Twice a year, I clear out our chicken coop, piling up the pine shavings and poop against the fence to cure over the course of 6 months. If I were to put it straight on the vegetable beds, the ammonia would burn the plants, so I give it plenty of time to break down before it’s ready to apply to the soil.
This spring I dressed the beds as normal with that nutrient-rich mix a couple of weeks before planting greens, lettuce, beets, carrots, parsnips and radishes. I love radishes. Not just for the crunch and their peppery flavor, but because they’re ready to harvest in 30 days – the first fruits of the soil every spring. They were the first seeds to germinate, and after such a long winter, I felt a little giddy to see those beautiful spring-green shoots start to emerge from the rich loam. And then they just kept growing. And growing. And growing. I’d never seen growth like it. At first, I was excited – how big are the radishes going to be this year?! – but then I began to think something was not quite right. So, I gently pulled back the soil from the base of one plant to check on the growth of the root, and as I did so, the plant began to fall over. I eased it out of the soil so as not to disturb others and found a slender root – not the swelling bulb I had expected to find. I was truly impressed that that tiny root could support that much growth above ground! But all the energy was going into the leaves, and not the root. And what I’m interested in is the root.
Consulting the oracle of Facebook, my friend and farmer Bill Guerrant (author of the delightful novel, Jim Wrenn) diagnosed the problem: too much nitrogen. Now, nitrogen is essential for green growth, and I must say the kale, collards and mustard greens were very happy this year. But the root crops? Not so much. Where had that excess nitrogen come from? Well, we endured a lengthy and very cold winter, and obviously that pile of poop and pine shavings had not cured enough, and so it appears I have ruined any chance of root crops this year.
My garden has much to teach me, if only I’ll pay attention. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, but is only one among many. Clearly when it comes to nitrogen, you can have too much of a good thing. Someone with no knowledge of vegetables may have seen all that leafy green growth above ground and been impressed. But all that visible display was at the expense of the root, which is where the goodness lies.
The garden teaches me more than just how to grow food. It teaches me how to grow a life that is in harmony with the One who creates life, and – for me – a life that more faithfully embodies the radical nature of the Way of Jesus. There are all kinds of good things I can do towards that end, but the danger is always to over-emphasize one at the expense of others. Mine is reading. I would happily spend all the hours available to me to read, and probably still never finish all the books on our shelves at home. But that just fills me with what my dad always called “head knowledge.” Valuable to a point, but not an end in and of itself. To get the true benefit of reading requires taking time to reflect on what I’ve read. To enter into conversation about it with others; to listen to what the Spirit is saying; and then to embody what I’m learning through action. When those things are in balance in my life, it begins to bear fruit that serves more than just myself.
What are you tempted to over-emphasize in your life? Endless discussion (or arguing!) over important things on social media – or in person – without taking time to be better informed about those things? Or maybe you’re prone to action: you’re out there “doing it,” but at the expense of relationships, or your health (physical, emotional and/or mental). Perhaps you’re prone to endless reflection: to the point where you find it difficult to take action, or to contribute to the conversation, “in case I’m wrong.”
Now, people may look on at our lives and be impressed by all our passionate talking. Or our activism. Or our thoughtful reflection. Or even our library. Lots of leafy green to admire in our lives. But if we scrape back the soil, maybe we’ll only find a slender root, barely holding us up. And when something disturbs the soil in which we’re planted, we’re in danger of falling. A productive, fruitful life requires all those things. Such a life truly becomes “radical” (a word derived from the Latin word for root, radix).
What’s your “nitrogen”? What do you over-emphasize in your life that keeps you from growing the strong roots necessary for the sustainable and fruit-bearing growth for which you were made? How might you begin to right-size that, and give yourself to the other things that together make for a healthy, productive life?