Happy Winter Solstice! Celebrate with Seedballs, a Recipe, and Step-by-Step Directions on How to Make them

As many Texans climb into bed tomorrow night and the sun moves directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at precisely 11:30 PM Central Standard Time, we’ll turn the corner on the shortest day and longest night of 2011.  It’s the Winter Solstice.  From here until mid June, the days will get longer.

Let there be seed balls for the Solstice! Chile pepper discourages insects and birds.                                                                –Seedball slideshow photos by Hugh Daschbach and Monika Maeckle

Spring marches our way–something to celebrate.  Some folks will bake Christmas cookies.  Others will craft tamales.   And some of us will combine soil, clay, water and seed–with a generous dash of chile pepper–to make seedballs.

What are seedballs?

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 or consumed by insects or birds.   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 the 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 concotion that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, 1-2- parts red potter’sclay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and 1 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 spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects and birds from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a higher chance at germinating.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.  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
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.
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A Year in the Life of A Butterfly Garden: From Turf to a Butterfly Host and Nectar Garden, with Edible Landscape In Between

OK, no excuses people.  Time to get outside and get the butterfly garden going.  It’s not hard.  Doesn’t take all that much time.  And every day it inspires.  For proof, check out the slideshow below.

Turf to bed conversion: What are you waiting for?

Turf to bed conversion: why wait?

The photos below reflect 12 months in the life of a butterfly garden.  On November 17, 2010, I converted the Bermuda grass infested front yard of  my Austin apartment into a productive, fun and fascinating butterfly garden and edible landscape.  A year later, I’m leaving it behind and moving back to San Antonio to begin another yard transformation.

For help getting started, check out Part I and Part II of our Turf to Bed Conversion Series.  All the drought-damaged lawns around Austin and San Antonio beg to be converted from turf to beds.

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Fair warning: a butterfly garden has the occasional dose of drama.  Consider the case of my Heirloom Tomato Thief.

In June, someone stole the perfectly robust, ripe heirloom tomatoes I had incorporated into my butterfly landscape.   I only had two tomato plants, so this was especially aggravating.  Each day I passed  these plants en route to work via the walkway from my apartment to the car, and was clocking their optimal harvest time.

Just as they reached their prime, a thief snatched the purply red tomatoes from their destiny as a Caprese salad.  Then someone chopped down my remaining six-foot tall sunflower a day later.  These garden violations drove me to borrow a digital game camera and bungee-cord it to a tree, where it snapped photos every five minutes for two days.  The backside of the alleged tomato robber was captured by “the Gardencam”–but she wasn’t.  Take a look.  Nothing conclusive, but I felt a bit better and the thievery stopped.

Butterfly gardens can make productive use of even a small plot.  In my limited space, I raised dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, grew handfuls of fruits and vegetables, and burned calories, worked on my tan, and made new friends as neighbors walked by commenting and asking questions.

What’s stopping you?  Your butterfly garden is waiting.  Make it happen.  Let us know if you have questions, and good luck!

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In the Butterfly Garden, Part II: Transplants and Seedlings to Make a Vibrant Butterfly Garden in Downtown San Antonio

Last week we encouraged you to head into the garden to smother your dead turf with layers of newspaper and mounds of mulch.  This week the turf-to-bed conversion continues.

After giving your new beds  time to settle (with welcome help from recent Central and South Texas showers), you can start plugging in transplants and later, begin seedlings for the spring.

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

I like to recycle plants from one garden to another.  As I mentioned in Part I, last year I moved to Austin from San Antonio and took several plants from my Alamo Heights butterfly garden with me. A large rue bush, several milkweeds, a couple of bulbines–these plants made the 75-mile trek to Austin.

Now I find myself returning to the Alamo City.  I’ll take a few favorite plants back–some of the original San Antonians, as well as Austin finds.   Our new living quarters will be a green built downtown “Cube” (Leed-certification pending) conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.   The front yard plot has a grey water system that recycles shower, bath and dishwater for landscape irrigation.  That has been an interesting learning experience (more on that another time).

Last week I prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.  Now I’ll install a few plants.

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs' "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Here’s what I’m digging up and moving from my Austin bed:

Several milkweeds–brought from my Alamo Heights garden
Rue–the same one I moved from Alamo Heights
Bulbines–moved two from Alamo Heights
Lantana–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Indigo spires–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Red sage–bought in Austin, will move them to SA

Fresh transplants will be added shortly, such as:

Italian Parsley–buy at local nursery
Dill–buy at local nursery
Fennel–buy at local nursery

Milkweeds, of course, are the Monarch butterfly and Queen host plant and will ensure plenty of caterpillars.  In late March, the Monarchs leave their overwintering roosts in Mexico, laying the first eggs of the migratory season in Texas.  Milkweeds transplanted now will die back with freezes, but bounce back in the spring.  Many species of butterflies enjoy nectaring on Milkweed.

San Antonio milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return home after a stint in Austin

Tropical milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return to San Antonio after a stint in Austin

This well-traveled Rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

This well-traveled rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

My well-traveled rue bush is a sturdy, heat tolerant perennial that plays host to the Eastern and Giant Swallowtail butterflies and blooms yellow in the heat of summer.  As soon as the weather begins to warm, the black and blue butterflies deposit their golden yellow eggs on rue, Italian parsley, dill, and their apparent favorite–fennel.  For some reason they don’t care for the curly parsley and I don’t either.  The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Plant fennel now so you can have Swallowtail caterpillars in your butterfly garden this Spring

Another plus to using these herbs as a foundation for your butterfly garden: you can eat them, harvesting leaves and seeds for cooking.  Fennel bulbs can be braised and used raw in salads.  As temperatures rise in June, the herbs will bloom and go to seed, useful for next year or as an addition to dips, yogurt or sprinkled on toast or pizza.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.   After plugging in the transplants by simply cutting a hole in your mulch-covered newspaper, you can  propagate more butterfly plants by starting them inside with this year’s seeds. Cowpen Daisy, milkweed, Frostweed, sunflowers, and Jimsonweed can all be perpetuated by a shallow planting in plastic seedling trays with potting soil.   Get the plants started  indoors, water regularly, and they’ll be ready to transplant in the ground after danger of frost is past (usually March 15).

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

This year I might try pellitory or nettles, which host the Red Admiral butterfly.  Passionflower, host to Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries, also makes my wish list. Friends at the Austin Butterfly Forum rave about the woody Flaming Acanthus, the host plant to the Crimson Patch butterfly.  That would be a new species for me, and apparently hummingbirds love it.

Until then, my winter garden will remain sparse, as the solarization process breaks down the turf, creating fertile soil.  Likely I will supplement with winter lettuces–arugula, frisee, chard and kale–probably in a container.  Then, later in the spring, we’ll add tomatoes, okra, and peppers or eggplant.   Mixing edibles into the butterfly garden makes for a continuum of interest and activities.  If you’re not enjoying the butterflies or collecting caterpillars, you’ll be harvesting fresh produce.

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Texas Drought Impact on Wildflower Seed Production Cuts Both Ways, PLUS Five Tips for Collecting Wildflower Seeds

First frosts lighting on Central Texas this week and reports of Monarchs and other butterflies on the wane kindle dreams of next year’s butterfly gardens and meadows. To get a jump on next year’s butterfly hostplant and nectar haven, start by collecting seeds from the wild now.  November is the perfect time to gather seeds.

Cowpen Daisy patch October 2011

Cowpen Daisy "patch" at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, October 2011

Last year we wrote about collecting seeds from the prolific Cowpen Daisy, one of my favorite wildflowers.  Those seeds, Verbesina encelioidesm, are more scarce this year thanks to the historic Texas drought–just look at the recent picture above taken at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River compared to the one below snapped last fall. Both reflect the same stretch of dirt road.  What a difference a year of historic drought makes.

Cowpen Daisy patch Fall 2010

Cowpen Daisy patch at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, Fall of 2010

When it comes to seed production in the face of drought, not all plants respond the same way. “It’s a strange thing,” says  George Cates, “seed cleaner extraordinaire” at Native American Seed, a company based in Junction, Texas, that focuses exclusively on native American seeds.   “Certain species are very well adapted to drought conditions and actually produce MORE seed during drought,” he says.

Cates suggests that the seeds of more drought adaptive plants often seem less desirable to consumers–the poisonous purple nightshade, ornery white prickly poppy and the invasive King Ranch bluestem.

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX --photo by American Native Seed

Less adaptive plants die back during the drought exposing soil to the seeds of plants that are warm season dominant, creating an opportunity for more adaptive plants’ seeds to exploit the opportunity. (One of the primary reasons wildflower seeds fail to germinate is a lack of contact with soil.) “As the ground stays crispy and cooked, other things can take advantage,” says Cates.

Plants seem to exhibit native intelligence, says Cates.  “Somehow the plants know that now is a good time to make more seeds,” he explains, adding that American Native Seed’s gayfeather crop produced more abundant seeds this year than last–even though less rain fell and the native seed farm was forced by water restrictions to discontinue irrigation early in the summer.

Cates says that seeds produced in a drought likely will demonstrate longer periods of dormancy and may take longer to germinate as they await optimal conditions.

Here’s five tips from Cates on collecting wildflower seeds:

1. Try to assess whether the seed is viable.  A microscope is ideal for this, but if you don’t carry one on your nature hikes, Cates recommends selecting samples from various parts of the plant and squeezing a few seeds between your fingers.  Look for the hard germ core as well as softer, latent matter that surrounds and protects the seed.

2. Cut the stalk of the plant if possible and hang upside down for plant nutrients to bleed into the seeds until fully dry.

3.  Don’t feel you have to clean all the fluff and chaff off the seeds.  “There’s nutrients in that latent material,” says Cates.  Just keep the material dry.

4. Store seeds in paper bag until completely dry.  If you opt for plastic bags and store damp seed material, seeds will rot.   Dry seeds=important.

5. Don’t take every last stalk of seed.  Plan ahead and leave some for next year.

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

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