bee forage

Seed bombs: reasons why a clever idea barely works

Seed bombs often don't work because the soil is too damaged. Pixabay

When I first heard about seed bombs, I wanted to go out and toss them everywhere. But I knew their usefulness would be limited. Here’s why.

Inside: Seed bombs may not work because the soil is poor or growing conditions are not ideal. Starting seeds takes more than luck.

I love the idea of seed bombs. The first time I heard about them I wanted to toss them everywhere, but I knew they wouldn’t work. Actually, they will work in places where you don’t need them, but will almost never work in places you do.

More often than not, we encourage people to throw seed bombs into vacant lots, abandoned industrial sites, roadside verges and medians, grassy wastelands, and trampled playgrounds. These places are the least likely to produce results.

First, what is a seed bomb?

Seed bombs (also called seed balls, seed pellets, or earth) are golf ball-sized wads of clay, compost, and wildflower seeds. The ingredients are blended together and then dried so the seeds will not sprout prematurely.

People then toss these balls into places where nothing lives, hoping to grow flowers for bees and other pollinators. The problem is that bare ground is usually caused by factors that inhibit the growth of plants, including those new wildflower seeds.

Why bare ground stays that way

Most bare ground is bare for a reason. To begin with, many of these areas have dense layers of traffic pan. Traffic pan is an agronomist’s term for soil that has been heavily compacted by frequent use. Roads, industrial sites, and fields frequently traversed by tractors, cultivators, harvesters, or trucks all are subject to traffic pan. Even footpaths, playgrounds, and ball fields develop it.

Traffic pan makes it difficult or impossible for seeds to start. The compaction itself can prevent tender young roots from penetrating the soil, and the heavy layer can act as a barrier to water and air, causing puddling above and dryness below. Certain plants (think dandelions) manage to break through these dense layers, but they are usually not the ones you want.

Most often, the traffic pan needs to be broken up by mechanical tilling. If not, seeds landing in these areas may germinate, only to die when the roots cannot penetrate the soil or when they get washed away by heavy rain.

Things in the ground we can’t see

Industrial sites may be polluted with chemicals or waste products that prevent germination or inhibit growth. Toxic substances may have destroyed beneficial soil organisms while other chemicals may have altered the pH. In addition, these areas may be too sunny, too shady, too wet, or too dry.

Some may continue to be driven over, walked on, or peed on by every passing pooch. The seeds or young shoots may be preyed upon by birds, rodents, squirrels, or other hungry city-dwellers. Remember that farmers and gardeners work hard to get results, and they continually fight against the elements, predators, pests, and pathogens. They don’t just stick seeds in the ground and walk away.

City or county agencies often spray roadsides for weed control, so planting seeds in these areas may be for naught. Utility companies spray their easements as well, usually to keep down fast-growing trees, but the herbicides they use are not selective for one particular kind of plant. They may end up killing everything.

And since seed bombs are not (or should not be) made from invasive species, there is no way that seeding a field of invasives will do anything except give the existing flora a little jolt of fertilizer.

Consider the Sun

Many wildflower seeds require sunlight to germinate. If seeds needing sunlight are buried inside a tight ball of clay, they may never germinate. However, if the ball breaks apart when it gets wet, sunlight may reach the seeds. If you make your own seed bombs, be sure to read the germination requirements for each species of seeds you use.

Fertile fields are not good for wildflowers

Although it may seem counterintuitive, abandoned fields—especially those that received fertilizer in the last decade or so—are also poor places for seed bombs.

Many wildflowers are naturally nitrogen-fixing, producing all the nitrogen they need through natural processes. That means they can thrive in low-nitrogen soils where other plants can’t survive. As long as the soil nitrogen remains low, they can easily compete against other plants, including grasses.

But once we add chemical fertilizers, grasses take over with a vengeance and very quickly out-compete the wildflowers. Much of that artificial fertilizer lingers for years, making it nearly impossible to grow wildflowers in abandoned croplands.

In his engrossing book, A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees, Dave Goulson explains this conundrum, and he emphasizes how hard it is to grow wildflowers in a field that was once fertilized. As he says, “There is no easy way to reduce the fertility of soil in a meadow, yet it is impossible to recreate a rich flower community without first doing so.” He explains why reducing soil fertility can take many, many years.

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Careful placement of seed bombs makes a difference

I’ve had people say they planted seed bombs in flower pots and garden beds and they grew “beautifully.” No doubt this is true. But the idea behind a seed bomb—that we can distribute pollinator plants far and wide by throwing clay-encrusted flower seeds into waste areas—is mostly just a happy thought.

The law of unintended consequences is hard at work here. By “improving” the land for various uses, we have destroyed its ability to produce the historic native landscape we are now seeking.

If you want to toss seed bombs, go for it. After all, it is fun to throw things: “Take that, you nasty piece of plantless dirt!” But if you really want to help the pollinators, a little more thought is necessary for success.

Honey Bee Suite

Compacted soil does not absorb water easily. Because it tends to puddle on top and remain dry and powdery below, few plants can live in it. Pixabay photo.

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.


  • Rusty, As always nice job telling us about the woes of seed bombing. The plant in the picture looks like Curly Dock, a source for Oxalic Acid. By the way did you get the email I send about the temp & humidity graph?

  • I dunno about this although it sounds logical. This summer I tossed some wildflower mix around where the bottom of my last manure pile had sat for a couple of years, as I took it away to different uses. Those seeds came up, flourished, and are on their second generation now. Underneath was basically hardpan, which probably did soften under the manure influence.

  • I am the “Dutch Clover Bandit”. If White Dutch Clover is frost seeded along limestone gravel covered road edges in February, it will grow prolifically the same year. A good time to put it out is right after a big snow before the plows come through. When the state or county mow, it produces blooms all the better. It blooms some the first year and more every year after. Clover likes a higher pH, which is why it does so well. This low growing variety used to be put in lawn seed mixes until everyone wanted a weed-free yard in America. Grab a bag and throw in the floor board too. Nothing like the wind from passing vehicles or a snow plow spreading some love for your bees.

  • I’d like to relate the following because of how closely it relates to your article here.

    I’ve had the honor of knowing artist, Mr. Chapman Kelley, who worked together with a scientist, volunteers, and sympathetic funders to make a living painting in Chicago’s Grant Park using native plants. He says the genesis of the idea was a talk given by Buckminster Fuller about intuition. In the 1970s, Chapman’s concern was for the coming water crisis. How prescient!

    The Wildflower Works garden flowered 3 seasons out of 4 and had daily observation and maintenance, but, once established and because they weren’t even using the tap, they requested in writing that the City turn off the water to that area. It lasted for some twenty years like this until the City tore it out. Alas, Chicago subsequently replaced it with another project by a different artist–this one with hybridized and imported plants.

    He has recounted much of his illustrious career on his website, linked above but, suffice to say, it does take a lot of time & careful attention to make wildflowers grow–especially in populated areas, as you wrote.

    Chapman Kelley is still committed to saving water. Imagine how much potable water could be saved if people were not watering their lawns!

    Thank you for reading this share, and for the article that inspired it.

  • Darn. I always wanted to throw seed bombs. It seemed so neat. But thanks for the info. Now I can scratch one more thing off my to-do list and not feel guilty 🙂

  • That does, indeed, appear to be Curly Dock, one of the first weeds to get established on bulldozed subsoil when the funding for the new strip mall falls through. Its taproot can pierce hardpan and bring minerals to the surface, helping to create new topsoil. It’s usually followed by the Knotweeds (close relatives).
    Sadly, it’s not much use to pollinators as the flowers lack nectar and the pollen is wind-dispersed.
    Northern Kentucky

  • Hi Rusty –
    I had never heard of “seed bombing” before – but after reading your article realized that I practiced a similar hopeful action for several years. I live in a very rural part of the Mojave Desert in California. We have many years with abundant grasses and noxious weeds – and a few in between with an explosion of wildflowers. One patch of ground at the north end of a property I own has been plagued by a carpet of fiddlenecks for years – no matter what was blooming in the surrounding acres. For two years, any time it theatened rain, I hand-cast a couple pounds of native arroyo lupine seed (easy to get) over the area. During the next two wildflower blooms, the fiddlenecks were mostly replaced by a 10-acre carpet of lupine. Since this is shaping up as an “El Nino” rain year after a long drought, I’m holding my breath to find out what grows there next spring.

  • There is a large lot behind my tract home that is just grasses. I would love to take a trespassing stroll through the lot to plant wildflower seeds but I would truly hate to see my efforts mown down! The property owners mow the empty lot(s) several times a year. Otherwise I would be out there! Throwing seeds to the winds!

  • When used for permaculture seed bombs/balls are great, but it’s ILLEGAL to dump seed bombs on private property, as you correctly stated. Dumping is a TRESPASS. Here’s what’s going on in my part of the upper middle class world: whenever a neighbor has a problem with another neighbor he or she bombards their neighbor’s house with seed bombs. Seed bombs not only ruin landscapes that cost thousands of dollars to plant but they also invite rodents. That’s correct–rats, white footed mice, brown mice, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, many birds and their predators are attracted to seed balls/bombs. The rodents chew up expensive roots on bushes, trees and herbaceous plants as they desperately try to eat all the seeds and moss. Rodent’s poop also attracts their predators, and those predators tear up the garden looking for rodents. Seed bombing private property other than yours can cause the destruction of property and it is illegally dumping. Dumping is against the law and you can get a fine, arrested or sued for such acts. As for children, anyone teaching them to throw seed balls on private property other than their own, is encouraging bullying and unlawful behavior, and therefore corrupting minors.

    • Annika,

      Really? People in “upper middle class” neighborhoods seed-bomb their neighbors? What you describe sounds low class to me.

      • As if this is not bad enough some have decided to throw glass shards inside the seed balls.

        Very upsetting. I’m talking about lawyers, doctors, college professors, psychologists, scientist, horticulturists, real estate agents, builders, contractors, etc.; it’s extraordinary how some people are all about retribution. The sad thing is that it successfully puts fear into people so we do nothing even though we know what’s going on. We are scared of becoming a target as well. This is the best I can do to get the word out to caring law-abiding people to discourage such behavior. Thanks for your support.

        • Annika,

          “I’m talking about lawyers, doctors, college professors, psychologists, scientist, horticulturists, real estate agents, builders, contractors, etc.”

          So interesting. To me “class” is a standard of behavior and decorum, not a resume or job description. A high salary or a fancy title does not automatically confer class, as you have just illustrated. Some of the classiest people I have known were stone broke.

  • I really came to know much about seed bombs by this article & comments as well. I got enough information what I really need. Thanks alot!

  • All fair points but the sentionalist headline isn’t fair. ‘Seedballs don’t work in certain places, for certain reasons’ would have been fairer.

    Because they do work but not everywhere.

  • I make my seed bombs from used teabags. Just make a small cut and put a handful of seeds in of native flowers.

    I am fortunate that the large city I live in has protected green space along the river systems flowing to a Great Lake. I fish a lot on these river systems, so I always bring a few seed bags with me and throw them in the soils along the riverbank. Certainly not all bloom and some flowering plants hold better than others, but I am there anyways fishing and have had good luck over the year seeing new flowers develop.

    • Geoff,

      What a totally cool idea. I assume that the tea bags are still wet when you seed them? It’s like a little sack of damp peat moss.

  • If you toss your bomb and only ten flowers grow, it’s ten flowers that weren’t there before ( x 1000,000 people throwing them = 10,000,000 ) ?

  • Seed bombs work for me. I buy those boxes of 36 Jiffy seed disks (pucks). They are always on sale in the early fall. I hydrate them, then let them dry out at full size. I mix seeds with a touch of soil and poke it into a the top opening swollen Jiffy seed disk. Instant seed nurseries to toss wherever, done this for a few decades. ( always using the local native plants. Seeds gathered at no cost.)

    • Hi George – Greetings from Nova Scotia! I am so pleased I Googled “use Jiffy seed pucks as seed bombs” because your comment here was the only hit I got and I personally think it’s a brilliant idea! Question for you because I will definitely try it this year and using native plant seeds (joe-pye weed and milkweed to name a few) I’ve bought from a reputable seed company. Questions for you if you wouldn’t mind: 1) do you remove the outer mesh around the puck? 2) When do you disperse these seeds? I may have to do mine in the fall because some may need cold stratification.

      Many thanks!

  • Hi Rusty, whilst I know what all of you said is valid…it’d be really nice to suggest an alternative for folks instead of just being negative? What are some other options for the seed bombs? If we don’t use seed bombs, what would be other alternatives? That’s where your expertise would really help…

    • Emily,

      Well, the obvious answer is to prepare a seedbed, fertilize, and water according to the directions on the back of the seed pack. It’s not rocket science.

      • Well Rusty, I agree with Emily. While you wrote a nice article about what not to do you left such as me with no indication of what to do with my recently purchased box of seed bombs. Anyway I’ll bring a fork to loosen the soil in appropriate spots.

  • Hello Rusty,

    I am the Editor of St Mark’s Parish News, Cold Ash, West Berkshire, a monthly publication
    Our village has a strong environmental commitment, and I publish environmental articles in every edition. May I have your permission to reproduce your article on Bee bombs above? If you would like to see a copy of our magazine before deciding, I’ll be pleased to send it online if you can let me have your Email address.

    Robert Hogwood

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