Masanobu Fukuokas’ Clay Dumplings AKA Seed Balls
Natural farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuokas’ Clay Dumplings are an ancient technique for propagating plants from seeds without opening up soil with cultivation tools such as a plow. As with many natural farmers, Fukuoka believed that tillage over large areas is laborious, destructive to soil health and ultimately not needed and thus a waste of time and energy. Therefore, Clay Dumplings have become an important aspect of many natural farming and conservation enterprises around the world.
After many years of observation and experimentation, Fukuoka developed a method of growing rice, barley, vegetables and fruit over his small farm with minimal disturbance to the the soil or the need for fertilization. He referred to these methodologies and philosophical perspectives as “natural farming”, and wrote several inspiring and informative books on the matter. The One-Straw Revolution, and Sowing Seeds in the Desert being two of the most renowned.
The architecture of Clay Dumplings is pretty basic: seeds are combined with red volcanic clay (but any clay available locally will do), organic materials like compost, worm casting and/or well-decomposed manure. A portion of fibrous matter or particles such as hydrated newspaper mashed, finely cut straw, cotton and natural wool can also be added to give the dumpling a greater tensile strength.
The mixture is moistened and formed into compact lumps, allowed to dry, and then cast out into fields at the appropriate time of year, depending on the seed mixture, climate and rainfall patterns.
Seedballs have been pivotal in establishing perennial pastures on steep degraded highlands where inaccessible slopes have made it difficult to plant seeds in the shallow soils, exposed bedrock and rocky terrain.
The complexity of ancient heirloom seed species, guild options and companion plantings is infinite — from a single crop to a lifetime succession of all the species required to establish a mature ecosystem, along with all the pioneer and mid-succession plants needed to make a degraded landscape fertile and productive.
Seed Clay Dumplings can also be used to overseed existing ecosystems, without damaging the soil structure – or to seed productive plants into forested areas.
Preparing your Materials:
Clay Dumplings are made from a mixture of compost, seeds and clay. Each of these materials are refined to ensure a relatively fine texture, and the seeds are winnowed to remove hulls and casing.
Fukuoka recommends the use of red volcanic iron-rich clays, claiming that white and grey clays don’t form the same kind of polymer as the red clays do and tend to make a more brittle seed ball. Experimenting with whatever clay is locally available to you. Native clays are likely to be a more economical and wholesome solution than imported ones.
Pulverized and screen your clay to remove any stones, grit and clumps of organic matter.
Place your clay in a bucket and pulverise it with a mattock handle.
Sift both the clay and compost till you have a fine and even grain. Any compost or finely decomposed manure like vermicompost will do………the more biologically active it is, the better.
A series of three screens tacked to the bottom of a 60 x 60cm by 15cm deep frame. The first screem is 1cm fine, the second is 5mm fine, and the third is 1mm fine.
Other ingredients you can add:
Beyond this basic recipe above, you can add a number of additional elements depending on the circumstances and desired outcome.
Pest deterring compounds such as those found in the capsicum genus, are effective in deterring insects from plundering the balls and eating the seeds. Artesemias, alliums, mints and black pepper, all have a pungent aroma that deter insect predation.
Inoculating the seedballs with local forest soil can ensure that populations of diverse fungi are present for woody perennial development.
A legume inoculant can also be included, whether powdered or peat based. You can also take a small amount of soil from the rhizosphere of a plant that has been inoculated with Rhizobium and is presenting root nodules, otherwise the soil may lack the necessary bacteria.
Finely shredded paper, cardboard, and plant residues such as rice-hulls have also been added into seedballs to improve the tensile strength of the ball.
Making the Seed Clay Dumplings:
Make the balls on a sunny afternoon to ensure that they have enough warmth to dry out. Otherwise, the quick germinating seeds will sprout and die off before they can be dispersed. Don’t place them in direct sunlight either, as they may dry too quickly and crack open exposing the seeds.
Making Seed Clay Dumplings is relatively easy, but like any craft it takes some time to get the hang of it.
5 parts dry powdered clay
3 parts fine sifted compost
1 part seed mix
There are two ways to roll seedballs, one involves hand-rolling each ball, and the other involves rolling the ingredients in a flat bottomed pan until they “cake-up” and begin to form round-ish clods. The ingredients are the same, but the methods differ in their speed and precision. I use the the flat bottomed pan method, described below.
Combine all the dry ingredients in a large flat tray, and mix thoroughly. Next, add a few drops of water to the dry mixture and rotate the tray in a circular motion. The goal is to start coating the seeds with a little water so that fine clay and compost particles sticks to them. Keep adding small amounts of water to coat the balls as they form, so that the remaining soil can adhere to the clotting balls.
If you are using oblong shaped seeds like grass seeds, the “balls” may not be spherical.
In the end you may end up with some randomly shaped, dumpling-like balls. That’s fine, as long as they are firm.
If the seed-balls won’t be thrown out immediately, it is important to start drying them straight away.