Going “all-in” with the Soil Seed Bank

Dirt is dead. Dirt is inert.

But soil — soil is alive.

Part of ‘being alive’ is containing the potentiality for the continuation and renewal of life. One element of how nature handles that is by stocking soil with seeds. Seeds are the future. Seeds are the promise of life to come.

This storage of seeds in soil is referred to in science as the soil seed bank:

Soil seed banks play an important role in the natural environment of many ecosystems. For example, the rapid re-vegetation of sites disturbed by wildfire, catastrophic weather, agricultural operations, and timber harvesting is largely due to the soil seed bank. Forest ecosystems and wetlands contain a number of specialized plant species forming persistent soil seed banks. […]
The absence of a soil seed bank impedes the establishment of vegetation during primary succession, while presence of a well-stocked soil seed bank permits rapid development of species-rich ecosystems during secondary succession.

While this is an activity that nature handles quite well all on her own, I figure that it never hurts to give a little push in the right direction. That is, I’m going all-in on stocking the soil seed bank with my own deposits of seed “currency” which will hopefully yield dividends in the future:

These are, for the most part, kilo bags of different cereals and legumes. On the bottom right is a 5-pound sack of wildflower seeds from Vermont Wildflower Farm mixed liberally with lots of other random seeds that I had left over from last year and previous years (wildflowers will be used for edging). I am using all of these seeds for the purposes of stocking the soil seed bank in a small field which adjoins my garden proper.

Includes:

  • lentils, black, red and green
  • quinoa, black and white
  • kaniwa
  • kamut
  • fenugreek
  • sesame
  • flax
  • caraway
  • soy
  • sorghum
  • amaranth
  • mustard
  • chickpeas
  • millet
  • fava beans
  • and many, many others mixed in with the wildflowers

Gardening and even farming in urban environments, you’re generally pretty limited in square footage and it’s easier to fill up and in fact run out of space really quickly But where I am, I have around 10,000 ft.² total to play around with and experiment. I’m extremely fortunate to have access to this and am trying to do meaningful and potentially useful trials of crops which are largely unknown in this region.

My idea is to use the STUN method — sheer total utter neglect. For not just these seeds but for the garden as a whole. After seeding or planting, my basic tactic will be to not water anything, to not add any fertilizers except for waste from my animals (this year only poultry), and to cover the soil with organic material as much as possible. (Planning to buy 10 cubic yards of wood chips)

These cereals and legumes however will not get fertilized or have their soils covered. They will be totally on their own to tough it out and to see who will survive and who will thrive. Birds will eat some. Some of the seeds will surely die. And those that live will be allowed to go to seed and to continue on their own stocking the soil seed bank, theoretically eventually creating a few landraces perfectly adapted to our growing conditions.

The organizational principle I applied was to basically put a stake in the ground and then walk around it sowing outward, usually in a clockwise fashion (for no particular reason). And then another and another, such that each stake would be roughly in the center of a patch of seeds of a like variety, and the edges of each area would mingle.

Something like this…

I made one other preparation prior to sowing and that was to use my ho-mi digger, a kind of pointed hoe, from Lee Valley to drag out very light channels in the soil in random patterns across the field. My idea is partly aesthetic and partly practical: if you throw seeds on top of the soil without first preparing the soil with a light cultivation and then after lightly covering or raking them in, your chances of successful germination are lower. But I didn’t want to do any of that. I also didn’t want to have the opportunity of crops completely failing. So my lightly dragged out channels, my “telluric lines” if you will, are a cheap kind of insurance system — that is they provide an alternate soil condition which seeds may fall into. Also my field is on a hill of a very light inclination, and seeds thrown on the surface and not worked in at all may in some cases move and be washed away by rain. These channels are intended as backup catchments for seeds to guarantee that not all of them are washed away.

Plus they look cool, might end up being areas of denser growth, and it felt weird and magical to go out in my field and draw weird lines and shapes in the soil, and then walk around stakes clockwise throwing seeds in the rain on Mother’s Day.

mustard at a crossroads
fenugreek at another juncture

Who knows if all of this will come to anything, but it feels like it has the makings of a good experimental art-gardening project.

An interesting aside, my soil seed bank from last year already contains a number of seeds which I put but which never grew last year which have begun germinating this year. I never meant for this to happen, but it’s part of my inspiration for what I’m doing now. I was much more interested last year in attempting conventional-style (organic) production in rows, and so my strange mystical patchwork of random paths is also overlaid on a grid of rows from last year which I left in place and did not cultivate or try to eliminate. I’m just letting them grow, and encouraging a kind of planned chaos with a number of invited guests — but which will also not be hostile to non-invited species either.

Kale from last year with sorghum inter-sown

Thanks to a dawning understanding of wild edible plants, I’m not stressing about “weeds,” because I now know which ones are good and edible and at what time in their life cycle. There are a number I really want, actually — and I will also plant cultivated analogs of a bunch of weed species (four types of Italian dandelions, for example) The others I will just leave, trusting that nature too has her own plan. Or where appropriate I will pull and leave on the surface to become mulch in place. No loss.

For reference as the weeks and months progress, here’s a first shot from above of the field that has been sown using this method.

Wish us luck!