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Growing Experiments

Comparison of sowing methods: seed-balls / simple broadcasting

Spring-Autumn 2011 – Syon Lane Community Allotment

Seed-balling is a technique which is supposed to have been first developed by native Americans, but has been brought into use in Japan by farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. It involves rolling seeds in a ball of clay and compost before sowing. The supposed benefits of seed-balls are that they; a) don’t require any disturbance of the soil, b) protect the seed from birds and rodents, and c) give the seed an ideal place to sprout. This article is a very basic first attempt at assessing the value of seed-balling as a method of growing certain food crops in the U.K and other cold-temperate climates. The crops we tested were Parsnip, Leek, Radish and Barley.


Seed-ball making – The seeds were thoroughly mixed in with a 50/50 wet clay and compost mixture and then each ball was rolled by hand. The diameter of the balls measured between 1cm and 3cm. The Fukuoka method of making rice seed-balls differs from this in that he uses dry clay powder and mixes it all in a cement mixer, gradually adding water. There is no need to hand roll in his method, as the clay powder will naturally forms balls around the rice grains is the cement mixer turns. However, given the small scale of our experiment, and the lack of a cement mixer we opted for hand rolling, which proved to be highly productive with a group of 6-8 people. The seed-balls were then dried for several weeks in the greenhouse to harden off the clay, making them impenetrable to animals.

Test bed 1: Parsnips, Leeks and Radishes (February sowing)

Section 1 – Seed-balls scattered on un-dug soil and mulched with straw.

Section 2 – Seeds broadcast on un-dug soil and mulched with straw.

Section 3 – Seeds buried in rows at a depth of 5mm and mulched with straw.

Test bed 2: Barley (April sowing)

Section 1 – Barley seeds broadcast on un-dug soil and mulched with Buddleia leaves.

Section 2 – Barley seed-balls broadcast on un-dug soil and mulch with Buddleia leaves.

Illustration 1: 2 radish seedlings appear from a seed-ball underneath straw mulch


Illustration 2: Parsnips growing from surface broadcast seeds

Illustration 3: Test bed 2: Barley. In the front are the seed-ball grow shoots, with the plain broadcast seeds at the back. There is little difference to be seen.

Germination and growth

At least some seeds from each section successfully germinated, but certain plants and certain methods appeared to make a difference in weather the plants continued to thrive and produce a harvest-able crop. The leeks grown in test bed 1 grew to no more than seedlings before death, this being most likely down to slug damage. Parsnips grown from plain broadcast seeds produced many more seedlings than those grown from seed-balls or buried seeds, although this could be explained by the fact that more seeds were sown this way. Radishes took well to the seed-ball method but did not grow well using simple broadcasting or burying. Many of their seedlings were heavily damaged by slugs.

In the Barley bed, the seeds sown in seed-balls germinated faster than those grown by simple broadcasting, though in the end the crops even out (as shown above). The Barley grown from seed-balls is noticeably more “clumped” than the simple broadcast plants, most likely due to the fact that many of the balls contained multiple seeds. In all beds there was a lot of competition from weeds. Growing using random scattering makes it impossible to hoe in rows, which is the traditional technique for keeping weeds under control on an allotment. We also chose to do no weeding in the beds, allowing the vegetables to compete with the weeds for water, nutrients and sunlight. In the case of the Barley the crop turned out quite sparse, but this could also be attributed to a number of factors including poor soil quality, drought and poor seed variety. The use of Buddleia leave as mulch could also explain the sparsity of the crop, as some seeds could have been obstructed by the wide leaves above them. It would be worth testing the difference between straw mulch and leaves of various widths to see if this has an affect on crop growth.

Illustration 4: The bed on the left of the picture is test bed 1, containing Parsnips and Radishes. It can be seen that numerous weeds are competing with the vegetables making the bed look more like a hedgerow than an allotment bed.


A small amount of Barley was harvested, threshed and winnowed, producing a bowl full of grain from 3-4 square meters of land. Radish roots and pods were harvested through out the season, but were not measured for quantity or quality. The most successful crop were the Parsnips, grown by surface broadcasting. Unlike the typical parsnips seen growing on allotments, these ones were very small, but abundant, growing close together. They were very difficult to dig out due to their small size and the compaction of the soil. The amount of weeds also made it difficult to find them, making the act of harvesting feel more like foraging in the wild. Though harvesting the parsnips was fiddly, around half a carrier bag full of small roots was obtained from less than 1 square meter of land. They had a strong and pleasant flavour, had few blemishes, and no sign of disease.


The lack of record keeping in this test makes it difficult to say for sure which methods work best for which crops. It has not been possible to show that seed-balling gives any advantage over simple broadcasting of seeds onto un-dug soil and mulching with straw. In future tests the amount of seeds used per square meter must be measured as exactly the same for each test section. The tests also need to be measured against traditionally grown “dug” vegetable beds and produce needs to by weighed to gain kilo per square meter information for each test section. Different methods for constructing seed-balls need also to be compared. What can be gained from this experiment is a basic understanding of how certain plants respond to being grown in un-dug soil in spring in a cold temperate climate. The traditional belief that soil must be thoroughly dug over before growing roots (such as Parsnips) could be brought into question by further comparative tests.

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