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Having a ball: one organization's attempt to replant the desert

The Desert Defenders are making seed balls, also known as seed bombs, to refurbish local parks and preserves.
Credit: Maricopa County Desert Defenders
The Desert Defenders are making seed balls, also known as seed bombs, to refurbish local parks and preserves.

PHOENIX — Replanting the desert just got a little more fun – slingshot and catapult fun.

The Desert Defenders is a community science program making seed balls, or seed bombs, to replenish plants native to Arizona at Maricopa County parks. With more than 100 "defenders," the program has removed 50 acres of invasive plants at local parks and preserves and hosted a seed ball making event to focus on replanting the desert. 

Maricopa County has 14 parks, all home to wildlife, plants and now, the benefits of seed bombs. 

Seed bombs are dried pellets containing things like soil, seeds and clay, to hold everything together. Once made, the seed bombs are hurled into the desert to await rainfall, which will melt the clay and allow the seeds to flourish wherever they land. 

Elise Gornish, cooperative extension specialist in Ecological Restoration at the University of Arizona, works on identifying inexpensive ways to enhance the management of dry land systems – one way to do that is through seed bombs. The lab Gornish works in is one of few labs that studies seed bombs. 

“Some people think of me as the seed ball queen even though I did not invent seed balls, not even close,” Gornish said.  

Gornish said seed balls are effective in desert environments because of the clay outer casing: the clay holds the seeds intact until it rains, protecting the seeds from weather, such as wind or rain, and animals.  

“In the Southwest, restoration is harder. Restoration is harder to do here than almost anywhere else,” Gornish said. “Seed balls are this approach that addresses all of the challenges associated with seed based restoration.”  

Seed balls allow for both scientists, like Gornish, and community members to be involved in replanting efforts, due to their low cost and few materials required, Gornish said. 

“Everybody likes to make them,” Gornish said. “They can make them with their hands and they don’t require any special techniques or tools.” 

Make your own seed bomb at home

When people want to make a seed bomb, Gornish’s No. 1 piece of advice to make sure the seeds being used are native to the area they will be planted. 

“We’re getting to this inflection point in our world that some places get so degraded that essentially we cannot rehabilitate them again,” Gornish said. “If we want our landscapes to provide things to us, and that’s anything from ecological to economical products, than we need to do a better job in taking care of them.”  

What seeds should go in a seed bomb?

The Arizona Native Plant Society features many plants native to Arizona that could be used in a seed bomb, including:

  • Banana Yucca
  • Beaver Tail Prickly Pear
  • Emory Oak
  • Hairy Grama
  • White Honeysuckle

>> Credit to Arizona Native Plant Society. For a full list of native plants, click here.

How big is Maricopa County?

Maricopa County is the United States’ 4th largest county in terms of population with 4,485,414 people, according to the 2020 Census.

The county contains around 63% of Arizona’s population and is 9,224 square miles. That makes the county larger than seven U.S. states (Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire).

One of the largest park systems in the nation is also located in Maricopa County. The county has an estimated 120,000 acres of open space parks that includes hundreds of miles of trails, nature centers and campgrounds.

The county’s seat is located in Phoenix, which is also the state capital and the census-designated 5th most populous city in the United States.

The county was named after the Maricopa, or Piipaash, Native American Tribe.  

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