Today I’m going to share a little bit on an exciting and fun way to easily add plant diversity to your property (or neighborhood).
They’re called “seed balls.”
I’ve done a couple of minor articles on them recently (like my re-post of this documentary), but now I’m diving in hard-core to share why they’re so useful.
For years I read about seed-balls, guerrilla-planted seeds and cuttings around my neighborhood, read the “One-Straw Revolution”… and yet never took the plunge and made my own or tested them out.
One of the reasons for this isn’t my fault. Finding clay in my area is a pain. And clay is key to this process. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I now make lots of seedballs now and I find them quite impressive. You can do it too, but before we make any – let’s start with the basics.
What is a Seedball?
Did you ever work with clay or play with playdough as a kid? I took a ceramics class in college and discovered I was really, really good at making two things:
For some reason I didn’t do very well in that class… and my subsequent pottery exhibition Round Things and Long Things: Selected Works was an abject failure. People don’t appreciate real depth in art anymore.
Anyhow, if you can make a ball out of clay, you can make a seedball. Seedballs are just small, round balls of clay with seeds mixed into them. The brilliant Masanobu Fukuoka can be credited with their reappearance in modern times, though the concept is ancient. First I’m going to tell you how to make them… and next, I’ll tell you why you should make them
Making Your Own Seedballs
First, gather some seeds. This is the fun part.
If you’re looking for nitrogen-fixers in your food forest, gather up some seeds for those. Good annual choices include beans, vetch, clover, peas and lentils. For good nitrogen-fixing trees, you’ll have to pay attention to your growing zone and see what works. In my area I use various cassias, leucana, ear-pod tree, dwarf poinciana, coral beans and black locust.
What if you were looking for food crops instead? In that case, pick some good tough plants like kale, collards, mustard, turnips, watermelons, beans, and radishes. You might also mix in peppers, tomatoes, dill, lettuce, etc. Some of these things will grow, some won’t… but that’s okay. You’re going to just let nature select what works in your space.
If you wanted to attract pollinators and add beauty to your yard, grab a wildflower mix and add it to your collection of seeds. Zinnias, sunflowers and cosmos are also really easy to grow… but don’t limit yourself too much. Just go crazy with whatever you have.
The last mix I made included annual Mexican sunflower, cosmos, marigolds, emmer, lentils, Florida cranberry, pepitas, royal poinciana, amaranth, tobacco, Seminole pumpkin, adzuki beans, mustard, kale, kenaf, buckwheat, leucana, corn, various wildflowers, native seeds I gathered on walks… and a bunch of other random stuff I can’t remember. Many of these seeds may not take… but many of them will.It’s a great way to clear out the half-empty and old packets of seed in your collection. Send them off into the void and see what happens.
Once you have your seeds, you need clay. Local is best because it makes sense. I don’t have any on my property but my cousin has some on his… so I brought buckets over and claimed some. Next time I’m in Appalachia, I’m also going to bring home 100 gallons or so of the good, thick clay from the mountains… lots of minerals… lots of ability to bond with humus and create long-term compost…
But I digress.
The clay doesn’t even have to be really thick stuff. You can use local soil if it has enough “stick” to it to make a good clod when it’s dry. That’s all you need.
When you have your seeds and clay, get a big mixing bowl and knead the seeds into the clay, making sure they’re mixed in well. I like to have multiple seeds in each ball for redundancy… if you throw enough seeds in the mix, this will take care of itself. If you like, you can also mix in some compost. I sometimes add kelp meal to my seed balls as a solid fertilizer for the up-and-coming baby plants.
Then, just make balls about the size of a penny and start lining them up. It’s really fun to do with children or your spouse or all of the above. My kids and I sit on the back porch in the sun and make great big trays of seedballs some afternoons. When it’s cold, I sit at the dining room table.
Once you’ve rolled all your clay/seed mix into balls, it’s time to dry them. I usually just put them out in the sun to dry or put them next to a fan. On occasion I’ve also used my food dehydrator on its lowest temperature setting. You just want to make sure they dry reasonably fast so the seeds don’t germinate prematurely.
Why Would You Do All This?
There are many reasons to create and sow seedballs. In nature, seeds get randomly scattered by wind, rain and animals. Some are even shot into the sky by their parent plant. One thing almost all seeds have in common, though: most of them never get a chance to grow. Seeds are thrown in great abandon across the landscape. Many are eaten by animals, some drift off to sea, others simply never find favorable conditions for growth so they rot instead of sprout. Think about how many seeds fall from a maple tree… if all of those swirling helicopters germinated, the world would be a solid mass of maple.
All that to say… nature is a cruel place for a tiny seed. What a seedball does is give seeds a head start. Instead of simply throwing bare seeds on the ground and hoping for the best, you’re encasing them in earth already… so they’re basically “planted” wherever you toss them. If you’re establishing a food forest or reclaiming a large area, they’ll give you more bang for your buck than random scattering. You’ll get a much higher germination rate without having to do much prep work. Spring and fall are a good time to throw them around… I’ve been scattering them across my yard for the last month in anticipation of warm weather waking them up and surprising me with a plethora of blooms and edibles. I have no idea what’s going to grow in my yard and where. I don’t even know anything about some of the seeds I mixed in. This is creating plant diversity at its finest.
If you have a rough area, why not mow it, then throw some seedballs around? Mix in tree seed and you could reforest a bare lot. Or if you’re a beekeeper, you could plant a bunch of bee-feeding plants without having to till and prepare a serious bed.
Another great reason to do this: guerrilla gardening. Is there an ugly lot in your neighborhood? A bare spot beside the road? A local jail that needs a patch of flowers? Seed balls are the ticket! (Or “seed bombs” as some call them.) Keep a jar in your car and start chucking them out the window as the mood hits you.
One more thing on seedballs: I’ve been told (by Sean Law) that they do better when they’re sown, not just tossed. You can put them on a little bit of open earth and step on them, or plant them nicely. Apparently, the germination rate is higher because they don’t dry out again as easily after a rain that way. That said, I’ve had them do well just tossed out.
This method isn’t for everyone. If you’re a neat freak or like to have control, seedballs may not be for you. For everyone else, they’re a lot of fun – and just one more useful tool in the gardener’s arsenal.