2010-10-10 “Seed balls - lob one, let nature take its course”
by Janny Hu from “San Francisco Chronicle” [http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-10-10/home-and-garden/24119369_1_seed-balls-fred-bov-soil]:
On a recent sun-kissed afternoon, we got our hands dirty in The Chronicle's rooftop garden. We mushed together some clay, soil, seeds and water in a large bucket, then packed the sludge into hollowed-out eggshells.
We were making seed balls, a sort of all-in-one tool for preserving and propagating plants. And while our eggshell versions may have been on the fancy side, how they work is simple.
Just scatter the seed balls over soil and wait. When the rainy season comes, the seed balls will decompose. When warmer weather arrives, the seeds will germinate. Over time, you'll have budding plants on your hands, without ever having to dig.
It's a low-cost, low-maintenance way of planting that the late Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka helped pioneer over the last half century. Fukuoka's focus was on natural farming - he believed that the no-till method was best for the soil and ecosystem - and seed balls offered several advantages.
First, the hard casing protects the seeds from being blown away or eaten by birds and other animals. Second, they don't require watering or planting. Third, they can help rejuvenate soil once they break down.
"They're great for places where you're not going to be around to care for, but still want to improve the soil or property," says Fred Bové, our gardening instructor from the San Francisco Permaculture Guild.
Not surprisingly, seed balls have become a guerrilla gardener's best friend: Simply sprinkle or lob the balls into vacant lots, then watch plants pop up over time. (This, in fact, is the idea behind the Greenaid Seed Bomb dispensers set up at stores like Bi-Rite in San Francisco. Drop 50 cents into the converted gumball machine, and instead of candy you get some native wildflower seed balls.)
As for the home gardener, seed balls offer a distinctive way to save seeds. It's a fun project that kids can help with, and the seed balls themselves make great gifts, as with our tidy eggshell packages.
Making seed balls isn't an exact science, but the overall composition is important. Bové suggests a 3:2:1 ratio of clay to soil to seeds to prevent overcrowding once the seeds germinate.
The clay holds the ball together, forming a hard sphere when dry. Red clay is recommended, but you can substitute potter's clay, which is available at most craft stores. Just make sure to add some coarse sand to keep the balls from getting too hard.
The soil component can include compost and worm castings to enrich the native soil. We also added a dash of Healthy Harvest Farms' Natural Grow worm castings as an extra soil amendment.
As for the seeds, you'll want to choose plants that require little maintenance, such as native wildflowers like California poppies, tickseed and purple cosmos. Plants that need attention, like lettuces, won't do as well, given the hands-off nature of sowing seed balls. It's also a good idea to add legumes and white clover, which help fix nitrogen to the soil and act as ground cover.
We used a blend of field peas, oats, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds - the latter of which Bové included as an easy-to-spot (and pretty-to-the-eye) indicator that our seed balls have taken.
Once you've gathered your ingredients, add just enough water to mix the clay, soil and seeds into a tacky consistency similar to pie dough. Stuffing the mixture into eggshells, as we did, makes for a pretty final product, but it's just as effective to simply roll the seed balls into walnut-size nuggets.
Either way, let the seed balls dry in a shaded place outdoors for a day or so. They'll keep for several years, but the potency of the seeds will decrease over time. Once you're ready to use them, just adhere to the seed mantra: Scatter and wait.
How to make seed balls -
Seed balls are simple to make and a great project for kids. Follow theses steps:
Step 1: Gather the components: soil, clay and seeds. The soil can include compost and worm castings for an extra boost. Red clay is recommended, but you can substitute potter's clay, available at most craft stores. Just add some coarse sand to help soften the mixture a bit. Choose seeds of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant native plants such as California poppies and purple cosmos.
Step 2: Mix a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seeds with enough water to form a mixture the consistency of pie dough.
Step 3. Roll the mixture into walnut-size spheres or stuff into hollowed-out eggshells (be sure to pack tightly to avoid air pockets). Set in a cardboard box outdoors in a shady spot and allow to dry for 24 hours.
Pack the mixture in eggshells or simply roll into a ball. Sunflower seeds are a good indicator that the plants have taken. (photo credit: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle)