Q & A: Seed-balls.com founder says “throw and grow” gardening often doesn’t work

Blake Ketchum is JUST the kind of polymath we need in this epoch of science denial. The eco-entrepreneur has a PhD in soil science, a master’s degree in forestry, and a bachelor’s in visual arts. She lists JavaScript, web development, and e-commerce alongside forensic reconstruction and native plant ecology as skill sets on her resume. Oh, and she’s an accomplished artist–a sculptor who specializes in portraiture with commissions from Yale, Cornell, and the International Special Olympics. With her understanding of diverse disciplines, she can make the complex premises and processes of science understandable to the rest of us.

Seed balls: It’s more complicated than ” throw and grow,” says Ketchum. Photo courtesy Seed-balls.com

One of her most effective platforms is Seed-balls.com, a conservation start-up she launched in 2013 with her teenaged son. Its mission: biodiversity through green business.  “Educate people. Disperse seed. Be green.”

I caught up with Ketchum recently in the course of updating my annual post on seed balls. My research led me to the Seed-balls.com website where she and her small band of “mudslingers” evangelize and educate on the wonders of seed balls, tidy germination bombs which have the potential to transform vacant lots, degraded fields and blank areas in your vegetable garden.

I sought Ketchum’s expertise out of frustration. For a decade I’ve been making and dispersing seed balls, but have had very little success. Every autumn I collect local, native seeds from our property, throw them in a paper bag and save them for a seed ball  party.  Friends who don’t mind muddy hands help fashion hundreds of seed balls. We’ve thrown thousands of them on our family’s Llano River ranch over the years in an attempt to restore overgrazed pastures to former glory as prairies. We’ve also spent a substantial sum on native seeds broadcast directly onto the  soil.

Polymath Blake Ketchum works her magic making seed balls. Courtesy photo

My experience: seed balls do not live up to their hype. Our singular success has been in the Chigger Islands which dot our stretch of the Llano River.  There, we’ve thrown many Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata seed balls. A handful have grown into robust milkweed stands.

Yet the hands-on activity of molding soil, clay, seeds and water into seed balls has been touted as an effective way to plant wildflowers in hard-to-reach places. The act of tossing seed balls is often referred to as guerrilla gardening since you can plant flowers or edibles on property not rightfully yours. Seed ball making has also become increasingly popular as an activity at conservation and environmental events in recent years. Kids of all ages love getting their hands dirty while learning the importance of native plants and pollinators.

So, what am I doing wrong?

Apparently, not managing my own expectations. Tweaks to the seed ball recipe can help, says Ketchum. Adding mycorrhizal fungi or worm casings also boosts success rates. But Ketchum soberly explains that seed balls actually are better as an engagement tool than as tactical conservation. Throwing wildflower seed balls into an established landscape will likely not result in success. “Wildflowers are typically NOT fierce competitors and are easily outcompeted by weeds and turf grass,” says Ketchum.

The mudslingers at Seed-balls.com will make custom orders from specific seeds. Color coordinated, too. Courtesy photo

That shouldn’t stop us from making and throwing seed balls, however.  “Conservation is a multifaceted endeavor,” she says. “One part is transforming landscapes, another part is educating people about what that takes and getting people excited and enabled. Seed balls are really good at that.”

Read more of Ketchum’s insights on seed balls, below.

Q. What is the primary reason seed balls don’t germinate?

Ketchum: They are planted at the wrong time of the year. We see this a lot with milkweed. Well-meaning gardeners plant it in the spring assuming it will sprout. However, milkweed needs several months of cold, wet weather before it will germinate.

They are planted too deep. Seed balls should be pressed halfway into the soil so that they can get plenty of sun and moisture.

They are planted in the wrong location. Sometimes they are planted in the wrong climate or in the wrong landscape position. It’s important to know what plants are native to your region and where they like to grow.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. We’ve made plenty of seed balls from these. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The seed balls are over-compressed and do not break down. Seed balls should disintegrate, allowing the seed to make contact with surrounding soil. If not, the seedlings can’t break free from the seed ball and will die.

The seeds were placed inside of the seed ball. Many seeds require sunlight to germinate and if they are placed on the inside of the seed ball, they will not grow.

The compost may not be sufficiently aged or the pH may not suit the seeds.

Q, Any tips for amateur seed ball makers/throwers? 

Ketchum: Do your research. Select the right seeds for your region and landscape position.

Manage your expectations. Seed balls planted where they can be cared for will do better than seed balls left to survive on their own. Many seeds need to stay moist throughout their germination. If left without rain or regular watering, they will die.

Avoid the ‘Throw & Grow’ Myth. Seed balls thrown into neglected landscapes will not likely survive. In these locations, seedlings are forced to compete with established and nonnative plants. For the best results, clear the area of competing plants, and press your seed balls halfway into the soil.

Swamp milkweed in full bloom, late summer. Thanks, seed balls! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Q. It seems seed balls have really taken off in the last few years. It used to be such a fringe thing. To what do you attribute that?

Ketchum: Seed balls are a fun, accessible introduction to gardening. They are easy to market and companies like ours and our competitors have done great work educating the public about Guerrilla Gardening and the need for native wildflowers.

We do a lot of work with wholesale companies whose businesses are driven by Millennial customers. As the fastest growing population in the US, this generation is shaping trends. What we have learned from these companies is that millennials care about saving native pollinators and they want to be good stewards of the planet. Seed balls give millennials a way to do both.

Q. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center says they’re really not effective for large-scale restorations. Would you agree?

While seed balls are a great introduction to native wildflower gardening, they are not an effective strategy for large-scale restoration projects. They require a sizeable investment of both time and money. Buying seed is a more effective and affordable option. We recommend conservation seed companies like Native American Seed or Ernst Conservation Seeds. They can help you select regionally appropriate species, as well as provide restoration advice to help achieve your restoration goals. Because restoring disturbed landscapes is nearly impossible, it’s important to be smart about your project.

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Winter Solstice signals time to make wildflower seed balls–here’s how

Feeling like there’s not enough hours in the day? That’s no surprise, since we’re quickly approaching the Winter Solstice. December 21 marks the shortest day of 2017–only 10 hours and 15 minutes in San Antonio, Texas, to be exact.

The celestial occasion celebrates the moment when, in the northern hemisphere, the earth leans furthest from the sun, resulting in short days and long nights. This makes for a great time to hole up by the fire, gather all those wildflower seeds you’ve collected all year and make seed balls.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Introduced in the 70s, seed balls are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed with water into tidy bombs that are said to have an 80% higher germination 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 bugs or birds. A dash of chile pepper gives them an added dose of protection.

I’ve been making seed balls for a decade and had mixed success.This mirrors my years of  broadcasting hundreds of pounds of wildflower seed on the overgrazed acreage of our family ranch. Wildflowers are persnickety like that. They need an ideal combo of light, moisture, and temperature peculiar to their species in order to germinate. Both methods have left me baffled as to what combination of efforts results in success. I keep trying, and am especially motivated this year by a severe feral hog invasion along our river. The prolific wild pigs, which ranchers joke are “born pregnant,” disheveled a quarter-mile of our river road, undoing years of our  riparian restoration in progress. Unwelcome Johnson grass will move in quickly to fill the gaps. I’m tossing seedballs to compete with the invasives.

Feral hogs tore up our river front. Seed balls to the rescue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My most successful seedballs germinated in the Chigger Islands that dot our stretch of Llano River. Laced with Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed gathered from the same karst-riddled watershed, they grew into robust milkweed stands. They push out thin leaves that host arriving Monarch butterflies in the spring and pink flowers filled with nectar in the fall. By November, their plump seed pods invite another harvest. The late season caterpillar pictured below is noshing on a milkweed that started the year prior year as a seed ball.

This late season caterpillar noshes on swamp milkweed made possible by seed balls. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed balls have become popular in recent years and are often tapped as an engaging educational activity for children of all ages at conservation events and pollinator festivals like the one we stage in October. This hands-on exercise takes participants back to childhood escapades of making mud pies. Rolling mounds of wet clay, seeds and soil into tidy round spheres–well, it’s just fun.

My friend Diego Harrison Smith helped make seed balls. Photo by Lisa Marie Barocas

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seed balls! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seed balls.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center told us a while back that seed balls used for large-scale restoration projects often have a low success rate. Assuring the seeds make soil contact once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition. Our friends at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggest that when it comes to seed balls, size matters. Most people make them too large to break down and sprout. “No bigger than the size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seed ball,” said the seed purveyors’ Emily Neiman.

LEFT: Properly tossed seed ball. RIGHT: Improperly tossed seed ball. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed ball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seed ball 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 and Native Plant Society encourage a concoction that includes sand. The Seed Ball Project suggests soaking the seeds for 12 – 24 hours prior to adding them to the seed ball mix. That sounds like a good idea, especially for hard cased seeds like bluebonnets and milkweeds.

Got seeds? Use ’em up by making seed balls for next year’s wildflower meadow. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our recipe includes 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 seed ball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seed ball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Seeds for Seedballs

Or: collect your own seeds locally for seed balls.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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 to germinate  and become wildflowers for pollinators.

Once the seed balls set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

Generally, seed balls 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 like a ranch or roadside. 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, chances for germination decrease. Then, just wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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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Time to harvest seeds, make (small) seedballs for next year’s wildflowers

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.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seedball

Seedball properly tossed.  Make sure it has maximum contact with the soil and doesn’t have to compete with grass.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

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.

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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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Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Seedballs this Saturday

This Saturday at 11:11 AM, the sun will move directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and we’ll experience the official start of winter–the December solstice. The sun will set on Saturday at 5:40 PM, clocking only 10 hours and 15 minutes (and 35 seconds if you’re counting) of daylight.  This starts the march toward spring and marks the longest  night and shortest day of the year.

Earth

Get ready for a long night this SAturday, December 21.  It’s the winter solstice.  Photo via NASA

In 2012, millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists bought into the false notion that the world would end on the day of the winter solstice.  A false reading of the Mayan calendar accounted for the madness.   And here we are again, noting the first day of winter and the march toward spring.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

At my house we choose to 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.

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 and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

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

What do you need to make seedballs?  Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

sand.  I’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.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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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Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011’s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

Lavaca Butterfly garden, November 2012. Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

More on this topic:

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Apocalypse Not Now: How to Make Seedballs and Celebrate the 2012 Winter Solstice

“How do you think the apocalypse will happen? Do you predict a nuclear war? Or an alien invasion, extreme fire, WW3, global warming, flooding, etc.”

–from a recent web chat quoted in the Wall Street Journal on the supposed ending of the planet this Friday

Many of us will still be sleeping Friday morning when the sun moves directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at precisely 5:12 AM in San Antonio.  We’ll experience the official start of winter.  It will be the longest night and shortest day of the year, and 2% of Americans will expect it to be their last.   The end of the world.

Earth

Will the world end Friday? Nope.  Photo via NASA

Millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists are buying into the false notion that the world ends this Friday.   A false reading of the Mayan calendar largely accounts for the madness.   The calendar ends a cycle this year, but will flip to a new cycle, “like an odometer,” according to a video released by NASA.

Scientists have contested the silly notion with facts, data and mathematical formulas, but  like the prevailing disregard of science on the subject of climate change,  millions of people are convinced that this Friday, December 21, the 2012 Winter Solstice, will be our last.  Sellers of survival gear, “doomsday pods” and apocalypse kits are whistling          cha-ching all the way to the bank.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Skip the Apocalypse talk and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

We choose to 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.

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 and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Skip the Apocalypse party and have a seedball gathering instead.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

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

What do you need to make seedballs?  Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

sand.  I’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.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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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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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Who’s Got Milkweed, Vladimir Nabokov, Seedballs and Monarch Butterflies Roosting? We Do, in our Top Five Blogposts

Birthdays are as much about reflection as celebration.   Looking back on the first year of the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog, it’s curious to see what readers read the most. Read on for a recap of the most widely read blogposts of our first twelve months.

#1  Milkweed Guide to Central and South Texas

Our Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies post continues to generate interest.  Most days of the week it is the most viewed blogpost here. Why?

Butterfly gardeners and others want region-specific tips and guidance on choosing appropriate milkweed species for their Central and South Texas gardens.  

#2 Vladimir Nabokov as Darwin Doubter

The ongoing popularity of the offbeat post, Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter of Vladimir Nabokov, surprises.   Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

#3  Who’s Got Pesticide-Free Milkweed?  Some Local Nurseries Do

For those of us who cultivate Monarch and Queen caterpillars, it’s supremely disappointing to bring a happy milkweed plant back from the nursery to feed future butterflies only to have the caterpillars drop dead the next day from ingesting leaves containing pesticides.  Our guide to local area nurseries that carry pesticide-free milkweed will be updated soon, but appears to have served an unmet need by providing names, addresses and phone numbers of Austin and San Antonio nurseries that offer worthy caterpillar food.

#4  Better than Mudpies:  How to Make Seed Balls

This post on how to make seedballs generates steady views and I suspect will spike as summer recedes and gardeners head back outside to plant wildflowers.  Not a bad idea to get ready for fall and re-read Happy Solstice! Celebrate by Making Seedballs For Next Year’s Butterfly Garden.

#5  On the Butterfly Trail in Michoacan, Mexico

Readers appreciated this description and video of my trip with my husband Bob to the Monarch butterfly roosts in Mexico.  The sight of 450 million Monarch butterflies exploding off of the oyamel trees made for a magical mystical tour for me, and a vacation I will always remember.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading about it.

Milkweed Seeds Ripe for Harvest, Gather them Now for Future Monarch Butterfly Host Plants

The Antelope Horns milkweed we saw on our Texas roadsides in April are boasting robust seedpods now, ripe for the plucking.  Asclepias asperula was one of the few wildflowers to dot our highways and wildscapes this spring, a welcome contrarian to the dreary drought and voracious winds that defined the second quarter of 2011.   Fortunately, native species like these defy harsh conditions that leave other plants wilting.

We encourage butterfly gardeners to collect these seeds now to be cultivated into Monarch  and Queen butterfly host plants.  Surplus seeds can be sent to the Bring Back the Monarchs program, a milkweed restoration project organized by Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Tropical milkweed seedpods and fluff

Tropical milkweed seedpods and fluff

Monarch Watch, our favorite source for Monarch butterfly info, offers the following tips for collecting milkweed seeds:

  • Mature pods are those that are within a day or two of opening. If you squeeze the pods and they don’t open easily, they usually do not contain mature brown seeds. Seeds well into the process of browning and hardening will germinate when planted the next season.
  • Pale or white seeds should be not collected.
  • Freshly collected pods should be dried in an open area with good air circulation.
  • Once the pods are thoroughly dry, the seeds can be separated from the coma, or silk-like ballooning material (sometimes called “fluff”), by hand.
  • Separation of seeds can also be accomplished by stripping the seeds and coma from the pods into a paper bag.
  • Shake the contents of the bag vigorously to separate the seeds from the coma and then cut a small hole in a corner of the bottom of the bag and shake out the seeds.
  • Store dried seeds in a cool, dry place protected from mice and insects – a plastic bag (reclosable) or other container in the refrigerator works well.

Those of us who plant Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in our gardens, can also gather seeds from this nonnative bloomer.  Althought technically an interloper, Tropical Milkweed is fine in a garden setting, and provides reliable host and nectaring for Monarchs and others.  Check out our milkweed guide for Texas  for more information.

One of many fun facts about milkweed is that the silky fluff, or seed threads  attached to each seed, are more buoyant than cork.  The silk “parachutes” catch the wind and efficiently facilitate milkweed propagation.  During World War II, the silk was used instead of down in aviation lifejackets.  Those who make quilts have even explored using the silky fiber as batting and more than one of us have wondered how much milkweed silk it would take to stuff a pillow.

Butterfly Gardening Update: Cowpen Daisy Seedlings Thinned With a “Haircut”

Who says you can’t butterfly garden in the dead of winter?

We spent a cold winter night giving a haircut to the hundreds of Cowpen Daisy seedlings we planted several weeks ago.  Ways to collect the seed–and our weakness for their easy germination–were covered in a recent blogpost.

BEFORE: Cowpen Daisy Seed Sprouts Before Their "Haircut"

When seedlings peek from the vermiculite, perlite and compost mix we use as a seedling starter, it’s important to thin them, leaving only one plant per slot.   Use scissors to give them a haircut rather than rip the seedlings from the soil.  The yanking can disturb the delicate roots of remaining baby plants.

It may seem harsh to toss so many vibrant seedlings, but the reality is that none will do well when they are competing for limited soil nutrients and water.  Crowded seedlings become gangly and weak.  As they start to put out their second sets of leaves, we recommend snipping them to one per seedling slot as shown below.

AFTER: Cowpen Daisy Sprouts thinned to one per seedling slot

This gives each seedling plenty of space, water, and nutrients to shoot roots and reach for the sun.   Stay tuned for Cowpen Daisy seedling updates.