Using Seed Balls to Sow Pasture Grass Seeds on a Small Permaculture Farm
Is it possible to sow pasture grass seeds without cultivating? Are seed balls the answer?
We set out to test this method on our small farm Permaculture property and see for ourselves.
Like many small farmers, we don’t own a tractor or have easy access to big machinery for cultivation and sowing. And the presence of lots of rocks on our land is a big constraint to using them anyway.
So how can we establish the perfect pasture in this situation?
Recipe for Creating the Perfect Pasture
To us the perfect pasture is one that provides excellent production of high quality tucker all year round.
Here are the steps we have taken to reach this goal so far:
1. Divided up our grazing land into 6 small paddocks so that we can rotationally graze. Rotational grazing prevents livestock from selectively eating out only the good pasture plants; this aids weed control.
It also allows pasture time to recover from grazing, boosting overall productivity. Any land that had a slope steeper than 20 degrees was reserved for forestry rather than grazing, due to the risk of erosion.
2. Tested the soil using a laboratory that follows the Albrecht method of
3. Applied soil amendments to correct imbalances discovered by the soil test.
For us this meant buying dolomite, rock phosphate, potassium and a touch of boron, mixing them in a trailer with a shovel, and broadcasting by hand out of a bucket.
5. Finding sources of pasture grass seeds and legumes.
This was harder than we thought it would be, especially for the small quantities we were after. We needed to buy a minimum of 1 kilogram of each variety and many varieties were unavailable or sold out.
Pasture seed mixes are a cheaper alternative. But if you are determined to stick with the species your research pointed to, then you should order your seeds at least 4 months before the sowing season.
Establishing Pasture Using Seed Balls
Use of seed balls is the ancient "earth dumpling" method recently revived by Japanese agronomist Masanobu Fukuoka.
As a young man, Masanobu Fukuoka left his position as a soil science researcher to devote his life to developing a unique organic farming system of “natural farming” that does not require weeding, pesticide or fertilizer applications, or tilling.
In a world that is rapidly passing its peak supply of oil, such low energy methods will surely become increasingly important.
As Masanobu Fukuoka, said in an interview for Mother Earth News in 1982:
...if modern agriculture continues to follow the path it's on now, it's finished. The food-growing situation may seem to be in good shape today, but that's just an illusion based on the current availability of petroleum fuels.
All the wheat, corn, and other crops that are produced on big American farms may be alive and growing, but they're not products of real nature or real agriculture.
They're manufactured rather than grown. The earth isn't producing those things... petroleum is!
The success of the method has inspired others, including ourselves, and been applied to all sorts of situations – from agriculture to reforestation.
What are Seed Balls?
Earth dumplings are a bit like rum balls except that the ingredients that are formed into balls are seeds, clay, compost, and manure.
A nourishing growing medium in which the seed can develop is furnished by the clay, compost and manure which re-hydrate after substantial rain triggering germination.
In the meantime, the seedballs protect the seed from predators such as seed collecting ants, birds and grubs, which otherwise can dramatically reduce the number of viable seeds available to germinate.
Apparently you can even use seedballs to successfully sow into established swards of crop, pasture or weeds.
How to Make Seed Balls
Natural Farmer Masanobu Fukuoka conducts a workshop for making seed balls at his natural farm and forest in Japan.
Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer who developed what many consider to be a revolutionary method of sustainable agriculture. He is also the author of "The One-Straw Revolution" and several other books examining both his philosophy and his method of farming.
In this short (6:16 minute) Japanese language video Fukuoka is seen teaching the seedball making process hands on to a group of enthusiastic students.
This next video outlines the story of how to make and use seed balls for reforestation, arid land rehabilitation and agriculture, demonstrated by kids. (28 mins 41 secs)
Seed Balls Recipe
• 1 part (by volume) seeds
• 3 parts sifted compost
• 5 parts powdered clay (beat dry clay with a rolling pin or hammer to break clods into powder, or buy a bag of powdered bentonite)
• 2 parts water
Preparing compost by sifting out lumps.
• Special Bacterial Innoculant (for legume pastures like clover, serradella etc).
• 1 part bug deterrent (e.g. dried powdered chilli, pennyroyal, cayenne pepper, lavender or peppermint).
Seed Ball Making Steps
1. Pour seeds into a large tray or baby’s bath.
2. Mix other dry ingredients together and sprinkle some onto the seeds.
3. Lightly spray the seeds with water and mix thoroughly.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until all ingredients are incorporated.
5. Form mixture into balls.
Cement mixer method:
1. Pour seeds into a large tray or baby’s bath.
2. Lightly moisten the seeds with water.
3. Mix other dry ingredients together and sprinkle enough onto the seeds to absorb the water and provide a dry surface.
Making seedballs in a cement mixer.
4. Mix well and tip into going cement mixer, aligned almost horizontally.
5. Alternate spraying with a little water and adding a little soil/compost mix until the balls form. Break up large balls and repeat process.
For both methods:
6. Leave balls in the sun to dry for 24 hours.
7. Sow at the rate of 1 ball per square foot (about 10 per square meter).
Seed Balls Sowing Time
Sow at a time appropriate for the pasture grass seeds you are using. Note that at least 3 to 5 inches (75 to 125 mm) of rain are needed to start the seeds in the seed balls germinating, and that follow up rains sufficient to develop the plants are also required.
To help ameliorate the risk of insufficient rain (say for spring sowings of perennial grasses) we made our seed balls up fresh and skipped step 6, sowing the balls pre-moistened to give them a bit of a head start.