Preparing the soil
What kind of soil are you?
Winter has arrived in Virginia. I had covered the tomatoes and peppers during the first “teaser” frost, and they survived. When the first real frost came, I had to get out and pick all of the green tomatoes to save them.1 Now that the frost has come and winter is here, it is time to cut down the old plants and start preparing the soil for next year. There is still some life in the garden—some carrots remain to be pulled up; collard greens and kale provide some color. But other than that, the garden is dormant for the approaching winter.
When I started the vegetable garden in 2020, I had no understanding of the yearly cycle of tending the garden. I did not know how to amend and nurture the soil. Nor did I understand the importance of it, until the plants started to grow during 2021. Or, more accurately, not grow.
The vegetables in 2021 were spindly and weak. The plants were not vibrant and green. I began to learn that you can’t simply fill a raised bed with bags of soil and have a healthy garden. The soil itself is a living organism and requires attention. As I began to read and learn, I applied these lessons at the end of the 2021 season.
There is no immediate gratification to amending soil. In the fall of 2021, I cut down the dead plants and added compost. I planted some cover crops for the winter. I covered areas with leaves and light mulch. But the garden lay bare all winter, looking desolate. Patches of rye grass sprouted up.
This spring, the plants were slow to prosper. As we entered the summer season, however, I began to see a difference. The raised beds that I had carefully tended last fall were producing healthier looking plants. The raised beds that I had not given such care too were producing weak plants — or the seedlings just kept dying!
I planted some field peas in the ground near the back of the pasture as well. The lessons I was learning about taking care of the soil were confirmed when I saw how strong these field peas were in the pristine pasture soil!
I have been thinking about the steps I need to take in order to improve my raised bed soil for 2023. I have already amended some of the beds with compost. I planted cover crops. I mulched around some vegetable plants that I plan to over-winter. I turned over the soil in the pasture garden and planted buckwheat as a cover crop. All of this work should improve my chances of success in the garden next summer. At the moment, however, the garden looks barren and empty of life.
My ongoing lessons and reflections on working the soil turned into a speech on the art of legal writing for a group of trial lawyers earlier this month. My talk ended up comparing the soil amendment process—and resulting harvest—to excellent legal writing preparing the soil for a harvest during your jury trial. In contrast, if one fails to invest the time and effort in preparing the soil along the way (i.e. by following good principles for written advocacy), your plants will be weak and you will have a meager harvest (i.e. your jury trial may not go as well as you hoped). I think many trial lawyers are focused on the excitement and adrenaline rush of the jury trial and lose focus on the “soil tending” that is required throughout the long litigation process to prepare the ground for a victory. There is no immediate gratification to amending soil, and there is no immediate gratification to the discipline of writing well.
We find the same situation in the spiritual life. We see many references and analogies to farming, plants and soil in the Bible. We who live in the modern technological age lose sight of the many lessons in God’s creation because we are not involved in farming. Our ancestors, however, would have understood from their life experiences many of these lessons that escape us today.
For example, our ancestors would have understood intuitively that progress in the spiritual life is not linear—it is cyclical. There are seasons where God is close to us and everything is sweetness and light. There are also seasons, however, where God seems far away and our prayer life is in darkness. Our ancestors would have also understood that patience is required with the process. Just as the soil must be amended and tended and the seed planted and watered, the garden of the soul must be given the proper constant attention over time to bear fruit. Building a fruitful life of prayer requires consistency and discipline. There is no immediate gratification to amending soil, and there is no immediate gratification to the spiritual life.
Those familiar with the cycle of life in a garden will also understand that appearances can be deceiving. The winter garden appears desolate, without life. But it is the work put into the soil during the time of desolation that will make a difference later. As with the appearance of the winter garden and the need to amend the soil despite appearances, feelings in the spiritual life can be deceiving. When we are in “spiritual winter” and all seems lifeless, do not despair! There is still life under the ground, and the work you put into the garden of your soul during this time will bear fruit later. Persevere through the winter!
Jesus tells a famous parable about the sower and the seed, which appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. It is worthy of reflection.
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”2
As we prepare for the coming of Christ during this Advent season, it is good to consider the question—what am I doing to prepare my soil to receive the Word of God? Remember, there is no immediate gratification to amending soil, and there is no immediate gratification to the spiritual life.
What kind of soil am I? Does the seed (the Word of God) find a fruitful home in my heart? Have I been amending my soil by daily prayer? Have I been rooting out weeds by penance and mortification, such as fasting?
What kind of disciple am I? The kind choked by riches and the desire for other things? Is the garden of my soul tangled with weeds of worldliness? Is my garden full of the thorns of attachments to sin or bad habits?
Or am I the kind of disciple who hears the Word, accepts it and bears good fruit? What would our Lord Jesus find in the garden of our soul if He were to take a look at it right now?
I pray that you would dedicate yourself to rooting out the weeds and thorns in your spiritual life, that you would till the soil of your soul with prayer, repentance and mortification, that you would amend and fertilize your soil with the Word of God, and ultimately that the seeds planted by the Word in your soul would bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ Name. Amen!
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Due to a tomato plant that sprung up in my compost bin, I ended up with a giant box of green tomatoes. A friend suggested leaving them in the box in the basement to ripen. It worked and saved the tomatoes! The end result was 15 pounds of salsa plus some tomato sauce for the freezer.
Mark 4:1-20, RSV-CE; see also Mt. 13:1-23; Luke 8:4-15. I also discuss this parable in my book Effective Intercession for Our Loved Ones: Power Tools for Prayer.