We had to go up a creek to get to Granny Laurie's log house. The creek bed was also the road; during the spring rains we would have to park the old truck and walk the rest of the way to her house. The creek was spring fed, so it never really ran dry, and in summer it was great to wade in. There was a seam of clay about a foot wide just in front of her house. I would take a run 'n go, straight down the creek knowing when I hit that spot of clay I would land in a splash right on the seat of my pants. It was that slick. Granny Laurie said she never did hear such whoopin' and hollerin' except when I was visiting. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad, but I didn't let it stop me.
I learned a lot from that little seam of clay and from my grandmothers. Granny Laurie was my great grandmother, being Granny Ninna's mother, so I would go stay with them for weeks at a time during the summer. It was there that I discovered seed balls quite by accident. It all started with mud pies, and when I discovered the clay, it became mud and clay pies, then mud and clay bowls, and mud and clay pots. The chimney was made of large flat stones, and at the base of it there were more large stones just laying there on the ground. That was a nice sunny spot and the sun warmed the rocks, so I placed my pots, bowls, and pies on the stones to dry. In one of my more creative moments, I gathered seeds from flowers and weeds nearby, and put them in the pots that I had just made. They stuck nicely to the wet mud/clay pot, and I pretended they were dinner cooking on the hot stone stove.
That end of the house butted up against the garden, and there was only a foot or so of grass that ran between the house and the garden. It was my favorite place to play because it was out of the way of the grown ups.
I find now that I was not the first to have created this combination of clay, dirt and seeds. It all started with the Native Americans and their seed balls. When they traveled as tribes from one place to another, they carried their precious seeds within tiny balls made of clay and soil and hardened in the sun. There was little loss of seeds since they were encased within the clay balls. When they arrived at their destination, the clay balls were placed wherever needed, and with the spring rains and summer sunshine, they grew where they were placed. A garden was planted.
In the early 1940's a natural farmer from Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka applied the same principle. He gained quite a following for his methods of natural farming. He was trained as a microbiologist in his native Japan, and began his career as a soil scientist. Sometime at an early age he began to doubt the wisdom of modern agricultural science, and returned to his family's farm. From that point on he devoted his life to developing a unique small scale organic farming system that does not require weeding, pesticide, fertilizer or tilling. The timing and circumstances of Fukuoka's conversion parallels the new movement in the 1940s to organic farming and gardening in Europe and the United States.
Without going into great detail here, Fukuoka's method is to reproduce natural conditions as closely as possible. The seed germinates quite happily on the surface if the right conditions are provided. He reintroduced the ancient technique of seed balls, in which the seed for the next season's crop is mixed with clay, compost, and sometimes manure, and formed into small balls, then dropped on top of the ground. The result is a denser crop of smaller but highly productive and stronger plants.
The year of my discovery at Granny Laurie's house went something like this: I had left my seeded clay/dirt pots piled on the warm stone at the base of her chimney. A winter and a spring had passed. When it was warm enough to do my run 'n go down the creek and into the clay seam again, I made more pots. I took them to the back where the chimney was, and was met with a stash of daisies and bee balm growing on top of the warm rock, rooted in last year's watered down pots and pans.
Isn't it funny how one thought can follow another? During the years of teaching studio art, one of my classes was ceramics. Sometimes I taught wheel thrown pots, sometimes slab building, and other times I taught sculpting. But when the end of fall came, I would have the students bring in seeds from their favorite flowers and grasses, with a watermelon or tomato seed thrown in. I would bring a bag of compost, all dried, and then we would take the scraps of clay that were left in the bottom of our clay bin, crush them into small pieces and lay them out to dry. When dried, we pounded the clay into a fine powder, mixed it with the compost, added the seeds and sprayed water into the mix until it was damp enough to shape into small balls. We laid the seed balls on the counter to dry overnight.
There was a wooded field behind our school building, all a part of property owned by the school system, and the science classes often used that area for little field trips. When the seed balls were dry, my class and I took a little field trip of our own with our seed balls. We dropped them at the base of huge trees, and in bare spots beside the stream that wandered through the property. They were dropped along the walking path, inside rotting stumps of trees long gone, and some were buried at the bases of maple trees whose roots were heavy above ground. In some spots where seed balls were dropped, the kids covered them with rotting leaves, but in most places they were left to the elements. My students and I always looked forward to that little field trip, and sometimes I think they signed up for the class just to be included in our seed ball field trip, because we did it for many years.
There were some creative little guys who decided to make their seed balls into shapes, small heads with grass seed for hair, little animal shapes, and sometimes just blocks of squares. Of course the shapes went the ways of the rains that came, just as the seed balls did, but it was fun for them to see what would happen.
When spring came and before school was out for the summer, we took another field trip, this time to check on our seed balls. Most of the kids knew where they had placed their seed balls, and there were some exciting moments when they saw flowers blooming in that same spot. I remember one little guy who had included a gourd seed or two in his seed ball. He had placed it at the base of an old grapevine that was climbing to the top of a huge tree. Sure enough, his gourd plant was vining up the tree, attached to to the grapevine. When we came back in the early fall, we found a watermelon or two, and sometimes a tomato, but always there were flowers. It was a fun project, and taught the kids a little about history, about the soil, and about their environment.
When I was teaching I didn't know about Mr. Fukuoka, but I did know about the Native Americans, so I taught that part of the ceramics class based on what the Native Americans had done. And I told them the story about my experiences at Granny Laurie's house.
I hope they never forget that lesson.
Here is a rough recipe for seed balls, just in case you have an area you would like to try the process in. When my grandson comes for a visit this fall, this will be our next project. I have a lot of maple trees in my yard, and there are some places between their roots where nothing grows. I think my 4 year old Ethan will enjoy the surprise when he sees what happens next spring.
One and 1/4 cup of dry and finely ground natural clay, terra cotta, gray or white
About 3/4 cup of dry organic compost
About 1/3 cup of assorted seeds, wildflowers are best, but be sure that you don't include seeds of invasive plants.
Mix the seeds into the dry compost first, then add the clay to the mix and blend everything well. Mist water onto the mixture while stirring, just enough water to allow the mixture to bind together.
Pinch a bit of the moistened mixture and roll it into penny sized round balls. Continue to make the seed balls until mixture is completely used, then put the seed balls in the sun to dry completely for a day or two. This mixture will make about 30 balls.
The final step is to place the seed balls onto the barren spots that you want to naturalize, among exposed tree roots, beside a stream or pond, along a driveway, or wherever you would like a natural look. You can then wait for nature to take its course, or you can sprinkle a little water on it occasionally.
In Kentucky, I let nature take its course and have always placed seed balls only during late fall, after having collected seeds the previous summer. By the following spring I can see the results of my project, and am often happily surprised, just as I hope my grandson will be next spring.
All photos in the article are those by the author. Images 1,2 and 3 were taken in unlikely soil conditions in Alaska. The final 4 photos show the process of pounding the clay to powder, the approximate of clay/compost ratio, the mixture complete with seeds, and finally the mixture made into seed balls and waiting to dry.
Sources for verification: http://www.pathtofreedom.com/pathproject/gardening/seedballs.shtml
 Masanobu Fukuoka: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC14/Fukuoka.htm
Books written by Fukuoka: "The Road Back to Nature", "The One Straw Revolution", and The Natural Way of Farming".
Books on related subjects may be found listed here: http://foryoungfarmers.wikispaces.com/Books
Be sure to read Gloria Cole's article, February 25, 2008 here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/208/