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Making Seed Balls and Scattering Seeds for Wildtending

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

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 Fukuokoa 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 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 grow, and the ball itself creates a little platform for 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 the 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!

 

Aster seeds drying!

Aster seeds drying!

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 seedballs geared toward medicinal, hard to find perennial plants that grow in full sun.

 

Finding Your Clay

Now in his book, Fukuokoa 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 its 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 because 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.

Clay bank in stream

Clay bank in stream

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 back country road, having been dug up from last year’s plowing.  Ah well!

Digging the clay

Digging the clay

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 simle 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 top soil (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

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 the perfect consistency.

Sorting the clay

Sorting the clay

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).

Measuring clay

Measuring clay into the bucket

We added our finished compost (1 part) and mixed the clay carefully.

Mixing the clay and compost

Mixing the clay and compost – good to get your hands in the soil!

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, its ready to go.

Testing the seed ball

Testing the seed ball

 

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

At this point, we found that its 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 seed as you like–the balls that we’ve made this time and in the past generally had a lot of seeds!

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

Spreading out material and beginning to add 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.

Our lovely seeds spread out!

Our lovely seeds spread out! The milkweed puffs don’t seem to matter (and in fact, seem to give the balls strength).  Neither do bits of dried plant matter, etc.

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 that Paul showed us was to roll out a long “worm” (ok, it totally looks like a turd) and then break off smaller bits, forming them into balls.

Forming balls

Forming balls

We made a good number of balls–probably 120+ with the mixture we had made.

Making seed balls together!

Making seed balls together!

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.

Seed balls drying out!

Seed balls drying out!

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:

  1. A nice blessing oil that you can use to touch each seed ball saying a small prayer
  2. An elemental blessing (four elements) or three druid elements blessing
  3. 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.
  4. You can make these on a full moon, on a holiday (Samhuinn or Yule being a good example) for added effect.

 

Scattering Your Seeds

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

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.

Seed Saving, Heirloom Seeds, and Sustainability

When I started patio gardening some years ago, I didn’t really know a lot about seeds.  Like most Americans, I had simply gone to the store, bought a packet of seeds (or a group of plants already started from a local nursery) planted them, tended them, and watched them grow.  Then, a good friend of mine opened my eyes to the real controversies surrounding seeds, and I worked to educate myself about this process–and realizing how important it is.

A quiet war has been waging for some time concerning the future of human food production around the globe–how it is produced, who controls it, and whether or not it is done in a sustainable or destructive manner.  In light of the recent news about the group of 3,000 organic farmers suing Monsanto and the growing Farmer’s Market/organic movement in America, I thought I would take some time to write about the importance of seeds for the average gardener. Understanding where your seeds come from and who is selling them is an important part of understanding gardening as a sustainable, earth-friendly practice.  This post will describe a bit about the types of seeds available and resources where you can find more information.  I’ll be doing a series on seeds in this coming year–including some posts on how to start seeds indoors and save certain varieties of seeds.

Types of Seeds: Hybrid vs. Open-Pollinated / Heirloom

There are essentially two types of seeds (and several sub-categories of seed) currently available: Open Pollenated/Heirloom and Hybrid:

Open-pollenated Strawberry Popcorn - Seeds saved from last year's farmer's market!

Open-pollinated seeds are seeds that are pollenated/propogated by natural means (birds, wind, etc) and usually are long-standing varities, carefully saved and grown each year.  Open-pollenated seeds can be saved from year to year, and will continue to produce the same variety (assuming no cross-pollination with other like plants, such as tomatoes).  Open-pollenated seeds were the only seeds that existed up until the latter part of the 20th century when big agribusinesses developed. 

Heirloom seeds refer to open-pollinated seeds that have some history–in that gardeners/farmers have been breeding the same variety for many years (how many years of breeding = heirloom status is subject to some debate in the gardening community).  Not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms, but most are. Open-pollinated Heirloom seeds are richly diverse–you can have black or yellow tomaotes, purple carrots, purple or pink potatoes, etc.  Or, one of my favorites, strawberry popcorn (in the photo above).

Hybrid seeds are seeds that have been created in a carefully controlled setting, usually focusing on yield output and consistent qualities.  Big seed companies (Monsanto, others) like hybrid seeds because, unlike open-pollinated varieties, you can’t save seeds year to year meaning that customers/gardeners/farmers must come back and purchase seeds each year for planting–which generates the seed company much revenue.  On a larger scale, the carefully controlled settings in which these seeds are produced limit biodiversity and ensure conformity–usually for overall yield production and size of fruit (but not flavor).  Part of the controversy with hybrid seeds is that some of them–like those produced by Monsanto–contain massive amounts of genetic modification, including built-in pesticides, etc.  Unlike open-pollinated varieties, these seeds haven’t developed naturally.

The use of hybrid seeds in farming, including an emphasis on yield and vegetable/fruit size has helped farmers increase profits.  However, it has contributed to a loss of biodiversity in our foods (see graphic below) as well as significantly declining nutritional value.

Corporate Control of our Seeds

Why Open-Pollinated Varieties Should Be Supported

So what? Who cares?   There are a few very critical reasons why gardeners should purchase open-pollinated seeds (whether or not they choose to save them).

#1) Biodiversity.  Evolutionary theory indicates that survival of an ecosystem and an individual species is about biodiversity–within a species and between species.  The long-term ramifications of limiting vegetables, fruits, grains, and herbs to a few small strains is potentially quite dangerous.  To give you one such example of why biodiversity matters: if a massive blight were to strike our vegetable crops, the more species of crops we have growing, the more likely one or more of these species would prove resistant.

#2) Flavor and nutrition. Open-pollinated seeds, which have not been highly genetically modified for vield and size, produce more flavorful, nutritious foods.  If you don’t believe me, try this experiment.  Purchase one packet of “normal” seeds from the big box store, and purchase 1 packet of “Black Krim” tomatoes from the Seed Savers Exchange. Grow a plant or two of each, and when the fruits are ready, compare them.  You’ll be amazed at the flavor of the Black Krim (and, I might add, so spoiled by the taste that you’ll never eat supermarket tomatoes again!)

#3) Variety for your garden.  You can grow a wide variety of interesting open-pollinated plants in your garden each year.  Last year, I grew three kinds of carrots (Paris Market, Dragon, and St. Valery) each with a distinct flavor and purpose.  The Paris market carrots were excellent for eating and soups, the dragon carrots, being more spicy, worked great for salads, and the St. Valery were saved for long-term storage in a root cellar bin (which I blogged about here).  If I didn’t have access to these wonderful varities, I would be stuck with just “carrot.”

#4) Sustainability.  It is unsustainable (and simply unwise) to depend on a few big seed companies year after year to provide suitable seeds for growing crops. What if something were to happen to our shipping lines and seeds weren’t available?

#5) Local Independence. What about all of that fossil fuel big agribusiness is using to move their hybrid seeds from place to place?  If farmers/gardeners were able to save their seed and use open-pollinated varieties, the seed for each year would be produced in the same place that it grew, minimizing dependence on fossil fuels.

 

Lovely open-pollenated arugula under my hoop house in early October

Seeds from a Druidic Perspective

As someone who uses gardening not only as a way to be a more environmentally conscious citizen, but also as a spiritual practice, I think the issue of seeds is also a critical one.  If we think about the energies that go into producing a seed, we begin to see the spiritual dimensions of this choice.  An open-pollinated seed is grown naturally, using the wind and birds to pollinate (air), the sun (fire), the rain (water) and the fertile soil (earth) to grow.  The hybrid seeds, grown in their carefully controlled lab settings do not necessarily have this elemental balance.  Furthermore, if we, as druids, are to be tenders of the land and lead by example, supporting long-standing traditional ways of growing our food rather than a system designed to maximize profits seems like a wise idea.

Each day, when I go to my beautiful, organic garden full of seeds that are open-pollinated in varieties that, until I grew them, I never saw in any store, I am once again amazed and awed by the value of life.

 

Resources for Open-Pollinated Seeds and Seed Saving

I have been working to save my own seeds (which is a work in progress, haha!) and also support companies and organizations devoted to keeping our open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of seeds available.  Here are a few resources for you:

The Seed Saver’s ExchangeThe SSE is a non-profit organization that is devoted to educating the world about seed saving as well as making many open-pollinated seed lines available to the everyday consumer.  This is where I’ve purchased the bulk of my seeds for my garden–and thus far, I have loved every single variety I’ve planted!

Victory SeedsThis is a seed company who grows and maintains many of their own seed lines–and the rest they get from other small farms.  They have a number of different seeds that you cant find at SSE.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Another excellent source of open-pollenated seeds.  The owners of this company are also very active within the seed saving community.

Seed to Seed: A Seed Saving Handbook. When I started saving seeds, this was the best resource I found.  This book teaches you how to save many varieties of seeds and includes information about storage, preparing the seeds, and information for each plant type.  Well worth the price!