Gardening and the Dharma – A Natural Fit

This is an interview with Lucas Kovacevich who joined the community at Gampo Abbey in 2017 and remained for almost four years. During his tenure he served the community as the Head Gardener, tending an existing garden and bringing a new level of abundance to the space. He influenced a community of folks who became more connected with growing. 

In conversation with Trinkar Ötso, Director of Gampo Abbey….

Trinkar: I know that your training is in contemplative approaches to growing. I’m always curious about how you use the word, contemplative

Lucas: I think that what it means to undertake a contemplative practice is very similar to undertaking meditation practice. It is considered a practice. It’s not just something that you casually do, although I think we can have a casual attitude about it. There is a sense that it’s a practice that helps support one in awakening and being present. And that mindset is there throughout the practice, or at least that aspiration is there throughout the practice.

Trinkar: Was there a moment when you decided, wow, I want to have a different approach to growing stuff? 

Lucas: I think I’ve been lucky in the way that I’ve been introduced to gardening because I was never part of a large commercial operation. I initially worked on two small farms in Illinois and then made my way to Karmê Chöling where the whole approach is contemplative there, and that’s also a small environment. So contemplative gardening was my introduction to gardening, I didn’t necessarily know anything else.

Trinkar: Did you have a taste for it on the farms in Illinois? 

Lucas: I moved to Illinois right after I was living in New York City. The area that I lived in was very rural and not much around, not much to do. Just beautiful rolling hills, really close to the Mississippi. I found the environment very inviting for that type of practice. 

Trinkar: And were you apprenticing with a farmer there? 

Lucas: I would use apprenticing very lightly.

Trinkar: You came to work as a farmhand? 

Lucas: Yeah. Yeah. 

Trinkar: And caught the bug. 

Lucas: Caught the bug, yeah. I was burnt out after living in the city. That environment and that lifestyle weren’t for me and I needed a change of pace and scenery. I was invited out there, and it was the perfect setting, the perfect balm for healing after living in that type of intense or active environment. 

I worked on the two farms. I worked there for two seasons, and my mentors there had some knowledge of gardening, but not much. And it got to a point where I felt that I surpassed what they knew and needed to work under someone who knew more than they did. I was also seeking a community-type environment. Additionally, when I lived out there, I started meditating. I got involved in the Goenka retreats through their center outside of Chicago, and was looking for a contemplative community to support both my gardening practice and my meditation practice. 

Trinkar: So they kind of arose in parallel?

Lucas: Exactly. The right place at the right time.

Trinkar: And then when you got to Karma Chöling, you engaged with the contemplative gardening program?

Lucas: It was a six-month program. And then I loved it there. I loved being in community, a contemplative community where I could really just dive into the Dharma and be around folks who are practiced and who are just as interested and eager as I was. And I also got the training I was seeking for gardening. I got a job the following year in the garden and then I stayed on. I stayed on for two additional seasons after the apprenticeship. 

There was a hunger I felt for soaking in the Dharma and soaking in gardening that felt at times insatiable. I was just so eager to learn. My goal was that one day I could tend my own garden in a responsible manner and be a genuine student of the Dharma. 

There was a hunger I felt for soaking in the Dharma and soaking in gardening that felt at times insatiable. I was just so eager to learn. My goal was that one day I could tend my own garden in a responsible manner and be a genuine student of the Dharma. 

Trinkar: And then you came to Gampo Abbey?

Lucas: I didn’t even realize that Gampo Abbey existed until I saw a flyer at Karmê Chöling. I had always wanted to try out something like living at a monastery, and it just never seemed possible until I realized that Gampo Abbey existed. And that felt like the perfect situation to try living at a monastery and to undertake temporary vows and see what that was like. 

Trinkar: Did you even know anything about the garden at the Abbey? Did you ask about that in your interview? 

Lucas:  I had heard a little bit about it. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into fully and what I would be taking on or not taking on.

Trinkar: What were your thoughts when you first saw the garden? Do you remember? You arrived in the middle of the winter. 

Lucas: That’s the garden. That’s small. The garden at Karmê Chöling is about an acre, and they don’t have raised beds there. So that was different for me as well. But I liked the fact that the garden was so close to the building and overlooking the water and that it could be accessed really easily. 

Trinkar:  I remember that first winter you spent seemingly every evening in the library working on your charts and planning your beds and planning your seedlings and time schedules for it all. 

Lucas: Yeah, I was so excited. My training and experiences at Karmê Chöling were just a perfect training ground for me, preparing me to take on the garden at Gampo Abbey and just take it on full steam ahead. I had learned everything from planning and crop rotation and organic management, all the way to harvesting and how you wash a certain vegetable so that you don’t damage it. I was just so eager to be the one responsible for everything and be making mistakes and learning from my mistakes … putting my knowledge to the test, so to speak. 

Trinkar: Certainly a highlight of my first year was our first Garden Service Day (a day each spring when we spend the whole day working together in the garden). Can you speak about that? 

Lucas: I had always envisioned that the garden would be a place where the community felt involved in some regard, no matter their expertise or even interest. I wanted it to be a welcoming place for all. And Garden Service Day was certainly a way to start that, to start getting folks involved.

Trinkar: But I remember you setting it up with a real Dharma flavour, too. You’d offer us a reading at the beginning or a contemplative question to mull over for the day.

Lucas: There was the opportunity to relax into an activity and take it on as a contemplative practice. That’s part of the view that I wanted to offer in engaging with Garden Service Day. I think especially in this environment of heightened awareness of the climate crisis, it’s so important that we understand our relationship with the natural world and with the Earth. Just offering that opportunity to engage differently, even for a moment was a success to me. 

Trinkar: And we had a few flops along the way and a few incredible successes.

Lucas: One thing was getting used to the environment there. I came from Vermont. The zones have changed, so I don’t remember what zone it was, but it was a different zone. And also where we lived is a microclimate, we lived right on the water and we got the Suêtes, and that was something! (Les Suêtes are the winds that are typical of this area that frequently reach speeds of 100kph). The wind was certainly something to get used to. So I think in a way, that first season was just really a test to see what worked, what didn’t work, and see what would grow well in our environment without an incredible amount of effort.

Trinkar: It’s astonishing now to think about what you were able to produce with essentially one person and a few helpers.

Lucas: I think the community just saw how important the garden was for the community, that we could grow our own food, a good chunk of it during the warmer months. And also the relationship that we could form with the natural world through gardening, I think was an important part of it too. In the later seasons, I started to have people come out and volunteer during their service period and spend more time other than just the one service day in the garden. And so there were quite a few people who had an interest in learning how to garden. Getting them out there more often, getting them thinking about gardening in a different way.

Trinkar: We calculated the financial output of the garden over those years. We got an average of $6,000 worth of produce out. 

Lucas:  I don’t even think we invested much, I think I asked for $200 that first year. It wasn’t even that much money. I think we got $5000 or $6,000 worth of produce most of those years. 

Trinkar: And we grew some pretty exotic things. It wasn’t just cabbage and carrots and potatoes.

Lucas: Pok Choy was one of our better crops. There were always lots of lettuce greens.

Trinkar: Even in the off-season, there were microgreens that you grew in the seed palace. Can you say more about the seed palace – maybe describe the first year?

The first year, the previous gardener had set up some shelves in the hallway outside the laundry room. I think there were two shelves. Coming from Karmê Chöling where we had a whole basement to start seeds – so I saw those two shelves, and I was like, oh, boy. And then I convinced Sopa (head of housekeeping at the time) to give me some room in the laundry room. I dusted off some lights, some shop lights that I had found somewhere. And then I had mice eating my lettuce greens, and I had to move stuff to my bedroom, where half was devoted to plants.

I made it work, but I don’t think it was ideal.      After that first season, understanding and seeing the success of the garden, I convinced the powers that be, that it was important that I had a proper setup to start seeds. I thought I could be more efficient with my time if I had a proper setup. So our neighbour retrofitted the old garden supply room and got it all set up for me. It was the perfect space. I think if anything, it’s a little too well insulated! It would get pretty hot in there in the summertime.

Trinkar: But you monitored temperature, you monitored humidity and light. 

Lucas: Everything was on a timer. The fan was on. I think the fan was on a timer, but also if it got too hot in there, the fan would turn on. It was a well-oiled machine for sure. And completely mouse-free.      

Trinkar: Maybe there’s a Dharma equivalent to setting aside a time and a space to practice and having a strong enough intention to put in place the building blocks for the life one aspires to. You invested in the seed palace, you invested in a plan, a schedule, like our monastic schedule. 

Just like our practice, if we want our practice to flourish, it needs care and attention, constant care and attention. The same can be said of plants and gardening. 

Lucas: Definitely. I think there’s a lot to be said for having an intention and then following through with it. That can carry a lot of energy into a plan. I was going up to the seed palace four or five times a day to ensure that things were well taken care of, the temperature was just right, the humidity was just right, and things were watered. Just like our practice, if we want our practice to flourish, it needs care and attention, constant care and attention. The same can be said of plants and gardening. 

Trinkar: What’s the favourite thing that you’ve grown?   

Lucas: Gosh, that’s hard. That feels hard because I feel like everything I grew felt magical in some way because our garden was so small. I think that one of my favourite crops throughout the seasons is parsnips, because of the practice of overwintering them and then harvesting them when the soil thaws in the spring and after the long winter, being able to eat something fresh like that from the ground. They always feel like such a treat in the spring.   

Just being quiet and present for life’s small and often unnoticed mysteries is really powerful, especially over a period of time in the same place.

Trinkar: What about the newcomer? How can gardening enhance a new meditator’s life? 

Lucas: Just being quiet and present for life’s small and often unnoticed mysteries is really powerful, especially over a period of time in the same place. And that is a practice that I have often recommended to people, even people who aren’t meditators. It’s helpful to think about that as a practice for someone who enjoys gardening, especially during this time of year when the garden is closed down. It’s helpful to continue to go to your garden or the spot where your garden is and be present for the changes that are happening during this time of year. 

Trinkar: What about the winter garden? We’re in a particular situation this year that the last summer we had a very modest garden, and many of the beds were sewn with a cover crop to nourish the soil, to prepare. Our whole community was essentially in a year of retreat and renewal, looking to nourish ourselves and I guess vitalize our aspirations. So I’m so curious about the parallels with a garden that way. Can you say more about that? 

Lucas: Nothing is wasted in nature. And the same can be said of the dormant period. It’s interesting to think about winter in terms of what humans like to do during the winter: eating a lot, sleeping,  and nourishing ourselves. I think the garden is no different in that way after being productive. It’s like the garden needs a rest too, and we can support its rest with the practice of growing cover crops. For one thing, especially in a windy place like the Abbey, growing cover crops like oats and peas, can help protect the soil from erosion. And then in the springtime, what we can do is turn those cover crops over and the bacteria in the soil, the microbes in the soil will feed on whatever’s left over, and that will help get the soil started in the springtime and ready for more life.

Trinkar: You also have some of the most amazing field notes that I’ve ever seen in my life. Your notes are meticulous. 

Lucas:  That was something I learned to do. Meticulous notes help everyone, yourself included, because you never know who’s going to come next after you or who’s going to know what happened or how it happened, or what worked or what didn’t work. I would say I’m a naturally curious person, so I would see something and immediately I’d wonder, what’s that? Why is that happening? What’s going on here? So I would say, if anything, it kind of heightened my natural curiosity being in the garden.

Trinkar: I had a surprising experience on retreat a few years ago where I took some of my plants with me from my room, and it totally astonished me how nourishing it was to be able to have plants to watch while I was on retreat. Over a month, the plant really does change. It was like a friend to have with me, but also kept my powers of observation going. I would often draw the plants. So I learned that even a little house plant can be a contemplative practice. 

Lucas: That’s a place to start: in the wintertime with a house plant. It’s been interesting since I moved to a new apartment with a new orientation and trying to find out where the plants like it best, what works for one plant, where it likes to be on the bookshelf, and what type of sun it likes, how far away from the window, how close to the window, all these things.      

Trinkar: Could gardening be a way for people to start, a gateway into meditation? 

Lucas: Why not? I think it has to do with one’s intention and aspirations. So going to the garden and reminding yourself that you want to be present with what you’re experiencing, what you’re noticing through your senses and in your mind. Spending, say, the first 10 minutes of your gardening time just trying to be present and aware and witnessing your experience through a kind and gentle attitude. And then just taking it from there. But starting small. 

Trinkar: It doesn’t have to be an acre.

Lucas: And it doesn’t have to be an hour. It could be taking care of house plants. 

Trinkar: What are your favourite resources? If people wanted to learn more about a contemplative approach to gardening, who are some of the authors that might have influenced you? 

Lucas: I haven’t read much specifically focused on contemplative gardening. Eliot Coleman’s book on small acreage farming, The New Organic Grower, is a good one but he’s written quite a few books. I think the beauty with [Coleman’s approach] is [the emphasis on] being able to tend to the land in a conscious way and being responsible in your techniques and methods of farming. 


Coleman E. Field M. C. Amsel S. & Hawken P. (1995). The new organic grower: a master’s manual of tools and techniques for the home and market gardener(Revised and expanded). Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Coleman E. (1992). The new organic grower’s four-season harvest: how to harvest fresh organic vegetables from your home garden all year long. Chelsea Green Pub.

Dolan P. & Raven P. (2022). Contemplative gardening. Church Publishing Incorporated.

Fortier J.-M. (2014). The market gardener: a successful grower’s handbook for small-scale organic farming. New Society.

Johnson W. (2008). Gardening at the dragon’s gate: at work in the wild and cultivated world. Bantam Books.

Lucas Kovacevich was a resident of Gampo Abbey from 2017 to 2020. After he left the Abbey he returned to graduate school to train in social work. He now works as a Mental Health Clinician and Care Coordinator in the Neurology Health Care Service of the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. He still maintains a garden plot and continues to act as Garden Consultant to Gampo Abbey.