegetarian restaurant, and executive of a cutting-edge Internet Company. She is interested in food and media, has been a lifelong student of Zen, the Japanese Tea Ceremony and the natural world.

You can follow Bettina's work on Instagram; You can order a copy of her book "A Tea Garden in Tivoli" from Tea House Press, here:

Bettina's Tea Garden won a Best Amateur Designed Garden from Gardenista in 2015.

* * * * * * * *

Ok, so I really didn’t plan it that last week I riffed a little on the importance of Ceremony after listening again to the journey of artist Melody Overstreet – and wondered about and asked you all about how to incorporate more ceremony into our lives and then – BAM – we hear the story of Bettina Mueller whose whole garden is built on ceremony.

While most sources define ceremony as being very formal, polite and defined an action or series of actions of cultural, political or religious importance, I’m thinking there’s more to it than that – at least for me. just like there’s always more to a garden then a mere combining of plants. Bettina mentioned the art of calligraphy as one which transmits vigor – and I immediately thought: just like the daily ceremony of greeting and engaging with plants, and the garden, and the morning or evening light.

So I’m going to ask again about ceremony. How do you incorporate it into your days – your weeks? Is it weekly church service, mealtime prayers, bedtime gratitude journaling? Is it the way you cook your meals, or sweep your floors or rake your garden paths? Could it be some bit of all of these? I really hope you’ll share your thoughts = send me a note through the contact form at Cultivating Place. Com or leave a comment on this week’s episode notes post on Instagram or Facebook.

Maybe all of our work in the garden IS ceremony. Here’s how that came up: I pictured Bettina, as she described her favorite work time in the garden - she is on her hands and knees very carefully tending to and weeding the cobblestone path leading through the roji’s outergarden to it’s inner garden. She is enjoying her evening glass of wine and she says her face is right down at ground level paying attention to the details.

Picture it.

She is – as we all are – a supplicant to the beauty and mystery of this live we live in relationship to the garden. She is hedging her privet just so, she is rounding her boxwood, she is inhaling the healing scent of her native hemlocks and ferns and grasses, she is hand tying the black twine just so – with intention – into a repeated pattern over and over to create the stability and line of her bamboo fence. She is kneeling and kissing the ground of this garden.

She is literally and symbolically caring for her outer garden in order to take the best path to and care of her inner garden. As gardener’s aren’t we all doing this?

That is perfect ceremony built on reverence, celebration and gratitude in my mind.

I’d love to hear back from you all on this. If you have thoughts or stories to share please send them by email through the contact page at (scroll to bottom of page) or write them in the comments of this episode’s post on Instagram and Facebook.

And if you liked this episode – and feel moved – SHARE IT WITH FRIENDS. - with every single plant loving person you can think of on this planet. Because together we as gardeners make a difference in this world – in what we value and how we too embody and model these values forward.

The value we find in conversations like these is powerful action for positive shifts in this world. Thank you!

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