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What is a seed ball?

Sprouting seed ballA seed ball is just what it sounds like --- a globe of earth and seeds.  Masanobu Fukuoka was probably the first person to come up with the idea of seed balls as part of his do-nothing grain experiments, but nowadays you mostly hear about seed balls from guerrilla gardeners who use the tool to introduce floral diversity to urban environments.  Seed balls also go by the name "seed bomb," "earth ball," "nendo dango," and "tsuchi dango."

The purpose of a seed ball is to make it easy to plant seeds without tilling the ground.  If you're gardening in a no-till system, you can often just rake the mulch back and broadcast Mixing seeds for earth ballyour seeds on the soil surface, but sometimes your seedlings will perish if they dry out too fast due to sun exposure.  Other times, birds come along and snack on the seeds --- this happened to me with some of my forest pasture plantings.  If your seeds are enclosed in a ball of earth, they'll be a bit more protected without requiring you to dig up the ground to insert your seed.

Seed balls have other advantages as well.  Guerrilla gardeners like the way you can toss a seed ball surreptitiously into someone else's yard without anyone noticing.  And Masanobu Fukuoka developed seed balls so that he could plant several months' worth of crops at the same time, putting rice, clover, and rye all in the same chunk of earth.

I've always been a bit dubious about seed balls, but last week, I decided to try seed balls for the first time.  This week's lunchtime series covers my experiment with this fun permaculture method.

This post is part of our Seed Ball lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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Guerrilla gardeners like the way you can toss a seed ball surreptitiously into someone else's yard without anyone noticing.

Is this a good idea in general? It sounds somewhat anti-social.

Comment by irilyth [] Mon Jun 27 16:54:21 2011
I look forward to hearing how they work for you. Am thinking about trying them myself, just for fun. I have more confidence in the procedure since experimenting w/not watering seeds after planting them in thoroughly-moistened water. They germinated anyway (and we had very little rain in the meantime).
Comment by Emily Mon Jun 27 17:09:44 2011

I tend to agree with you about guerilla gardening, but some people swear by it. I guess their point is that empty lots in the city should be used to grow food or at least flowers for beneficial insects rather than sitting barren, but sneaking seed balls in does seem to be the deceptively easy way to solve that problem. As I'll post tomorrow, I think the seeds rarely grow, and it also seems like the real way to deal with empty lots is to contact the owner and see if they'll let you plant a non-surreptitious garden there. That's what we did with the vacant lot next door to my house once we moved into town.

I also worry a bit about the environmental impact of tossing possibly invasive seeds out into semi-wild areas. After all, nature does a pretty good job of reclaiming bare soil, if that's all you're going for, and she automatically uses species well suited to the environment.

All of that said, guerrilla gardeners are currently the main users of seed balls, so I figured I should mention them.

Comment by anna Mon Jun 27 17:10:20 2011
Emily --- I'll definitely keep you posted, and I hope you'll report back too! We don't tend to water in seeds, but it rains here a lot. The only time we have trouble with seeds not germinating on the soil surface is in the summer when one hot day between rains is enough to shrivel up tender seedlings.
Comment by anna Mon Jun 27 17:45:51 2011

I love seedballs! You are correct about the invasive species problem, but most guerilla gardeners are aware of that and use natives or non-invasive plants.

I have done a few seedball experiments in my yard, in a far off zone I don't get to often. It worked fairly well. I got some rye out of the deal, and a nice understory of clover, and even some tomatoes and cucumbers, and carrots.

Comment by Eric in Japan Tue Jun 28 01:43:36 2011
I was hoping someone would chime in with their personal experience --- thanks Eric! I'm surprised to hear that tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots worked well in seed balls since I think of them as higher maintenance (well, not so much cucumbers....) Do you have photos on your blog? I've been reading and enjoying, but haven't delved much into the back issues.
Comment by anna Tue Jun 28 11:20:58 2011

Well, to say it worked well would be a bit of a stretch. I sowed the seedballs over a 50x100 foot plot. It took a lot of searching through the weeds to find those carrots and cucumbers, and not a whole lot of them.

But it was fun, and I have to admit, that when I planted those crops in actual garden beds in the same areas I found them, they did better than other areas. So I guess that is another use for seedballs- to find microclimates and niches.

I used to have a webpage about it on Geocities, but Yahoo! has discontinued the service. But that is what the wayback machine is for!

And I wrote a bit more on a Gardenweb thread

Comment by Eric in Japan Tue Jun 28 12:29:48 2011

Finding microclimates is a great use for seedballs! That's one I hadn't considered, but I think is the best use I've heard of yet.

I really enjoyed reading the background of your farm and seed balls on those two pages too.

Comment by anna Tue Jun 28 13:09:01 2011
Ah, ok -- "vacant lot" seems less anti-social than "someone's yard", even if technically they're the same from a legal point of view.
Comment by irilyth [] Tue Jun 28 21:40:22 2011
Good point --- I probably should have worded that differently. I think I always imagine guerrilla gardeners walking around and tossing dandelion seed balls in peoples' yards, even though that's highly unlikely in reality. (Yes, dandelions are pretty, edible, and attract pollinators, but the people who own the yards are probably going to spray them with noxious substances, so the idea would be a net loss for the environment.)
Comment by anna Wed Jun 29 13:10:14 2011

It becomes difficult at a certain point to know when a house is abandoned or not. Some people may be squatting a house without power or water and they will let the weeds grow up as they are dodging bill collectors, foreclosure agents, local thugs, etc.

So sometimes seed bombers will hit a house that looks like it is headed towards becoming a vacant lot just so that at least something pretty will grow there. Most of the time people don't seed bomb urban lots or abandoned houses with veggie seeds as they're too expensive. Seed bombers tend to use really inexpensive seeds of native plants as they're about the only type of plant that will survive year after year without fertilizer and compete with weeds. Not to mention, if they're native they can collect the seeds from flowers.

Comment by diggitydog Mon Jul 4 14:46:05 2011

The abandoned urban situation does make some sense, especially after the studies I've read about how something as simple as a bit of litter or a car parked up on the curb can make people less nice to each other. Making a derelict lot prettier could, potentially, help the whole neighborhood act more like a community. Sadly, that same argument can be used for wanting people to mow their yard too often and delete clotheslines from public view.

One thing that worries me is that I do see a lot of non-native plants listed on the internet when I look at seed ball flower mixtures. I think there are a lot of invasives that people just assume are native since they're growing along the side of the road in their area, but it doesn't make much sense to help those invasives get more of a toehold on the region.

I also have a hard to articulate, gut feeling that if we're not willing or able to tend the results of our actions, we're better off letting nature heal the wounds itself. Yes, we think we're helping, but it's so tough to tell what the results of our actions will be that, from an environmental point of view, I think we're better off leaving most things alone unless we're willing to commit to regular check ins and maintenance.

Comment by anna Mon Jul 4 15:37:33 2011

When used for permaculture seed bombs/balls are great, but it's ILLEGAL to dump seed bombs on private property. Dumping is a TRESPASS. Here's what's going on in my part of the upper middle class world: whenever a neighbor has a problem with another neighbor he or she bombards their neighbor's house with seed bombs. Seed bombs not only ruin landscapes that cost thousands of dollars to plant but they also invite rodents. That's correct--rats, white footed mice, brown mice, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, many birds and their predators are attracted to seed balls/bombs. The rodents chew up expensive roots on bushes, trees and herbaceous plants as they desperately try to eat all the seeds and moss. Rodent's poop also attracts their predators, and those predators tear up the garden looking for rodents. As if this is not bad enough some have decided to throw glass shards inside the seed balls.

Seed bombing private property, other than yours, could cause the destruction of property and it is illegally dumping. Dumping is against the law and a person can get a fine, arrested or sued for such acts. As for children, anyone teaching them to throw seed balls on private property other than their own, is encouraging bullying and unlawful behavior, and therefore corrupting minors.

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