Environmentalists Adopt New Weapon: Seed Balls Activists in Brooklyn, N.Y., are throwing seed balls into abandoned lots and dirt piles. The balls — made of mulch, seed mixture and red terra-cotta clay — break down in the rain, and the seeds germinate. One activist calls it a way to take control of a small piece of the planet.
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Environmentalists Adopt New Weapon: Seed Balls

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Environmentalists Adopt New Weapon: Seed Balls

Environmentalists Adopt New Weapon: Seed Balls

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Now, a little eco-vocabulary lesson: seed balls. If you go to YouTube and search the term, you'll find a surprising number of entries all for a technique of planting on abandoned and often inhospitable land. Seed balls were developed in Japan, but they're now being used all over the U.S. by local organizations that want to spruce up their neighborhoods.

NPR's Margot Adler caught up with one group throwing seed balls in Brooklyn.

MARGOT ADLER: First of all, here's how you make seed balls. Here's Emily Gallagher, a member of NAG, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, a group active in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg areas of Brooklyn.

Ms. EMILY GALLAGHER (Member, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth): Well, first, we mix the mulch and a seed mixture. We try to pick a seed that is native to this area and also can withstand drought. So we mix those together, and then we kneaded it like bread into a red terracotta clay.

ADLER: Then they roll into little balls, lay them out to dry, put them in bags and distribute them. The mud and clay protect the seeds from being eaten by birds and rodents. After three to five rains, they break down and the seeds germinate. The seeds used here are wildflowers, mostly purple and blue, like the lovely blue cornflowers you often see by the roadside. The technique was developed by Masanobu Fukuoka who specialized in natural farming.

So on a Sunday afternoon, I find myself walking the streets of Greenpoint in Brooklyn with members of NAG. They hand me a small paper bag with little brown balls. I'm to drop them on dirt piles and throw them into abandoned lots.

Unidentified Woman: Whoops.

ADLER: This one went on concrete. I don't think concrete is going to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GALLAGHER: Yeah. Yeah. Kind of got to push them down a little bit, but not too much.

ADLER: She is throwing. She's throwing it over a high wood wall.

Ms. GALLAGHER: If only my gym teacher could see me now.

ADLER: Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn have been gentrifying. There's been lots of development with little attention to open space. But right now, with the economy in crisis, a lot of the development is on hold.

Michael Freedman-Schnapp is one of the co-chairs of NAG. He says community gardening and what was called the guerrilla gardening movement of the 1970s…

Mr. MICHAEL FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP (Co-Chair, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth): It was a reaction to all the abandonment that was happening in the city at the time. And, you know, here, we're at the end of a development boom, and it's clear that the city's resources are going to be constrained. And they're not going to be able to take care of everywhere in the city. And so, it's going to rely on citizens stepping up and taking care of their own surroundings.

ADLER: In fact, as we are walking around, I notice a lot of fenced-in areas, one right on the water front even has the little maple leaf that signifies city park, but it's locked with a chain-linked fence. And you can see people sneaking into abandoned, trash-filled areas near the river, finding places to fish, to jog, to walk their dogs.

Gallagher hopes throwing a few seed balls will make these places more welcoming.

Ms. GALLAGHER: And I think it's really important to break down these larger tasks of taking back our neighborhoods and cleaning up our open spaces into tasks that are completely doable.

ADLER: It's not clear that it's totally legal throwing seed balls into abandoned lots, but so far no one here is complaining. After all, most people don't even know what seed balls are.

Back in 2003, during some WTO protest, police surrounded a parking lot, concerned that some strange pellets might be dangerous weapons. They were seed balls.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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