Years ago Richard Baker Roshi described the field of Zen practice as a “non-repeating universe.” Whenever I sow seeds, I remember these words. Every garden sown from seed is a world within a world, a complete mystery. And this winter, in particular, as I roll more than thirty-five varieties of wild-land seed into little clay seed balls to resow fire- devastated land, the non-repeating universe stirs to life inside each globe of clay.
Every January and February at Green Gulch Farm we tend the wider watershed that stretches beyond the garden gate and links our garden to that mosaic of gardens that dot the curved horn of the California headlands. This year I’ve been packing “seed gardens” inside of protective balls of clay to help revegetate the fire-scoured wilderness north of us on Point Reyes peninsula.
Seed ball gardening is an elegantly simple and ruthlessly effective method of revegetation conceived by the natural farmer and teacher Masanobu Fukuoka Sensei, who has worked for almost fifty years restoring damaged and desiccated land. Anyone can do it. You simply mix together three parts seed, one part raw soil, and five parts dry red or brown clay powder and moisten the mix with one or two parts of water. Sterile soil will not do. Seed ball culture depends on the complex guilds of living mycorrhizae, or beneficial fungi that inhabit raw soil. These fungi live in symbiosis with the roots of sprouting seed plants, nourishing the host plant with food from the soil humus and from their own digestive proteins. Each seed plant is host to a particular mycorrhizae and healthier plants abound where guilds of micorrhizae are at work.
The seed we mix this winter—purple needle grass and nodding stipa, coyote bush and coastal sage, Chinese houses and owl’s clover—was gathered in late summer, walking the ridges and lowland meadows of Redwood Creek and Gospel Flats. As I beat clouds of ripe, wildland seed into an old pillowcase, I was picky, careful not to gather the renegade weed species of Europe, the Scotch broom and foxtail barley. These non-native plants also cloak the headland bluffs, choking out the local vegetation and creating a fire hazard. When I remember, I carry a burlap sack and cut off the ripe seed-heads of these invaders so they will not reproduce.
Now in the short light of winter we work in a circle, in silence, a guild of friends making seed balls. Three-year-old Sabrina mixes seed with a sixty-year-old Zen monk. First, the ripe seeds are coated with dry soil from the bottom of an old compost pile. This raw soil is loaded with myccorhizae ready to go to work. Next we sift red clay dust over the mix and moisten the whole lot with water. Soon we are elbow-deep in seed and clay gumbo. When the mass coheres, we pinch off tiny pieces and roll them out between our hands into half-inch diameter clay balls, stuffed with seed.
These clay seed balls are living models of entire ecosystems; shaped by human hands, they nevertheless carry the signature of their native habitat. In a few days we will fan out over the blackened flanks of Mount Vision, scattering seed. The clay balls will sleep on the earth until their protective shells grow soft with rain and threadlike roots burrow through into burned soil. Green blades will unfurl their flags overhead, heralding a non-repeating universe mixed from a handful of dust.
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