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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18 Responses

  1. Lynn Lloyd
    | Reply

    Thank you for giving us needed information. When I started making seed balls several years ago I made them the right size. but I put several different seed species in each ball. I now put only one species in each ball. I use a recipe very similar to yours but no pepper. I was amazed that a couple people from my church went to a class at the extension service of my states agricultural university and when they showed me their seed balls they were larger that golf balls had had many different seeds. Do you recommend more than one species in each seed ball? As far as milkweed, do you recommend stratafication of the seeds before making the seed balls? In northern areas it might not be necessary, but I live in Texas and some of our winters are very mild and may not meet the requirements. Thanks for your website anf the information you provide.

  2. david strange
    | Reply

    Greetings from Shreveport, La. Wanted to report an unusually large amount of caterpillars my wife and i are finding on the milkweed that survived the winter. In fact the poor little plants were so decimated from the beds, we put the seed trays full of sprouts in the cages and deposited the caterpillars 0n the 1 inch plants which were quickly devoured. When the number of the little striped glutons exceeded 50, we checked garden centers for milkweed in larger size and found 1 nursery with a goodly amount. 4 Flats of 18 plants each and 200 dollars later, we concluded….1 we must really love butterflies..2 next year we need to plant seeds sooner…3 we need to continually give thanks to the God that give us all things to enjoy and share with others while we have life and breath. The number of them increases daily.

    • Lori
      | Reply

      You must have shopped Akins! I was so excited to find 3 varieties of milkweed there. I am in Claiborne Parish and do have some wild milkweed where I was able to move the hungry caterpillars, because I didn’t have enough at my house to feed them, so back to Akins I went!

  3. anna urich
    | Reply

    Its jan 23..I have 3 caterpillars on my milkweed..What do I do?

  4. Joe
    | Reply

    And by the way…chili pepper does not discourage birds in the least. They do not have the receptors for capsaicin. Mammals is a different story…so it might be a good idea to keep mice from enjoying the contents of the seedballs.

  5. Joe
    | Reply

    I’m wondering if the clay is really necessary, or if some other binding ingredient that might break down easier might not be better. Here in New Mexico, the heat, wind and dryness delays any breakdown of seed balls, and basically what you’re recommending is a recipe for adobe. Any ideas for seedball recipes for the desert SW?

  6. Marty Hixon
    | Reply

    Thank you for what you are doing to help the Monarchs

  7. Tony Cabral
    | Reply

    I live in San Antonio, TX. Where can I buy milkeed plants, or seedballs?
    Or can I order them from you?

  8. Tracie
    | Reply

    Just saw the comment above about making seed balls the size of a marble, otherwise it would take too much rain to break down the soil. If only those instructions were posted everywhere! I made lots of seed balls from native wild flower seeds last Fall and they were bigger than a marble and they did not break down, so seeds didn’t sprout! Now I know why! This could be really frustrating for children if they don’t see flowers blooming after they make these. I will remember this next year! I like your tip about the pepper too!

  9. Colette
    | Reply

    I need a harmless remedy for aphids. I sprayed my milkweed plants with a mixture of water and dish detergent which did keep them at bay but I haven’t been able to get rid of them completely. Any suggestions?

    • Lee Stalnaker
      | Reply

      I added some vinegar. It kills off the little buggers for a while but you will have to do it over and over all summer long.

      • Mary
        | Reply

        If I start out with milkweed seedlings in the spring,how will vinegar affect monarchs laying eggs?If eggs hatch,then how does keeping the milkweed plants free of aphids affect the next stage?

  10. Hi there! Thanks for promoting this powerful no-tills technique. Milkweed does very well in seed balls, so I think that they can be a good part of restoring milkweed to our plant communities. They are very easy and inexpensive to make, as you describe, and so I think most anyone should give it a try!
    I agree with Native Seeds about the size and number of seeds in a seed ball. I have a lot of information on my website here: http://seed-balls.com/how-to . Including a discussion about calculating the right number of seeds based on germination rate, if available.
    Although it is a small point, birds either don’t taste or mind the hot chili pepper. They don’t have the same receptors that make chilis burn us. (in fact people often feed red and hot peppers to canaries to enrich their colors, which they seem to love!) Other mammals, do feel the heat, however, so adding chili powder would likely discourage mice. Having less seeds in the seed ball makes them less attractive to birds as well.
    PS, I really enjoy this website. Great information, well written, well cited, current, topical. NICE JOB!

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  12. Native American Seed
    | Reply

    So much fun, I absolutely loved your slideshow! We always make seed balls with kids but this is inspiring to get a group of adults together for a seed ball making party. Maybe I’ll host one during the holidays as its something we can do by the fire… some more inspiration from a gentleman out here on the western edge of the Hill Country who was affected by the Oasis Wildfire “Since the burn, I’ve easily made 500 seed balls per evening after dinner and have enjoyed it!” They are very useful in wildfire and drought recovery. One tidbit Native American Seed recommends is to make sure your seed balls are the size of a marble and have about 5 seeds each. Any bigger and…(1) it takes a lot of rain to melt them and (2) there will be too many seeds in the one space having to compete against each other. And…. i have to mention the idea of putting seed balls in gum ball machines around public places (make sure to use natives to the ecoregion!) http://greenaid.co/pages/Greenaid-Vending-.html

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Thanks, Emily. Great tips on the size and seed density. Hadn’t heard that, and makes sense (and more seedballs will result if you make them smaller with less seed). Wow, 500 seedballs per night–very impressive!

  13. Jody and Ken
    | Reply

    Geez, I looked at the picture and thought I was going to get a recipe for Chili-Chocolate Truffles! Oh well. Interesting post. I have never see the like in this part of the world, although maybe I haven’t been looking in the right places. Looks like a very cool idea. Ken

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Thanks, Ken. No chocolate, but the birds and ants sure like them.

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