Sunday, April 14, 2013

Making Seed Balls

Masanobu Fukuoka - "The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings."

     This is my first attempt at making seed balls as inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka.  The theory is that by encapsulating the seeds in a mixture of clay and compost they are protected until conditions are right for germination.  This allows seed to be sewn on top of the ground without the need for tilling and was a critical part of the way Fukuoka grew barley and rice out of the same field without plowing, fertilizing, or pest control.  In his small farm he produced extremely high quality food without any of the machinery or chemical inputs that were standard for his time. My plan is to use them to seed our forest garden after the chickens have destroyed the lawn.

    Digging a post hole last fall produced some good clay which I dried in a bucket in the garage.  Pulverizing it to a powder proved to be fairly challenging.  At first I tried using a hammer and a piece of flat rock inside a plastic tub to catch the dust, but this was a very slow process.  I had much better results by rubbing the flat rock across a 1x4 piece of wood and crushing the clay pieces in between them.  If I am going to do this more than I couple of times I think it will be a good idea to make a large wooden mortar and pestle out of logs like I have seen Fukuoka's people using.  Using a small piece of window screen I sifted the powder into a jar.

     I never got around to sifting and drying some compost for this project, so I substituted some seed starting mix instead.  For the fist batch I started with just white clover seed in a smooth bucket.  holding the bucket at an angle, I lightly misted the seeds with water then sprinkled some powdered clay and a little of the seed starting mix, then turned the bucket to mix.  Repeating this process until balls started forming.  The mix tended to stick to the sides of the bucket and needed to be scraped off frequently.  A rubber scraper is a handy too to have for this.  The balls that resulted from this process were rather uneven and rough, and a lot of seed remained free.

     I did not manage to get all the seeds on my original list.  Time being a factor I ended up going through my seed box and making a mix out of what I had available.  I have to admit it did seem a little crazy to be dumping dozens of packets of seed together in a bucket so hopefully we get something good out of all this.

Here is the final mix
(In no particular order)     
White Clover
Chard (Fordhook & Gold Glebe)
Daikon Radish
Kale (Pentland Brig)
Nasturtium (Mixed Dwarf)
Chamomile (German)
Hairy Vetch
Jung annual flower mix 
Wild flower mix (wedding favor)
Bachelor's Buttons
Pea (melting sugar)
Columbine (Deep blue alpina)
Black Locust
Marigold (Harlequin)
Carrot (Dragon)
Spring Greens mix (sand hill)
Delicata Squash (just 2 seeds)
Lettuce (various)
Beans (various)
Shasta Daisy

     Using the same technique as my first try, I coated the entire mix with clay and seed starting mix.  I ended up running out of clay and spreading the mix out to dry on some brown paper bags overnight.  The next day I crushed another jar of clay and re-coated the mix.  Still not satisfied, I began to roll small balls out of the mix between my hands.  This seemed to push the seeds in and leave a nice coating of clay all around.  I squished the round ball flat so it wouldn't roll then worked it like putty to close up the cracks that formed when I flattened it.  I then rolled it in some dry powdered clay to coat the outside and keep it form sticking.  I did this for the entire mix, frequently needing to re-wet it or add some more clay to bind the loose seeds.   Eventually I got better at getting the right moisture level to avoid cracking, and got quicker at making them. 

      About 1/2 of the balls formed deep cracks when drying and many of them broke apart when I put them in paper bags for storage.  This might be a good thing, as I made them somewhat large and each one could contain dozens of different seeds, so some smaller chunks are nice.  Many of the large seeds especially beans and peas broke free of their coating.  Many of the seed balls, though, were more solid and stayed intact.  So I think there will be a diverse range of protection on the seed offering a staggered germination rate and greater chances for success.  We will see.  It won't be long before the chickens have wrecked the lawn on their first paddock and it will be time to sew.  Then we are taking Fukuoka's advice to throw the seed balls with a child like mind and let nature guide us on the details. 


  1. Awesome. Thanks for sharing the reality of doing this for the first time. You possibly have more patience than I would have. I've been thinking of trying this out. I need to cobble a range shelter for my chix so I can park them in the space I want prepped. And I don't need to worry about the "child like mind" 'cause I have a toddler and preschooler. Free labor!

  2. Glad you liked the post. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be. I think I have somewhere between 10 and 12 hours invested in this project. That includes getting the seeds together, pulverizing the clay, and forming the balls. Some extra hands making the balls would have cut that down quite a bit. I'm sure any toddler would love making the seed balls and playing with the sticky clay mud, but I wouldn't want to have to clean up after!