Seed Balls

2012/05/09 deej 6

Seed balls are an ingenious idea, developed and pioneered by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer and philosopher, and an early proponent of natural farming. He suggested that much of the effort that humans put into agriculture is wasted, and that we should instead be working with the natural environment. Seed balls are one way of doing that.

Fukuoka wrote “If rice is sown in the autumn and left uncovered, the seeds are often eaten by mice and birds, or they sometimes rot on the ground, and so I enclose the rice seeds in little clay pellets before sowing. The seed is spread out on a flat pan or basket is shaken back and forth in a circular motion. Fine powdered clay is dusted over them and a thin mist of water is added from time to time. This forms a tiny pellet about a half-inch in diameter. There is another method for making the pellets. First, the unhulled rice seed is soaked for several hours in water. The seeds are removed and mixed with moist clay by kneading with hands or feet. Then the clay is pushed through a screen of chicken wire to separate it into small clods. The clods should be left to dry for a day or two or until they can be easily rolled between the palms into pellets. Ideally, there is one seed in each pellet. In one day it is possible to make enough pellets to seed several acres. Depending on conditions, I sometimes enclose the seeds of other grains and vegetables in pellets before sowing.” (Masanobu Fukuoka [1978]. The One-Straw Revolution, p.99.)

It’s a very simple idea. Seed balls are simply scattered directly onto the ground, and not planted, which provides a huge reduction in the time and effort to plant any large area. The clay protects the seeds from birds, insects, and harsh weather conditions until enough rain falls to melt the clay and germinate the seeds. The seed ball contains a mixture of different seeds, and their planting is left to the elements and random selection, so that the most appropriate plant in the most appropriate position will emerge, and require the least attention. Seeds can be mixed to form deliberate companion planting guilds, or a variety of seeds can be included to ensure a varied ecosystem results. Many people include chilli powder, mint, or pennyroyal to repel ants from digging the seeds out of the seed balls, and you can also add inoculant for legumes and the spores of mycorrhizal fungi to encourage a healthy soil ecosystem from the start.

We tried an initial round of seed ball making, using 1 part seeds to 3 parts vermicompost, 1 part chilli powder, 5 parts bentonite clay with added minerals, and approximately 2 parts water. Red clay powder is hard to get here, and the only benefit in using red clay over bentonite is the mineral content. Conclusion: hand rolling around 600 seed balls takes a long time, and it gets really easy to roll them too big. It was fun, but I think it would quickly get to be less fun considering that for our 7.5 acres we expect to need something like 300,000 seed balls (at a recommended application rate of ten seed balls per square metre, or more to reclaim derelict land.).

Automation beckoned as a solution. The internet abounds with ideas and designs for machines for making seed balls. The basic premise is a barrel or drum and a mechanism to roll it in place. The dry seed ball mix is introduced into the rolling drum, and water is sprayed onto the dry mix until it begins to nucleate and form small balls. A mesh screen is used to catch seed balls once they reach a certain size and remove them from the drum.

The machine is simple and straightforward, and we would have gone ahead and built one with a motor to roll the barrel, just like all the rest on the internet, except that I saw Milkwood Permaculture’s bicycle powered machine. It’s ingeniously low tech, and can run anywhere without needing a battery or an electricity outlet. As far as I can tell, it’s also the only bicycle powered seed ball machine anywhere (or at least, the only one on the internet). Until now.

One recycled bicycle frame, modified plastic olive barrel (also recycled, and thoroughly cleaned of olive flavoured brine), some wood and stretchy rope later – we have The Machine. It hasn’t yet had its inaugural use, but it spins perfectly. Watch this space for updates.

Plant Profiles: Pineapple

2012/05/08 deej 0

When people think of good permaculture plants – or even good garden plants – for Perth’s Mediterranean climate, pineapples don’t generally leap to mind. At a guess, I would say that most people have never considered that they could grow pineapples. It’s a shame, because pineapples actually love the heat and the sun here, and will grow in marginal areas and thrive on very little water. Pineapples will also grow quite happily in pots, so they can be moved if necessary.

The pineapple plant, Ananas comosus, is a tropical herbaceous perennial. It grows up to 1.5m tall, and the same across, although usually it won’t get taller or broader than 1m. The plant has a short, sturdy stem and narrow, waxy leaves 30 – 100cm long, often with sharp spines along the edges.

In the first year of a pineapple plant’s life, the stem lengthens and thickens, bearing numerous leaves in close spirals. After about 12 to 20 months, the stem grows into a spike-like inflorescence up to 15 cm long, holding over 100 spirally arranged flowers. Flower colours vary, depending on variety, from lavender through light purple to red. The ovaries develop into berries which coalesce into a large, compact, multiple accessory fruit.

A pineapple plant flowers only once, when it is 18 – 24 months (i.e. 1.5 – 2 years) old, and produces one fruit before it dies. The fruit takes about 6 months to develop after flowering. Pollination, generally by bats or hummingbirds, is required for seed formation – but the presence of seeds negatively affects the quality of the fruit. Seeds, if present, are in the fleshy part of the fruit just below the rind. Vegetative reproduction is more common, via slips, suckers, and pineapple tops.

Suckers, also sometimes called ‘pups’, are little side shoots that are produced in the leaf axils (between the leaves) of the main stem. Some varieties will produce more suckers than others, some will start earlier and others later. But they all produce at least a few suckers before they die. If you leave the suckers in place you get what is called a “ratoon crop”. That is the least amount of work for the next crop, just do nothing, but it has a few disadvantages. The plants start getting crowded, and compete for food, light and water. The result of this is that the next crop of fruit is much smaller. The other disadvantage is that if you leave the suckers in place you only get a few suckers and the original pineapple plant, having successfully reproduced, dies. If you keep taking the suckers off, the plant will survive longer and continue growing more suckers. The timing is not critical. Even tiny baby plants can survive, although it is best to wait though until they are a reasonable size, say about 20 cm long. Plants grown from suckers will flower in about 18 months.

Slips are the tiny plantlets that grow at the base of the fruit on the fruit stalk. Not all pineapple varieties produce slips. Slips can be carefully snapped or pulled off. Do it as soon as they are big enough to handle (say about 10 to 15 cm) because slips develop at the expense of the fruit. The parent plant will not produce more slips if you take them off as it would with suckers. Plants grown from slips can fruit within a year.

The easiest way to grow a pineapple is from a pineapple top. Cut the spiky top off of a pineapple fruit, and make sure you remove all the flesh, and even some of the small lower leaves from the pineapple top. Some people recommend allowing the pineapple top to dry for 3 or 4 days, but it isn’t really necessary. Just make a small hole in the ground or in some good quality soil or potting mix in a pot and stick the base of your pineapple top in that. Push the soil back in and firm it around the base so the pineapple sits straight and doesn’t fall over. If the soil is dry give it some water. It’ll grow. It’s that easy. Water the young plant regularly for the initial six to eight week establishment period, and provide a very dilute organic foliar fertiliser spray. After that, the pineapple plant will thrive even with very little water and attention. Plants grown from pineapple tops will take 20 – 24 months to flower, and then another six months or so before the fruit is ripe.

The fruit is ready to pick when it starts to turn yellow. You can pick the fruit at this point, especially if it is getting sunburned or is in danger from animals, and leave it in a cool, dry place (e.g. on the kitchen bench) for a few days. Otherwise leave the fruit on the plant until it’s fully ripe and yellow.

What pineapples need:

    • Water – about 700 to 1000mm rain or irrigation annually, although they can survive and fruit with much less. They have very tough leaves so they don’t lose much water through evaporation.


    • Sunlight – In cooler climates, pineapples need a lot of sun. In very hot climates they like growing under a bit of shade. In Perth they will thrive in full sun or part shade, but they do appreciate being protected from the hot Westerly afternoon sun.


    • Soil Pineapples don’t need much soil or high quality soil, although they do prefer it to be slightly acidic. They do not have a big root system, and get a lot of their nutrients through their leaves. Pineapples do need good drainage – the surest way to kill a pineapple plant you are trying to grow is overwatering and rot. Pineapples also appreciate thick mulch, and a good compost. Mix compost in with your soil before you plant the pineapple, and then mulch thickly around it. You end up with mulch and compost sitting in the bottom leaves, and as it breaks down it feeds the plant.


    • Food (Fertiliser) – Pineapples take up a lot of their nutrition through their leaves, and the first few months after planting they rely only on their leaves. You should make sure the plant food actually lands on the leaves. Artificial and concentrated fertilisers will burn the leaves, so it’s best to stay away from them. You can use liquid fertilisers like fish emulsion, seaweed extract, or worm tea. Make a very diluted solution and apply it to the pineapple plant’s leaves and the surrounding soil with a watering can or spray bottle. The colour of the leaves of your pineapple plant will tell you how healthy it is. If they have a reddish, purple tinge then your pineapple is starving and you should help it a bit with some liquid fertiliser.


  • Space – Pineapple plants can grow up to 1.5m tall and 1.5m across. Make sure you put them in a place where they can spread without becoming a nuisance. They work well planted in clumps.


What pineapples have to offer:

    • Pineapples produce beautiful flowers, and their unusual look can make a very attractive focal point in a garden.


    • Fruit from your own homegrown pineapples will taste better than anything you can buy at a supermarket, and it will be free of pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty chemicals.


    • Pineapple plants also produce more pineapple plants, with very little effort on your part.


    • Their spiky leaves make them an effective barrier to keep animals or people out of garden beds, or away from other areas, which need protection. A pineapple fence will keep out possums, wallabies, children, dogs, …


  • The spiky leaves and shallow, fibrous roots of a dense planting of pineapple plants makes an effective mulch-trap, preventing soil and mulch form being washed away by rain or irrigation, and slowing down the movement of water down a slope. The lee side of this sort of soil dam will build up rich loads of humus, which benefits the pineapples and any other plants in the area.


What pineapples do not like:

    • Soggy, waterlogged soils


    • Having their leaves burned with concentrated fertilisers


  • Frost


More Information?



Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:


2012/05/08 deej 0

There are a million or more places to start any story – and a garden (or a forest) is just a story which is planted rather than told – but you have to pick one. So while I could start with the search for a location, or with the process of falling in love with this block of land and choosing it and buying it, or with the first trees we planted, I am instead going to start with the swales.

Swales are a logical place to start. For those who don’t grok the concept, a “swale” in this context means a level ditch on contour. They form part of the permanent bone structure of the design, along with any other earthworks. Council regulations don’t allow us to have a dam, so the swales are really the only major earthworks we’ll be doing aside from levelling the building site when we build our house.

According to my research, for the rainfall we’ll be expecting (600 – 700 mm pa average), the swales should be about 12 m apart. As a general rule, swales should be 1 – 1.5m wide at the top (the width at the base is less due to the sloping sides of the swale), 40 – 50 cm deep, and long enough to hold the maximum runoff for a 24 hour period for your catchment area.

Gallifrey is on a sloping site, and along the Western side of the property there are a lot of big chunks of soft stone just under the surface of the laterite gravel and sand that passes for soil in those sections. It’s just too rocky to dig regular swales, even with a rockbreaker. The stone is too soft for the rockbreaker to do more than dig a small hole in the surface, but too hard to dig through. So, we’re going to have two types of swales – the regular sort, dug on contour to about 1m wide and 40cm deep, with a mound on the downhill side, and “Polish” swales. Polish swales are a variation for ground which is too rocky to dig regular swales, based on the gambions which are often used to stop gully formation.

Instead of being dug into the soil, a Polish swale is built up on top of it along the contour lines with small branches, compost, discarded greenery, stones, and other debris. This forms berms that trap soil, leaf litter, bird poo, and anything else sluicing down the slopes. The berms of these inverted swales slow down water and force it to percolate down into the root zone of the garden or food forest. I got the name from ‘Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture’, by Toby Hemenway, but I’ve been thinking about similar ideas since I read about hugelkultur. Our Polish swales are going to be built up using dead wood, rocks, gravel, and whatever other appropriate materials we can find. It should work. We haven’t tried it yet, but we will.

Our first experiment with swales involved hiring a dingo for a day to try digging them ourselves. It worked brilliantly, and (who knew?) dingoes are a lot of fun to drive. We tidied the swales up afterwards with a shovel, since our dingo driving skills weren’t quite up to digging a level ditch, but even so. Then we planted the swale mounds by hand with broad beans and lentils, hoping for rain to sprout them and give us some winter groundcover.


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