Seeds are a very simple and integral part of our food web and ecosystem; as the beginning (or maybe end?) of many plant life cycles, they seem an essential aspect to consider when doing anything to do with growing. Yet in recent years the integrity and variety of many seeds has come under threat (see for example 1,2,3), so that perhaps now more than ever it is important for us to be maintaining the adaptability and resilience of seeds, and through this, the adaptability and resilience of plants and therefore all other life.
This article explores the art of making ‘seedballs’; one of the easiest ways to spread seeds around, which you can do even if you do not have land in which the seeds can grow. It is an ancient technique that has been adapted and refined over time, with a very small number of ingredients, and which can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
What are seed balls?
Seed balls, as the name suggests, are small spheres with seeds inside. They are usually made of a mixture of clay and compost, which is mixed with the seeds and rolled into a ball and left to dry. The result is a hard little ball packed with all the ingredients ready to give the seeds a boost into the first stages of life. The compost provides nutrients, and the clay or other hardening substances give protection until the seeds are ready to burst out.
Seed ball technology has probably been used by humans for thousands of years, and was re-popularised in our own times by Japanese Natural Farming proponent Masanobu Fukuoka (4). Fukuoka recommended using seed balls in order to plant crops over a large area of land without having to previously disturb the land, using what he called ‘No-Till’ farming (5). Fukuoka seems to have had great success with this method on his own farm in Shikoku, Japan (6), and his methods continue to serve as an inspiration to many.
Seeds as weapons?
The fact that the balls are hard also means that they are portable, and as such can be used in aerial seeding (7) or as part of re-wilding or guerilla gardening efforts (8). When used in this way, they are often known as ‘seed bombs’ or, as some guerilla gardeners have called them, ‘hand green-aides’ (9). Though this terminology may be seen as quite violent in tone, as indeed may the idea of ‘guerilla gardeners’, which has been described as a “battle for resources, a battle against scarcity of land, environmental abuse and wasted opportunities” (8), I believe that seed-bombing techniques can be a part of a non-violent and holistic regeneration not only of land but of community.
As Richard Reynolds, author of ‘On Guerilla Gardening’ says,
“By cultivating someone else’s land without their permission, a guerrilla gardener directly confronts the problem through the landscape rather than the person – a strategy which more often than not helps to avoid conflict.” (8)
Why do we need to save seeds?
We humans have developed many intimate relationships with seeds over the past few thousand years. As I have explored in previous articles (1, 10), with the commercialisation of growing, these relationships have come under a lot of strain. One aspect of this is the current trend in the ‘agribusiness’ industry to produce a limited number of varieties of crops, and of only making available ‘F1’ (11) or hybrid varieties of seeds for the plants in question.
As I explore in my article ‘Seedy Issues’ (1), F1 seeds have the advantages from a business perspective of producing uniform plants which grow at a similar rate. From an ecological perspective, plants grown from F1 seeds have the disadvantages of not creating stable seeds themselves, so that if you wish to grow the same crop next year you have to buy new F1 seeds (a clear incentive for seed companies to continue to use F1 technology), as well as the fact that the plants’ uniformity means they are not adaptable to changes in climate, soil or animal behaviour, and so are not very resilient.
Another aspect of F1 technology is that, since F1 hybrids are distinct varieties that can be genetically recognised, they are often subject to international copyright law (for more on this see 1, 12).
The trend for concentrating on a few varieties of food using F1 and other technology (such as use of GMOs) means that we have experienced a huge loss of variety and diversity in the seeds we cultivate, meaning less biodiversity in the ecosystem and less nutrition for us. It is difficult to calculate exactly how much we have lost, but some estimate that we now have 70% less variety of food strains that we did during World War 2 (13). So one reason we could begin saving seeds for food is to encourage richness of nutrition and biodiversity.
Re-wilding the world
As well as the biodiversity loss we have been inflicting upon ourselves with the plants which we choose to grow for food, there is also the factor of so-called ‘wild’ plants – those which ‘agribusiness’ has deemed unprofitable – whose diversity and resilience has also been decreasing due to loss of habitat. For example, in the UK, an estimated 97% of wildflower meadow habitat has been destroyed since the 1930s (14), mainly due to industrialised agriculture, making once-common wildflower species now a rare sight.
Thus, another way in which seed balls can be used is to help to propagate wildflower seeds (see for example 15). You can do this in your own garden or project if you have the space, but the beauty of seed balls is that, if you are using native or naturalised wildflower species, and sowing at an appropriate time of year, you can ‘seed bomb’ any piece of disused or disregarded land, whether you have so-called ‘ownership’ of it or not, and with any luck, the flowers will grow there by themselves, thanks to the help of the seed ball technology.
The seed balls that I explain how to make in this article can be used with any kinds of seeds and with a wide variety of purposes, from sowing annual vegetable crops in your garden to ‘seed bombing’ in order to repopulate your local area with wildflowers.
One thing to be aware of when you are making them, however, is that, if at all possible, it is best to use seeds which have been produced using Open Pollination (16) techniques. This is pretty much essential both if you wish to collect seeds from the plants yourself, and if you wish to use the plants in re-wilding.
Fortunately, though Open Pollination is used as a technology by humans, it is also the most common way which seed-producing flowers have of natural reproduction, and since F1 technology is not generally in use in forests, one of the easiest ways to collect Open Pollinated wildflowers is simply to go into your local wild spaces and collect the seeds from the species you find there. For more information on what OP means and how you can collect your own OP seeds, you can check my article here (10) and my ‘Seed Saving for Beginners’ online resource (17).
Ready to seed…
Now that the seeds of inspiration have been planted, many readers will be ready to start making their own seed balls. In his excellent article ‘Making Seedballs: An Ancient Method of No-Till Agriculture’ (18), also published on this website, Andrew Schreiber goes through a detailed step-by-step guide of how to make seedballs on a large scale, suitable for sowing in a field, or aerial seeding as part of reforestation or other regeneration projects. You can also make seed balls using even simpler methods on a small scale, for example as I have often done as part of seed workshops, and holistic education inspired by Reggio Emilia.
- Ashwanden, C, 2014. ‘Seed Saving Part 1: Seedy Issues’. Permaculture News, 18/10/14. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2014/10/18/seed-saving-part-1-seedy-issues/ – retrieved 5/7/19
- Navdanya, 2013. ‘The Law of the Seed’. RISMA Tipografia, Firenze, Italy. Available as a PDF here: https://www.navdanya.org/attachments/lawofseed.pdf – retrieved 5/7/19
- ETC Group, 2008. ‘Who Owns Nature?: Corporate Power and the Final Frontier in the Commodification of Life.’ ETC: Ottawa. Available as a PDF here: https://www.etcgroup.org/files/publication/707/01/etc_won_report_final_color.pdf – retrieved 5/7/19
- Fukuoka, M; Korn, L, 2013. Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security. Chelsea Green: New York City, USA.
- Fukuoka, M, 1975 (2009). The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. NYRB Classics: New York City, USA.
- Korn, L, 2003. ‘Masanobu Fukuoka’s Natural Farming and Permaculture’. http://www.permaculture.com/node/140 – retrieved 5/7/19
- Horton, Jennifer, ?. “Could military strategy win the war on global warming?”. How Stuff Works. – retrieved 5/7/19
- Reynolds, R, 2008. On Guerilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries. Bloomsbury USA: New York City, USA.
- Green Guerillas, 2019. ‘Our History’. http://www.greenguerillas.org/history – retrieved 5/7/19
- Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Seeds and their Complications: An Introduction’. Abundance Dance Garden, 10/11/14. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/seeds-and-their-complications-an-introduction/ – retrieved 5/7/19
- Fairholm, R, 2006. ‘F1 hybrids: what every gardener should know’. Daughter of the Soil, 7/7/06. https://daughterofthesoil.blogspot.com/2006/07/f1-hybrids-what-every-gardener-should.html – retrieved 5/7/19
- Seed Freedom, 2012. ‘Who Owns the Seed?’ https://seedfreedom.info/who-owns-the-seed/ – retrieved 5/7/19
- Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. https://www.bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home – retrieved 5/7/19
- Gabbattiss, J, 2018. ‘Nearly all British wildflower meadows have been eradicated, prompting calls for urgent government action’. The Independent, 5/7/19. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/wildflower-meadows-farms-agriculture-flowers-environment-brexit-butterflies-bees-defra-a8433541.html – retrieved 5/7/19
- Jeffrey, J, 2011. Seed Bombs: Going Wild with Flowers. Ivy Books: New York City, USA.
- Seed Savers Exchange, 2012. ‘The difference between open-pollinated, heirloom and hybrid seeds.’ Seed Savers Exchange, 2/5/2012. https://blog.seedsavers.org/blog/open-pollinated-heirloom-and-hybrid-seeds – retrieved 5/7/19
- Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Seed Saving for Beginners’. Abundance Dance Garden, 28/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/28/seed-saving-for-beginners/ – retrieved 5/7/19
- Schreiber, A, 2014. ‘Making Seedballs: An Ancient Method of No-Till Agriculture’. Permaculture News, 18/6/14. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2014/06/18/making-seedballs-ancient-method-till-agriculture/ – retrieved 5/7/19