Wildflower Seed Balls
Basic wild flower seed ball summary:
4 parts dry clay powder
4 parts soil
1 part wildflower seeds (seed pods, stems, dried leaves, and other debris are okay too… for tiny seeds, or expensive seeds, use a smaller measure such as a “pinch” or even count out the seeds)
1-2 parts water (add slowly until the mix is about the consistency of pizza or biscuit dough)
Wildflower seed balls allow precision planting of specific plant species, timed to wait until ideal weather conditions, and introduces only the specific species of plants selected as a seed source. In effect, it makes use of the system in Nature called the “soil seed bank” famous for sprouting a carpet of weeds when disturbed. Since wildflower seed balls do not require any cultivation, there is no disturbance of the soil to initiate the burst of weeds that typically follows attempts to plant in natural areas with an intact soil seed bank. Additionally, many wildflower seeds are readily eaten by flocks of migrating birds, or hoards of ants if simply scattered on the soil surface. Wind and rain can further disperse the seeds leaving the intended location without the selected wildflowers. Since wildflower seed balls are essentially a mud ball, with seeds mixed in, animals won’t eat it, and weather won’t move it from the location selected. When there is enough rain to soften the clay, there is also enough moisture for seed germination. It is sometimes slower since the seeds will remain dormant until conditions are right for germination, but by using the same approach as nature, there is no need for supplemental water. In my experience of growing blue bonnets in the median strip along the front of our school, the first spring planting seemed very underwhelming. However, by the third spring, cars spontaneously filled our school parking lot on Easter Sunday for the Hill Country tradition of taking photos of children in their Easter clothes while in a colorful field of blue bonnets.
The recipe, summarized above, is flexible and does not require extreme precision. Try 4 parts (a typical non-standard measurement unit is a “handful” or roughly one cup) of dry clay and 4 parts soil with one part a handful of wildflower seed pods collected from last year and stored to avoid moisture such as in a paper bag on a bottom shelf in the pantry. Slowly mix in 1-2 parts water to the dry soil and clay slowly until the mix is about the consistency of pizza dough. If it is too wet, the seeds will prematurely germinate in the seed ball before it dries. Finally, add one part of the flower seed pods collected from the previous year’s plants attractive to pollinators which will be welcomed back in the garden. However, if in the first year pure seeds are purchased, use much less than a handful, maybe only a pinch or even count them out as with as few as 3-5 seeds per seed ball for big bushy plants. If possible, include some milkweed seeds like Antelope Horns (Asclepias Asperula) or Butterfly Bush (A. tuberosa,) as host plants to attract Monarch Butterflies laying eggs, and aphids which are hunted by lady bugs for a food chain that is appealing to both gardeners and kindergartners.
The incomparably best place for native seeds in the region of our school is from the online catalog of the Native Seed Company in Junction www.seedsource.com . Like clay, the seeds are much cheaper when purchased in bulk quantities, but will return the investment with seeds of their own during their next life cycle. As a general rule when purchasing wildflower seeds, don’t buy any types of mixes. Mixes often contain many plants that are not from the local area, frequently they are undesirably invasive, and usually the bulk of the seeds in mixes are mostly native grasses. Native grasses are wonderful, but to avoid inadvertent planting and unexpected results, don’t purchase seed mixes. Instead, order specific seed species separately to ensure the purest samples. Students might enjoy making seed balls that are coded by shape: round for blue bonnets, cubes for cardinal flowers, disks for wine cups, cones for milk weed, or cylinders for Indian paintbrush for example. Alternatively, make your own customized seed mixes from the pure seed types ordered separately and combined specifically for your wildflower seed ball activity. The hands down favorite wildflower in our area has always been bluebonnets. Students, parents, and administrators all enjoy driving or walking past the bluebonnet patch. Bluebonnets tend to do well in the dry, short, sparse grass of campus landscapes, often resulting from district maintenance practices. Remember to remind the maintenance crews to avoid the “NO MOW WILDFLOWER ZONE,” so that each year the blue bonnets or other wild flowers can self-sow and naturally increase in thickness and beauty.
The best time to scatter the wildflower seed balls will be late September to early November (roughly between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving,) with several weeks before or after to scatter seeds since that is what Mother Nature does too. Make up the seed balls early in the school year, or even save them from the end of the previous year, then let one of the first cool mornings of autumn lure you and your students outside to place the seed balls. After the first good, soaking rain, the blue bonnets and many other types of seeds will sprout from the softened clay of the seed ball and spend the winter as small, green rosettes hugging the ground. At this time they are typically well below the blades of mowing crews.
In the following spring, as ehe temperature starts to warm around Valentine’s Day in our area, the young Blue Bonnets will begin to grow and develop blooms, and other types of seeds such as Four Nerve Daisy will germinate. After the eye catching flowers open, most maintenance crews can be trusted to avoid mowing down the wildflowers. However, the initial green foliage can strongly resemble a healthy patch of weeds. That is when the principal should be informed and the “No Mow Zone” signs should go up to avoid accidental loss of the new wildflower meadow due to mowing.