Landscaper Lily Kwong Is All About Plant Mindfulness

Landscape designer Lily Kwong is sitting in the herb and flower garden at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, a garden she designed and created, leading a group of us journalists through a breathing exercise. In, belly deep. Let it out. Hold. We continue to box breathe for a few more minutes before switching gears to start talking about the concept for the garden we find ourselves in.

To Kwong, mindfulness and plant life are one and the same. As the founder of Studio Lily Kwong, a next-generation landscape design studio, her mission is to reconnect people to nature. Now, she’s partnered with JW Marriott to launch gardens—at the Desert Springs Resort & Spa, but also at the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa and JW Marriott Essex House New York—that are sort of kitchen gardens with a twist, using local vegetation and herbs. They’ll support the culinary efforts of the resorts, but also serve as an education and respite center for all guests who want to explore each space. “For me, [mindfulness and landscape] are a fully integrated experience,” says Kwong. “It’s my own kind of like wellness and self-care—plant life. It completely resets my whole energy field.”

We sat down with Kwong to talk through her Marriott partnership, how everyone is intrinsically a plant person, and the idea that plants reflect the care we give to ourselves.

On mindfulness and nature

Going on a walk in nature is like plugging back into a source. I’m sure you probably feature shinrin-yoku, the idea of forest bathing, where it drastically kind of reduces inflammation, de-stresses people, all these things that have incredible physiological benefits. So for me, extended periods in nature is really important to my mental health and well-being.

On gardening and connection

Gardening is a very meditative experience. It’s also a very humbling experience. I think for me, it’s taught me a lot of humility. There’s a reason why things like scrubbing the floors are part of a kind of spiritual training. It’s like that kind of getting down close to the ground, doing something repetitive, doing something where you can kind of turn off your analytical brain, is something that can be really healing, especially in our time, in our culture where you’re constantly overstimulated and kind of over-firing and overthinking.

I think the studies show that Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors. That’s staggering. And that, of course, would disrupt your kind of rhythms—circadian rhythms, your stress levels. So I think practices that get people outside can be incredibly healing.

On her thought of taking care of plants as meditation

Most people’s plants die because they’re not actually listening to them. Plants pretty clearly tell you if they need water or if they’re overwatered. Usually it’s a watering issue. They’re either being overwatered or under-watered.

For me, I push my finger in the soil and like baking a cake, if the soil comes up and is covering my finger, it’s too wet. And I leave it. So that’s just it. That’s a very practical thing, but then I think the more energetic advice is to just take a second to check in with your houseplants every day. It can be a split second, but often people are not attuned to them. And so there’s suffering, and they’ve been screaming out for water for days, and then it’s too late.

Then the second reason why they usually die is sun exposure—they’re either not getting enough sun or they’re getting too much. My plant Yoda guru guy always says, “Right plant, right place.” For example, the common fiddle-leaf fig, they need a ton of sunlight. Whereas like philodendron, those more kind of big, tropical, leafy plants, they can take a little bit more shade.

On the myth of not being a “plant person”

The amount of times people find out what I do or they know what I do, and they say, “Oh, I can’t keep a plant alive” is just so common. And it’s so sad to me that people feel like they’re lethal to their plant. I just think we are very similar to them. It’s like, we need care. We need water. We need nutrients. We need to be listened to.

We all have a birthright. Every single one of our ancestors were connected to plants. They were or else your line would’ve died off. This is something that is very deep in our DNA and our intuition buried somewhere. Some people buried much, much deeper.

We are part of the natural world. We are part of an ecosystem. For me really, it is sensitivity. It’s just paying attention, really listening. If you do kill your plant, think about why you killed it before you just throw it away. Take a couple mental notes, apply it, buy the same plant, try again.

So finding a familiarity again and an intimacy with plants, I think that would solve a lot. They aren’t these mystical, mysterious creatures that are totally alien to us. They all surround us always, even if we’re in a major city. It’s like plants are in the planter beds and the windowsills inside. They’re all over. It’s just about paying attention.

This interview’s been editing for clarity and length. 

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