Synergy

There’s always been a part of me that has been intrigued by math. It’s not the predictability of it that I like. It’s the surprises. It’s is the realization that for many things in life, one plus one really doesn’t equal two. It can sometimes equal four, or perhaps seven. Sometimes bringing two things together creates magic, and the forces of the two aren’t just added; they’re multiplied. This happens in chemical reactions, with yeast mixed with flour, water, and salt, with companion plantings in the garden, with grass and grazing animals, and sometimes with people, too. Things are supposed to work that way. It has to do with the character of the Creator, and the way He has put things together.

There are hundreds of examples of companion plantings passed down in garden lore. Sometimes plants are paired together so they can provide shelter, support, and nutrition for each other. Native Americans often planted the three sisters (maize, beans, and squash) together for such mutual advantage, producing a nutritious combination of food for the winter months. The maize (corn) grew tall and required a nitrogen rich soil; the climbing beans fixed nitrogen for the maize, while also using the maize stalks to climb high for good ventilation; the squash ran between the hills of maize and beans, serving as a living mulch to hold in moisture and smother the competing weeds. The result was an easily harvested, easily stored, nutritious supply of food, grown as God intended.

Companion plants are sometimes called upon to protect the target plants from marauding insect pests. This is accomplished in several different ways. One common example involves planting marigolds or fragrant herbs among the vegetables to confuse or repel pests. Sometimes, instead of functioning as a repellent, the companion plant masks the presence of a target plant or draws the pests away from the target plant by being even more attractive. In some cases, companion plants attract and sustain beneficial insects, summoning an insect army to fight the pests. There are many different ways that companion plantings create synergy in the garden.

This sort of synergy works for people in communities, too. In the creation account in Genesis, we are told that God created man in his own image. But initially the man was alone in the world God made, and this was recognized as being “not good.” So God made a helper who was just right for him—the woman. Together they would have the power to rule the earth and create life by bearing children through their union. Later, the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote on this theme:

“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

We have all experienced synergy with others in some way or another. Ideas are generated by a group of creative people that never could have been generated by the contributions of each individual alone. One person’s idea sparks other ideas, which build and build, until it produces something new that is nothing short of a miracle. It also happens in the sports arena, where one team member moves in concert with another, who then moves with another, producing a synergy that cannot easily be stopped.

Companion plantings, the ingredients of any good recipe, and individual members of a community can all function as a unified body. Listen to the apostle Paul as he describes the community of believers as a body:

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. (1 Corinthians 12:12-26)

So what is the force behind such creative synergy? It involves the selfless offering of our gifts to others, driven by the powerful presence of God’s life-giving Spirit. The differences between individuals need to be embraced as a strength in the community, not a force that divides, as they so often are. Our diversity should provide the rich array of gifts necessary to accomplish really great things—a force to draw us together with the help of God’s Spirit, so that we function as a complete, miracle-working body, the very presence of Christ on earth.

Garden Tip: Try some creative companion plantings to solve some of your pest problems in the garden. Below are a few you might want to try. For more, do a web search on “companion planting,” and you’ll find many ideas to experiment with. 

  • Plant old fashioned marigolds throughout your vegetable garden, since their scent repels many different pest insects. (Be aware that some hybrid varieties lack the necessary scent for this.)
  • Plant the mint family around your garden, especially near cabbage family plants, since they are believed to repel cabbage pests, as well as aphids. (It is wise to plant the mint family in pots, since they tend to take over.)
  • Plant rue as a border plant to slow down Japanese beetles and scatter the plant clippings around the beetle-infested plants.
  • Plant sweet basil throughout your vegetable and flower gardens, since its strong scent repels aphids, mosquitoes, mites, and tomato hornworms. (Crush leaves and rub them on your skin as a mosquito repellent, too, if you don’t mind smelling like a basil plant!)
  • Plant thyme and tomatoes near your plants in the cabbage family to control a number of their common insect pests. 
  • Plant radishes or nasturtiums in your cucumber beds to control cucumber beetle infestations.

Also try some interplanting or succession planting to enrich the soil and help plants with particular nutritional needs. A three sisters garden is one example of this, but there are many other ways to to this including planting a series of plants in a given bed within the same year or rotating your beds in successive years.

As you garden creatively with nature and observe how these various plants help each other, remember that many of the same principles observed in the garden come into play in our human communities as well.

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Weeds

With all the uncertainties that accompany any growing season in the garden, one thing can be counted on—a constant battle with weeds. They sprout innocently enough in early spring and if you keep up with them, it is possible to keep them under control. But if you turn your head for a minute, you’ll find yourself fighting an uphill battle. And if you let the weed plants go to seed, you’ll be fighting that battle for years to come.

Weeds will find their way into your garden in many ways. They fly on the wind (dandelions, thistles, willow, maple, elm, to name a few), animals carry them in and bury them (acorns, walnuts, sunflower seeds), birds eat berries and plant the seeds with their droppings (mulberries, buckthorn, elderberries, blackberries, etc.). Sometimes weeds, including grasses, wild morning glories, and thistles, have amazing root systems that spread into the garden from neighboring areas via the underground.

And sometimes I’m the culprit. After weeding, I often throw weeds that have already set seed into my compost pile, and I don’t usually turn the pile often enough to maintain the heat required to kill the seeds. When I spread the compost a year or two later, it often contains an amazing array of weed seeds (and perennial flower seeds, too). It’s as though I’m planting them! All this is to say that weeds are highly skilled at survival, and somehow call on help from many different quarters to reproduce themselves. I suppose it’s this reproductive prowess that makes them weeds.

Jesus once told a parable about God’s Kingdom, using weeds as the primary illustration:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’ ‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. ‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

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Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.”

Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 13:36-43)

This problem of weeds infecting wheat and barley fields has been a problem in the Middle East since ancient times. The particular weed Jesus probably had in mind was either darnel grass (Lolium temulentum) or Syrian scabious (Cephalaria syriaca). Both are noxious weeds that mix with grain crops and cause significant damage to the harvest. Darnel grass, being in the grass family, looks a lot like wheat and is tough to identify, even when it’s mature. As a result, it is often harvested and threshed with the wheat. A poisonous fungus lives in the darnel grains, ruining any flour where it is present. Its poison can cause nausea, convulsions, or even death when eaten in sufficient quantities. (Darnel seeds have been found with grain stored in 4000-year-old Egyptian tombs.) The Syrian scabious is not related to wheat, but its seeds often get mixed in during the harvest. When the seeds get mixed, they continue to be sown together year after year, producing a bitter though edible flour. Sometimes this weed overwhelms the wheat and the farmer turns to harvesting the scabious seeds for survival. The seeds look like a black wheat grain.

The weeds in Jesus’ story are a picture of how some people function in relation to God’s Kingdom. They are a force that disrupts the good work of the Farmer, who is seeking to grow and harvest good grain for the Kingdom. Such wicked seeds are planted by the evil one in order to disrupt the good works of God, but in the end the Kingdom will prevail and judgment will be brought against the evil forces in this world. This is a reminder to be careful not to function as a weed, which is nothing less than being an instrument of evil.

Weeds also illustrate how the many small forces for evil in our lives, if allowed to grow and reproduce, can quickly overwhelm the good work God is doing in us. Weeds in a life, just like in a garden, have ways of reproducing themselves and spreading. And, as with weeds, the insidious effects of sin are all around us and will always be with us. They often blow in on the wind from the surrounding environment. Sometimes they come in on the bottom of our feet or in the compost (“good deeds”) we spread. Be careful to keep them under control, or they may come not only to overwhelm your own life, but the lives of others around you as they spread.

Garden Tip: Just as weeds have many means of spreading and surviving, there are many things we can do to slow them down and control them. Here are a few things that might help:

  • Deal with the weeds early in the season, before they take hold, so they don’t disrupt the growth of your garden plants. Your vegetable and flower production will be significantly better if you remove their competition for nutrients, water, and sunlight.
  • Deal with the weeds early (and often) when they are small and much easier to remove. Then by mid-season, your battle will largely be won. This will also keep them from setting seed for the next year, making each successive year’s weeding in your garden easier.
  • When you weed, pull them by the roots! If you just get the green tops, they will just re-sprout and come back stronger. Some weeds are notorious for breaking off as you pull them (purslane, for example) . Use a hoe or other tool that cuts the roots off below the surface. Weeds with a long taproot need to be cut off well beneath the surface.
  • Mulch heavily around larger plants to smother weed seedlings or to make the weeds easier to pull, since they will be growing through a soft medium. It also helps to weed when the soil is moist. Weeds growing in hard, dry soil are tough to pull up by the roots.
  • Avoid putting older weeds (with fruit or seed on them) in your compost pile unless you plan to maintain a hot pile. Otherwise you will find that you are the primary culprit behind the weeds growing in your garden.
  • Harvest the nutritious greens from some of your weeds, like dandelions, purslane, and lambsquarters; this will slow them down a bit! But then pull them before they can spread their seed.
  • If the weed seeds have already overwhelmed your soil and garden, solarize the affected beds by covering them with a clear plastic sheet in early spring; bury the edges of the sheet under the soil. The sun will quickly warm the soil under the plastic, and weed seeds will sprout early, and by the thousands. As the weather warms, the air under the plastic will grow too hot for any plants to survive, and most of the seedlings will die. At planting time, roll up the plastic, cultivate the soil, and plant your garden. There will be far fewer weeds as the season goes on. This practice also helps to kill some fungi and bacteria that hide in your soil and cause plant diseases.

As you wrestle with the weeds in your garden and look for creative ways to control them, remember that many of the principles for controlling weeds may offer wisdom for dealing with the sin in your life. Reflect on this as you work, and look for ways to weed sin from your head, heart, and hands—early and often.