Not long ago, I was chatting with a friend about her garden. She had started a small one a few years before. The garden had produced a wonderful crop that first year. She couldn’t believe how easy it had been! But her joy gradually dwindled, turning into frustration as the seasons passed: “I don’t know what happened! It seemed like the plants produced less and less. Finally, I gave up. It didn’t make any sense to put work into a garden if we had nothing to show for it.” Oh, how I wish this was rare! Unfortunately, it’s a common problem for many gardeners. It brought back memories of my own struggles as well. In moments when you see decline, it’s easy to look at the plants and blame them for the lack of success. Truthfully, in these situations the blame didn’t belong to the plants. Something was happening beneath the surface. It’s time to talk about soil care.
I can only imagine the excitement I have conjured up at the mention of this topic. “Soil? Really?” I know, I know. Soil and dirt don’t appear to be that interesting. Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly the glamorous part of gardening. Soil isn’t a trending topic. It’s not beautiful. It’s not a useful marketing tool. Can you imagine Magnolia Farms magazine working on a “Healthy Soil” article? I can see it now! They hire a well-known photographer to come and capture Joanna Gains doing “dirt angels” in the field. Rest assured, it’s not happening.
This past winter, I ran into the topic of soil care as I started exploring the issues I was having with my blueberry bushes. I planted them a few years ago but couldn’t figure out why they had never taken off. I had lost two of them and replanted more but they continued to struggle. I even purchased a complementary variety to help them cross pollinate. It didn’t seem to help. They weren’t growing or flowering. I took my questions to the most reliable source; the internet. I was surprised to see the number of people who had difficulties with them. According to horticulturalists (those who study the science and art of growing plants), blueberry plants are some of the most temperamental of the berry family. Temperamental? Great… I picked a drama queen bush. I hate drama.
Let’s pause for a moment to walk down memory lane. Back in high school chemistry, you will recall a section about the “pH scale.” The scale is a measurement of acidity or alkalinity for water soluble substances (take a deep breath my non-science friends – you can do it!). It goes from 0-14; 7 is neutral, below 7 is acidic, and above 7 is basic or alkaline. In our part of the country, the soil pH typically stays between a 6.5–7. This is an ideal level for most of the plants we grow in the garden. But when it comes to blueberries, these divas won’t perform unless they have a pH level between 4.5-5.2.
So what does that mean for me? In order to have success with these berries, I needed to lower the pH level of the soil around the berry plants. I found several companies that provide blueberry food or soil acidifiers to assist in the process. A few of them offer organic options as well. It’s a similar treatment used for flower gardeners who want their hydrangea blue rather than pink. The next day, I went to Lowes to find the organic treatment. I applied it and was surprised to see how quickly the plants responded. They were budding and flowering within a few days!
Let me just say, my brief research into this topic revealed a hidden world beneath our feet that I knew little about. While I am not a horticulturalist, I have learned a few things I’ll share with you. Soil is the starting place for a healthy garden. It is an essential component in our ecosystem. Within the soil, there is a mixture of texture, structure, microorganisms, and minerals that come together to promote life. What many people fail to realize, is that soil has needs too. It requires care for sustainability. If we place too many demands on the soil without care or concern for rejuvenation, we will be guilty of exploiting it and leaving it damaged.
It wasn’t too long into my blueberry experience that the Lord began speaking to my heart. He took me back to the “Parable of the Sower” in Matthew 13. In the passage, Jesus begins to share truths of the Kingdom of God through story: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Jesus later goes on to explain the parable to his disciples: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
I love how Jesus describes the Kingdom using soil. He is the sower and is venturing out to sow the message of the Kingdom. The changing element in this story is the soil; the pathway, the rocky soil, the soil covered in thorns, and the good soil. Jesus ends the story by sharing the abundance that comes from good soil. Did you notice that Jesus explained that the soil represented our heart? Read it again: “…what was sown in their heart.” He then goes on to talk about how His message landed in good soil and flourished. You’ve got to love how Jesus uses this moment to declare the new covenant; those who receive the Kingdom have good and noble hearts (see Luke 8:15). “And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart,” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Let that sink in for a moment.
As one who has her hands in the soil, I started asking God about the story. What constitutes good soil? Is it possible to take poor soil and improve it? And once we have good soil, how do we maintain it so we avoid decline?
If we look again at the parable of the sower, Jesus doesn’t go into a lot of detail about what makes soil good other than its ability to grow things. That being said, He does say a lot about what makes the poor soil unhealthy. Looking at the path, we need to remember that they didn’t have concrete sidewalks in biblical times. The pathway is a compacted dirt trail. Compacted soil has no movement except for the dry dust blowing on top. You get a clear picture of the filth left on people’s feet as evident by the cultural practices of foot washing. It doesn’t take much to see what Jesus is speaking about here. He is addressing a heart that is hard and rigid. When we compare this to farm soil, we note that good soil has movement. A heart that is willing to move and change with the Truth is good soil.
Compared to the pathway, the rocky soil looks good on the surface. However, a quick dig reveals a different story. Jesus spoke about how this soil is shallow and full of obstacles. While there is some movement, there is little room for roots to develop. We know that a plant without roots will die. Roots are the lifeline for nutrients and water to develop a mature plant. It was in this part of the story where God began offering me insight into His heart for those who have been wounded. Let me explain. This past week, we were preparing the soil for planting. Part of that process involves a “fun family rocking picking” activity. Our kids hate it. Let’s be honest – I do too. It’s time consuming. It’s painfully back breaking. It’s not fun. Yet in spite of it all, it’s incredibly rewarding! There are fewer rocks now compared to when we first started. Picking rocks makes room for greater depths of soil to be accessed for growth. In the same way, deep within our hearts, we have obstacles; some have more than others. They may come in the form of pain from the past, trauma, unforgiveness, and anger. Picking surface level rocks doesn’t take as much effort. The kids like to kick those ones around so they don’t have to pick them up. But if you’ve ever had to go for the deep rocks, you’ll know that they have a tendency to be resistant. It takes a lot more work to pull them out. Some of them have been in there for a long time. The same is true with the unseen issues in our heart. You don’t know they’re there until you attempt to plant something and run into it with your tool. I’ve damaged a few tools that way. Unless we choose to put the back breaking work into loosening them and handing them over to God, they can prevent Truth from going deep into our heart.
Jesus goes onto describes the soil full of thorns and weeds. This soil offers a good start to the seed but the young plant quickly becomes overwhelmed and crowded. There is no room for the new plant to reach the sun or gather water through its roots. The result is a strangled plant. For those who follow my blog, you’ll know what’s coming. An overwhelmed and overcrowded life is not good soil. Good soil is weeded. Thorny bushes are cut back. Good soil means putting a stop to the busyness of life and chronic dissatisfaction that comes when we compare ourselves to those around us. It means saying no to excessive demands. It means asking the Lord before committing to ourselves, even to good things. It may mean putting our phone away more often to be present to what and who is in front of us. The invitation of sower is to cut away distraction and make room for Truth to grow.
Let me end with this. There is a place beneath the surface of our lives that is often hidden and ignored. It’s the place of the Heart. It is the core our being and source of our deepest thoughts, our deepest emotions, our motivations, and our desires. It is a place created by God and it matters to Him! In case you didn’t know, the heart is in need of care just like the soil. Some of what I’ve shared may be hitting you between the eyes. Maybe you may find that you resonate with the story of my friend’s declining garden. Maybe your heart started out well on this journey with Christ but is slowly losing life. Maybe you find that your heart is littered with obstacles that leave you residing in shallow places with God or those around you. Maybe you find your heart is being strangled by expectation, distraction, and dissatisfaction. Please know, you’re not the only one who feels like they’re drowning. Or just maybe your heart has been trampled for so long that you aren’t sure if change is possible. No matter the situation, God’s invitation is to partner with Him to become good soil! Even those who study soil conclude that changing the quality of soil is possible if you make the time and effort. Imagine for a moment what would have happened to my blueberry bushes if I had not stopped to access the situation and addressed the soil’s needs. I would have ripped out perfectly good blueberry bushes! It would have left me believing, “I’m no good at fruit. It’s too hard. I give up!”
Make no mistake – God loves you despite the condition of our soil. But God has so much more available! The Father is after sustainability in our walk with Him. God longs for those of us who aren’t afraid to take the journey of the becoming and finish the race well (Acts 20:23-24).
If you’re interested in taking time to assess the condition of your heart, I’d encourage you to look into a book I recently finished called “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Pete Scazzero.
If you’re more of a podcast person, check out these links:
Look for part 2 in the coming weeks. We’ll focus on ways to improve the soil and explore what it takes to maintain good soil.