We haven’t had a freeze in San Antonio yet, but my plants are looking pretty raggedy, which makes me want to get out and gather seeds.
That’s good news because now’s the time to harvest wildflower seeds and get them in the ground for next year. Most wildflower seeds from our part of the world appreciate being planted in the fall so they can settle in, have a chance to scarify their outer crust and find their way into the soil to eventually put out roots and chutes to become next year’s round of wildflowers.
You can gather and distribute seeds directly onto the soil. Or, you can make seedballs, a fun, interesting and unusual way to use up surplus seeds and spread the wildflower wealth around.
Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil. Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.
Gardeners including me report mixed success with seedballs. I’ve had some seedballs result in lovely wildflower patches; others just melted into the earth. Professional landscapers and ecological restorationists also have mixed opinions about seedballs.
Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center I told us that for large-scale restoration projects, the success rate of seedballs is too low–mostly because assuring the seeds get enough soil contact to germinate once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition. For those of us who can personally monitor our seedballs, that’s usually not an issue.
Emily Neiman at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggests that when it comes to seedballs, size does matter.
“From my experience, most people make them too big and it takes forever to break down and sprout,” she shared via email. “No bigger than size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seedball,” said Neiman.
At my house, we just like to play in the dirt and typically celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs. Some folks bake Christmas cookies. Others craft tamales. We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.
Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.
Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside. Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.
Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies. Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and sand.
I’m not that scientific about it. We’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact. Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.
Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper. The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.
Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.
When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above. If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.
Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.
Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe
- 3 parts local soil or potting soil
- 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
- 1 part native wildflower seeds
- Water, as needed.
- Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
- Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
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