This is the last post (for a while) in my series on wildtending. In the last month, we’ve explored the philosophy of wildtending as a sacred action, explored the refugia garden principle, I shared my own refugia garden preparation and design, and finally, we are ready to start scattering the seeds! Perhaps these seeds were gathered from the wilds, given as a gift from a friend, or perhaps, they were gathered from a refugia garden. Wherever you get them, now is the time to begin to scatter these amazing little balls packed with life, love, and magic.
Seed balls were invented by Fukuoka and described in the permaculture classic, One Straw Revolution. They have a number of benefits over other methods for scattering seeds. First, and foremost, they are easy to throw and toss into spaces you can’t reach. A lot of guerilla gardeners use them in urban spaces as part of rewilding activities. Similarly, I have found it so much easier to have a bag of seed balls with me and begin tossing them, seeing where they land and if they can grow. I also like them because you can imbue them with some magic (even using some of the earlier energy methods I described with minor modification). They also give the seeds a bit of nutrition to help them grow, and the ball itself creates a little platform for the growth of the seed as the clay and compost spreads out and as the ball breaks down. There are two downsides–first, roots and larger nuts need separate treatment (obviously; I usually plant these directly by hand), and second, the seed balls can be a bit heavier than tiny bags of just seeds. But I have found them to be extremely useful to have in my foraging bag or crane bag when I’m out and about in the world! So here we go–Let’s roll up our sleeves, find a few friends, and make some seed balls!
Designing Seed Balls
There are three pieces to seed balls: seeds, clay, and compost as well as some simple tools to work with. We’ll talk about each of these in turn. A bit part of making seed balls is ethical sourcing–if done right, you shouldn’t have to buy anything (or much of anything).
Get Some Seeds
The first step is to get some seeds. Deciding what to put into a seed ball depends on what you have access to (like in my case, see below) but also what you want to spread–see my first post in this series for suggestions of endangered and at-risk medicinal plants, for starters. You can spread whatever seeds your ecosystem needs–I’m focusing my energies right now on medicinal plants and tree seeds. You can gather these in the wild when they are in abundance or you can start growing the key plants in a “refugia garden” as I described in a recent post. Or you can find them in…other ways. Since my garden is still in process, I was in search for seeds this summer. In my last post, I gave some lists of potential plants for different ecosystems–check out this list for more ideas about seeds to spread, but I would strongly suggest studying up on your ecosystem and thinking about where you might share these balls. Searching out seeds is a longer-term process, something to keep in your mind for the upcoming season!
Despite the fact that I didn’t find hardly any New England Aster or a few other key plants, like Blue Vervain and Echinacea upon my return to the northern Appalachians, I stumbled across a native plant garden at a local park. And, even more delightfully, they had just trimmed the garden back for the fall, and there was a pile of plants there just going to seed in a pile waiting to be carted off…and so…well, I helped myself. This gave me a wonderful set of seeds–here are a bunch of the aster seeds drying. I also found an abundance of milkweed, boneset, and swamp milkweed to round out my stash. Perfect.
I decided, given my delightful treasure trove of full-sun seeds, to make a set of seed balls geared toward medicinal, hard-to-find perennial plants that grow in full sun.
Finding Your Clay
Now in his book, Fukuoka used a local clay, “red clay” and there’s been some discussion in various permie forums on whether or not “red clay” is necessary. No, it is not–any LOCAL clay will do. Please, please, please don’t go buy clay unless you have none in your local ecosystem (and chances are, you do). In most places on the planet, clay will be part of your natural subsoil, and it’s just a matter of finding some. Look when people are digging holes into the subsoil, look at eroding banks of rivers after flooding, look at new construction–you will see it. Its heavy retains water and is sticky. The reason I say don’t buy any clay is that its very fossil fuel-intensive to ship due to its weight. In PA and in Michigan, when you dig down, you can easily find clay. I prefer to dig mine out of banks by streams or the side of the road. I knew of a wonderful bank by a forest stream, so I went on a hike to get some.
I used my hori hori to dig my clay; the hori hori is a Japanese garden tool and is my favorite foraging tool. To dig your clay, literally any little trowel or shovel will do. Since I’m digging it from a soft bank, I primarily took clay from the bottom of the bank where it already had spilled over to prevent further erosion. I used a doubled plastic shopping bag to put the clay in. After digging, I put it in my bag and lugged it 1/2 mile back up the mountain :). Of course, not a week later, I saw a bunch of clay deposits on the side of a backcountry road, having been dug up from last year’s plowing. Ah well!
I pretty much got as much clay as I could carry up the mountain all that way, or about 25 lbs. The recipe I’m going to give you is based on simple ratios, so however much you get is fine.
Other Supplies You’ll Need
Before you set about making your seed balls, you will need some other supplies. I should also mention that seed ball making is VERY MESSY and should, at all possible, be done outside or in like a dusty garage or something.
Compost: In addition to clay and seeds, you’ll need some sifted and finished compost or topsoil (something seed free). Chicken-created compost, as is any home compost or worm castings. Any rich soil will do. If you think you have unwanted seeds in the soil that you don’t want to spread, you can bake the compost at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (but this may kill off other microbial life, so be warned).
A large plastic bucket is necessary for mixing. A 5-gallon bucket works well.
A bucket of water for cleaning your hands and adding water to the mix. If its cold outside, make it warm water!
An old towel is also a good idea for cleaning your hands.
A small tarp or large garbage bag. This will be for sorting out your clay, adding your seeds, and so on.
A few friends. Good friends make seed ball-making fun!
The process is simple enough, and I took photographs of each step to help you along. The first thing you want to do is to make sure your compost and your clay is free of debris, woody material, leaves, or stones. Since my clay was wild clay, we had some sorting to do. It was a little wet, but that was fine. It could have been a little dry as well. If your clay is super wet, you might want to lay it out for a few days to dry out a bit before starting. The key is finding that “just right” texture that is more on the dry side than the soupy side. Most clay you dig right out of the earth will be a perfect consistency.
We took out the big lumps, sticks, and rocks.
Next, you’ll want to measure your clay. You want to use a ratio of about 2 parts clay to 1 part compost–enough to form nice balls. Part of this will depend on the kind of clay you have (and if it is pure or has anything else in it, like a little bit of sand). We used a flowerpot to measure out or clay (2 parts clay).
We added our finished compost (1 part) and mixed the clay carefully.
After mixing, we tested the seed balls to see if they stuck together. Sometimes, you might need to add a bit of water, depending on how moist the clay was. We added about 1 cup of water to our bucket and then checked to see if it formed a ball. If it forms a nice ball, it’s ready to go.
At this point, we found that it’s helpful to spread the material out on the tarp/plastic bag so that you can get an even amount of seeds in each ball. After spreading out our mixture, we have begun to add aster seeds. You pretty much add as much speed as you like–the balls that we’ve made this time and in the past generally had a lot of seeds!
We added a lot of seeds–in this batch, it was what I could find: blue vervain, pleurisy root/swamp milkweed, blue vervain, milkweed, and some stinging nettle.
Once the seeds were spread out, we mixed everything together and began forming our seed balls.
There are a few strategies to make the balls–one strategy is to roll out a long “worm” (ok, it totally looks like a turd) and then break off smaller bits, forming them into balls.
We made a good number of balls–probably 120+ with the mixture we had made.
Drying your balls
Since its winter here and the weather is generally quite chilly in January, I ended up laying my balls on my seed starting rack that I just put up. It is near a heat register, which allowed them to dry quite quickly. I put them down on some paper bags I had cut up.
Blessing your seed balls
Of course, no magic seed ball would be complete without a blessing. So many things you can do for this, and I think any blessing you give will help set your intentions for the seeds to grow. A few ideas:
- A nice blessing oil that you can use to touch each seed ball saying a small prayer
- An elemental blessing (four elements) or three druid elements blessing
- Put them in the center of your circle during a druid holiday. I’ll be blessing my most recent batch at Imbolc in a week or so.
- You can make these on a full moon, on a holiday (Samhuinn or Yule being a good example) for added effect.
Scattering Your Seeds
Scattering the seeds is a huge part of the fun. I like to make extra and give them as gifts to those who would appreciate them–then the seeds can go even further.
The easiest way of scattering them is just tossing them wherever you want them to grow. Remember that some seeds need a cold period (cold stratification) so tossing them even in the wintertime isn’t a bad idea!
The sky is the limit in terms of these seeds. Make yourself a little bag, take it with you where you go, and have fun! With each toss, you regenerate the land, bless the land, and scatter abundance.