This is not a new idea by any means. Some Native American tribes traditionally protected their planted corn kernels from birds and drought by packing them in handfuls of mud from local streams. Forty years ago, visionary Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka perfected clay seed balls as a sustainable way to plant the next crop of grain or vegetables without plowing or disturbing the residues of the previous crop.
Seed balls (or seed bombs, as they are sometimes called by gardeners who lob them over fences and into abandoned lots) are a great way to plant seeds of all sorts in places you can't take close care of, such as meadows, roadside strips, and stream banks. Seed balls are also a sensible method for planting vegetables or grains without digging or tilling the soil, or add spots of new color in established flower gardens without disturbing the plants already there. They are also helpful for handling tiny seeds, allowing you to put just a few seeds exactly where you want them—making a pack of seeds go a long way (saving you money). And if you garden with chickens, as I do, seed balls can help your freshly planted seeds survive an unexpected visit from pecking feathered friends.
Plus, seed balls are super easy and really fun to make (think mud pies) for kids of all ages. You can make them in the comfort of your kitchen regardless of the season or the weather; they last for months or even years before you plant them; and they even make great gifts!
Make Your Own Seed Balls
Most of the recipes you will find online use artist's clay and call for mixing a large quantity of seeds right into the clay mixture. But the following method takes only a little longer, works as well or better, and is far less expensive. Using clay from your property is a cost-saving option, if you have it, but I'd be careful about harvesting clay from any other location, as you will import weed seeds along with the clay, and you might not like what you end up planting.
Cheap, unscented clay kitty litter
Screened compost or organic seed-starting mix
Seeds (see suggestions and comments later)
Nontoxic paint (optional)
1. In a large bowl, combine roughly 5 parts dry, granulated clay (unused kitty litter) and 1 part fine compost or a good organic seed-starting mix.
2. Stir, adding water a little at a time, until the clay granules soften and blend with the compost to make a uniform mud patty dough. (Just make sure your compost doesn't contain these things.) You want it just moist enough that when you squeeze a handful firmly, it stays together and doesn't fall apart when you poke it with your finger.
3. Form your dough into rough balls, about the size of a golf ball or a little bigger (bigger for bigger seeds and dryer conditions), poking a finger or a stick into the middle of each to make a little "well." Set the balls on a cookie sheet or a cardboard tray lined with newspaper, "well" side up. Make as many as you want of the type of seeds you will use (make one tray at a time for larger batches so they don't start to dry before you get them finished).
4. Wash and dry your hands and drop just 2 or maybe 3 of the seeds of your choice (all the same or a variety) into each of the "wells." Once all have seeds in them, pick up each ball and gently squeeze it to seal the seeds into the center of a solid ball* of dough and put it back on the tray, not touching the others. (*If you will be planting on slopes, flatten them a bit so they won't roll.)
5. If the season is right and you want to "plant" them right away, you can (see below), setting them down gently rather than lobbing them long distances. Otherwise, label the tray indicating the type of seeds used (especially if you are planning to make different types and want to be able to tell them apart) and set it aside to dry in a place with good air circulation.
6. Once the balls are hard and dry (this may take a few days if your conditions are humid; less in dry, indoor air with a fan blowing over them), store them in paper bags.
Photography by Permacultured/Flickr
The type of seed in your balls and your climate will determine the best times to distribute or "plant" them. If you have a rainy season, you'll want to put the balls out on the surface of the soil where you want them to grow before the rains begin. Spring is a great time to get them started, but if the resulting plants won't be frost hardy, you'll want to wait to place the balls on the soil until just a few weeks before the last frost in the spring.
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Early fall is also a good time for many seeds. Since the clay needs to soak up water before the seeds will wake up and germinate, before a good rain is an opportune time to put the balls out. Set each ball carefully on the surface of the soil, if you like, or just toss them in a likely-looking spot (some folks even use a slingshot to increase their range into large, abandoned areas), aiming to land them on soil rather than on solid rock or pavement, of course. And that's it. You're done. If you are using seed balls in your garden, you could drop them in a shallow furrow or hole, but you don't have to. And you can provide the initial soaking with a watering can or sprinkler if you are in a hurry for them to start growing.
Choose seeds of plants that match the growing conditions of your prospective planting site: shade, sun, dry soil, moist soil, seasonal flooding, and so forth. For wild areas, please select only plants that are native to your location! Be sure to avoid those that are known invasives or weeds locally. Check with your state extension service or a reputable seed nursery for information on types. Seed balls are a great way to start wildflowers and native grasses. Native shrubs or trees seeds can be smart choices for areas that aren't subject to mowing. Vines are a good choice along ugly fences. (Plant these native plants like your life depends on it.)
Annual and perennial flowers are a terrific choice for abandoned gardens or empty lots in urban areas, as are some veggies and herbs (especially if people will be able to get to the plants to harvest them). Many herb flowers are also good food sources for beneficial insects.
In your own garden, seed balls are a versatile technique. They are convenient for planting new annual and perennial flowers in established beds where digging would be difficult and could damage existing plants. Seed balls can help you successfully start just about any small seed that might not make it without daily watering, perfect if you only get to your garden on weekends or for spaces beyond the reach of the hose. Seed balls are also an easy method for adding pole beans and squash to corn patches after the corn is a few inches tall or putting flowers and flowering herbs in established vegetable beds.
Note: A few kinds of seeds need light to germinate (the packet may say "don't cover seeds") and need special treatment. For these, prepare solid dough balls, press three or four seeds into the surface of the moist ball (at various places so at least some of them will be in the light), and let them dry. If the seeds seem to be falling off, put a drop of clear, nontoxic school glue over each seed and let the balls dry again.
The article How to Make Seed Balls originally appeared on Rodale News
Photography by foam/Flickr