1,000 seed bombs for Water Street!

As I was walking my dog around Ypsilanti’s 38-acres of depressingly-barren downtown real estate known as Water Street yesterday morning, it occurred to me that it might be fun to pick a day sometime soon and encourage everyone in Ypsilanti to come out and plant sunflower seeds together. And, in a fit of inspiration, I took out my phone, snapped a photo, and sent the following image out to my friends.

Well, the response has been good… So good, in fact, that I’m thinking that I might actually try to coordinate something.

Before we get into the specifics, though, I should probably mention that planting sunflowers on Water Street isn’t a new idea. I think I brought the idea up here on the site several years ago, after reading that sunflowers are known to pull contaminants from soil. As you may recall, I brought the idea up, only to be told that DIY bio-remediation doesn’t really work… I asked my friend Murph to recap the argument, as he’s the one who made it, and here’s what he had to say.

Sunflowers and other phyto generally don’t destroy soil contaminants – they just accumulate them from the soil into the plant matter, which then requires harvesting and disposal as toxic waste. Otherwise, if the plants are left to die and decompose on site, they may make contaminants MORE hazardous, by bringing them up to the surface and increasing the chance of human exposure.

And, he went on to link to an article in FastCompany which referred to DIY sunflower phyto as “fanciful if not downright dangerous.”

Fortunately, though, a lot has changed over the past few years, since the subject was first broached… Most notably, we’ve been able, thanks to our planning department, to secure the funds necessary to conduct significant remediation activities on the parcel, which had been seriously compromised thanks to decades of industrial dumping. (There are still a few areas that are somewhat contaminated, but they could easily be avoided.) So, having to dispose of toxic plant matter shouldn’t be a problem. And, for what it’s worth, guerilla remediation wasn’t my intention to begin with… I just thought that it would be nice if the thousands of people who drove through Ypsilanti each day, as they made their way down Michigan Avenue, weren’t left with the impression that our community is built around an ugly, desolate wasteland.

And, again, this isn’t anything new, really. I’m sure that I’ve talked with folks about seed bombing Water Street a dozen times over the past ten years. It had never occurred to me until I stood there yesterday, though, that it didn’t have to just be two or three of us scattering a few handfuls of seeds. “What if,” I thought, “we set a time and got one hundred people to commit?” “What if we turned it into a neighborhood party?” And, that’s kind of what I’m thinking now. I’m thinking that we may have a real opportunity not only to bring the space to live visually, but to activate the parcel as a public space. And how better to celebrate the coming of spring than by meeting friends and neighbors outdoors and planting flowers on the commons?

Of course, there are a number of things that would need to be worked out first. Here are my notes on a few of them.

FLOWER TYPE: I’d originally suggested sunflowers, as I think that they’re incredibly beautiful, and feel as though a field of them, all swaying together in the breeze, would make people overwhelmingly happy (at least until they began to rot). My friend Murph, however, feels as though we might want to consider wildflowers instead, as he suspects that some folks might actually complain about sunflowers, due to their height, and demand that they be mowed down by the City. And, of course, I suspect that certain breeds of native flowers would do better in that environment than others. (I’m making a note to call my friend Lisa Waud at Pot & Box, and ask what she’d recommend.)

DEPLOYMENT: I’d originally thought that it would be best to just make holes, drop in seeds, pray for rain, and be done with it. Now, though, I’m thinking that it might be more fun, and more effective, to make seed bombs (clay/compost/seeds), which could either be carefully placed around the property, or launched from afar. (A quick tutorial on making seed bombs can be found here.) I especially like the idea of making seed bombs, as it would allow us to coordinate bomb-making parties across the City in advance of the big event. And, perhaps more importantly, I just think it could be a hell of a lot of fun deploying them. (Maybe it would be too much of a hassle, but I’m imaging lots of slingshots and trebuchets.)

TIMING: Again, I’ll defer to those of you who know more about flowers than I do, but my sense is that we’d want to do this by mid-April.

Will it help us attract a developer to Water Street? Probably not. But I think it could be a good community-bulding opportunity. And, in my opinion, anything that breathes a little life into that piece of land is a good thing… So, if you’re interested in participating, or have thoughts on the specifics, please leave a comment.

[note: Also of interest, folks will be gathering on Water Street on April 19 and 20 to plant 500 trees as part of the Ypsi Tree Farm initiative I told you about last April.]

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  1. anonymous
    Posted March 31, 2013 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    With a little planning, I bet you could get some local schools involved, as well as some of our local retirement communities.

  2. Joseph Yaroch
    Posted March 31, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    I will share some thoughts. In my local community in southern New Mexico, there is a Native Plant Society that has been known to do remediation projects. I went on a hike with them to an area that was recently designated as a State Park, but which has not yet been developed. They got a lot of volunteers to rip out the invasive plants, and to grow cuttings of native trees. The intent is to repopulate the area with things that do well there. Some of their members had expertise in how to do that in a way that is likely to work. But the specifics will vary a lot depending on local ecology. They used desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), and screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens). Obviously you would chose different species. Plus, you might not want to grow trees in there is any chance that the area is going to be developed.

    In your area, it appears that the Michigan Botanical Club is the nearest equivalent. Of course, I have no idea if they are interested in that kind of thing.

    There is also a county extension service near you, run by MSU. They will have a master gardener program. The master gardeners might be able to make suggestions about wildflowers that would be good for that particular location. They also might be able to suggest sources for bulk seeds for the seed bombs. Quick check with Uncle Google “wildflower seed mixes for Michigan,” you find one place that sells a dryland mix for $75 per pound, and they recommend 10 pounds per acre. But that is what it would take to quickly get a nice, fully-seeded meadow. You don’t have to do that. If you can get enough plants established, it would cover the area in a few years.

    There are ecological reasons why it would make more sense to use a mix of seeds rather than to try to grow just one kind of flower, especially since you probably aren’t going to be watering the area or using fertilizer. Using local native species, you are much more likely to get something that will grow without human intervention.

    Some seeds germinate best if they are left in the cold for a while before being exposed to wet earth. Those ones would not be likely to come up until one winter goes by. Others do not require that. This is called cold stratification. You would want to decide if you want to include seeds that require cold stratification.

    The other consideration is the development of pests. If you end up with a lush meadow, then you will also end up with mice and things that eat mice. Like racoons. And snakes. I personally would not worry about that, but it is something to consider.

  3. Oliva
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Count us in. It’s a beautiful idea.

  4. Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I like this idea.

  5. Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Greg would be the most trustworthy about what seeds to try:


  6. Edward
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    We could do a Water Street clean-up while we’re at it. The last time I was down there, I noticed that people had been dumping garbage.

  7. Elliott
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of everyone lining up on the sidewalk, like a firing squad, while someone counts down the volley.

  8. Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I’m in. I’ve made quite a few from wildflower seeds that I’ve collected, as well as a few other non-invasive nectar-bearing plants that are good forage for pollinators. (As the bee lady, kinda gotta bring honeybees into it.) There is still quite a bit of clay leftover from the last seed bomb making. Having watched the video, we went about it in the opposite way: rather than using powdered clay, we used pre-moistened clay and combined it with compost & wildflower seed, then dried the resulting pastry-like balls. Hope this works. I got this clay from the Giving Garden and I’m quite sure that we can use the remaining clay to make seed balls for Water Street.

  9. Rustbelt Revival
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Seed-bombing Water Street is actually an idea that has been tossed around in Transition Ypsilanti for the last 5 years (at least) as well as in discussions regarding the Water Street Trail. But, each time it has been deemed not feasible due to the fears of remediation interference & pulling toxicity closer to the topsoil. In addition, since invasive species are a real problem at Water Street, this may or may not be a good idea depending on the seeds people choose. For instance, mustard greens are a bad choice– they are actually banned in many community gardens around town for their ability to go invasive.

    I know people think guerrilla gardening is somehow cooler than planting a city tree nursery funded w/ grant $$, but SERIOUS VOLUNTEER ASSISTANCE IS NEEDED to plant 350 more trees in Water’s Street’s Gilbert Park on April 19 & 20. More info on Ypsi’s Urban Forestry Plan can be found here: http://www.cityofypsilanti.com/Government/Departments/PublicServices/YpsilantisUrbanForest

  10. Mr. X
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s a matter of this being “cooler” thank planting trees. I think both projects are worthwhile. And, I think the post was clear that seed bombing Water Street isn’t a new idea. But, for whatever reason, it’s never been done. As for pulling the toxins up to the surface, I think Mr. Murphy was clear that shouldn’t be an issue.

  11. Kristin
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Rustbelt, I’m in for a tree planting. Are kids helpful or a hinderance? It won’t hurt my feelings either way, as I go back and forth in my mind all of the time, and not just for gardening. Also, for what it’s worth, sometimes I think people need a gateway engagement with the out-of-doors that is more on their terms, so a well-orchestrated, appropriately-specied seed bomb may entice people into further activity on the property. Everyone is at a different point on the path, as it were.

  12. Stefanie Stauffer
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I’d recommend Lisa Bashert as the go-to lady to help pick plants. And, I’d also talk to Bonnie Wessler, the invasive species plant genius of Water Street, as she could probably suggest the best locations…

    I think we really need to restrict it to native wildflowers so as not to add to the invasive buckthorn, garlic mustard & everything else that grows there.

    Speaking of garlic mustard, we could also add this activity: http://www.stewardshipnetwork.org/site/c.hrLOKWPILuF/b.5075593/

  13. Alice Krum
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    How do we start an email list? Or should we set up a Facebook group?

  14. Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I have no helpful links, tricks or botanical trades, but will be happy to plant and document the event with my trusty camera. Is there a Facebook event page?

  15. Megan
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Anyone that complains about sunflowers needs to go live in a hole somewhere where they won’t bother anyone else.

  16. facebook stalker
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Jesse Tack just left the following comment on Facebook:

    I saw this and think it’s a great idea. I would suggest a polyculture of plants rather than just sunflowers, or even just wild flowers. Diakon radishes, parsnips, squash, chard, and other annuals with sunflowers and wildflowers would be a great remediation start.

    The point of the phtyo remediation is not to remove the toxins but to leave the biological material to rot, open the soil, and allow the mycelium to move in. It is the mushrooms that break apart and remediate the long chain hydrocarbons.

    So with that said, I would include a myco innoculant into the seed ball mix. My buisness btw, specializes in remediation. wholeculturerepair@gmail.com

    I would also suggest running chickens through the site a few days prior to the seed bombs.

  17. Joe
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    What about having this coincide with another May Day party?

  18. Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    You shouldn’t take “Murph says so” as the sole word on brownfield conditions. Some relevant reading:

    * The 2003 Phase II Environmental Site Assessment is the formal documentation of contaminants on site at that time (generally, this is what existed when the city got there).

    * The 2006 Brownfield Redevelopment Plan lays out the plans for remaining remediation needed at that time. (A significant amount of cleanup had already been done by then.)

    * From there, the city secured $850k in Federal grants to do additional demolition and remediation. I can’t quickly find long-form documentation of the “post”, but here’s a _very_ summary map of the remaining areas of concern (AOCs) as of 2011 (As mentioned, from memory I believe the BTEX and VOC AOCs to be a good ways below the surface.)

    tl;dr – brownfields, and the regulations surrounding them, are much too complicated to be stated as “clean” vs “contaminated”, which is why communities and developers hire professionals to deal with them. While I generally believe seedbombing Water Street would meet the criterion “do no harm”, I’m not personally going to endorse or participate in it unless the city’s consultants sign off on it. (me = wet blanket.)

  19. facebook stalker
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Someone asked Jesse to respond to the FastCompany article that Richard Murphy shared, and here’s his response?

    The article suggests that the plants be removed after the growing season, which defeats the purpose of the remediation. That was the article’s sole concern re: phytoremediation.

    In Nature, toxins are remediated at the source, not removed and isolated. It is the biological decay coupled with mycelial disassembly that actually transforms the toxins into a non-toxic state.

    Ideally, if we really want to remediate toxins in the landscape, we would edge on natural succession, from a mostly bare ground (as it is today), to annual based biomass creation, to the fungal dominated soils of a savanna forest. Toxins cannot persist long in fungal dominated soils with intact perennial grasses and trees.

    But even in the short term, it is better to allow the cycling of toxins, minerals, water, air, carbon, and sugars than to do nothing. Provided that we leave the annual plants on site and allow nature to remediate for us.

  20. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Great idea! A few things to consider.

    You have to turnover the soil and prepare the ground. Anyone have access to a tractor? Also, it will take some work to get it established. Chickweed and dandelions will be the first to establish and will out compete just about anything else, regardless of how much seed is scattered. many persons will be needed to pull weeds until the better plants are established.

    Choice of plants is critical. It’s got to be a native or naturalized species. Did you want plants that optimize phyto-remediation, or wild flowers to add color, or a little of each?

    Maybe we should start with a smaller section first and see how it goes. Make a swatch of wildflowers visible from Mich Ave. England aster, Joe-pye weed, and lead plant were all used successfully to reduce contamination in Dearborn at the sites of old Ford factories. Trees are very good for reducing contaminants: hybrid poplar trees (Populus spp.)and hybrid willows (Salix spp.) especially.

    Sunflowers are a good choice for color, but unless they are harvested, the seeds will attract rats. Black-eyed susan, shasta daisy, queen anne’s lace, chickory, and daylillies are low maintenance flowers that thrive.

    Please – no wildflower mixes that contain garlic mustard or purple loosestrife.

  21. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Here’s an informative web site:


  22. anonymous
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    What have you done with the real EOS?

    And how much do we owe you?

  23. Eel
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    When planning the barrage, you should keep the following words in mind….. “SHOCK AND AWE”!

  24. Andrew Jason Clock
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    We still have an adopt-a-park agreement in place through the Water Street Trail Project, and we’ll be participating in YPSI PRIDE to do a spring cleaning of the property (I’ll be registering Water Street as a site soon) While most of the property has remained fairly manageable for cleanup over the years, the rail spur running to Factory/Spring Street is in serious need of rescue. The cleanup needed back there is really beyond the scope of what I feel I can put together.

    I think seed bombing is a great idea overall, but I second Stephanie’s assertion about contacting Bonnie Wesler about invasive species. She’s worked hard to get them off Water Street, and I’d hate to make her job any harder.

  25. Michael Limmer
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t trees going to be planted at the Water Street sight soon? You should coordinate your efforts before seeds are planted and a week later another group comes into the same area and plants 300 saplings.

  26. anon
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “shasta daisy, queen anne’s lace, chickory, and daylillies are low maintenance flowers that thrive.”

    please god tell me you’re kidding

  27. 734
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    You think God left that comment?

  28. koosh
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea of planting the kind of varieties that will attract rats. If we could gather as many rats on water street as possible, it would be very easy to kill them all St. Patrick style. How awesome would it be to say Ypsilanti is finally rat free?

  29. Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Wonder if anyone knows if the soil on the surface is topsoil or subsoil.
    I don’t see anything much growing in the soil….which makes me suspicious.
    If the soil currently brought to the surface by the excavation is subsoil, nothing will grow.
    If it’s topsoil, it’s all good.

  30. Teresa
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Each time seed bombing Water Street comes up I wonder if folks are more interested in phytoremediation or beautification. Just to cover the bases, here are some thoughts on both.

    As has been mentioned, the City has been able to remediate a good portion of the site. The remaining contaminants are either very deep, or already part of a phytoremediation effort the city started in 2010 as part of a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Grant. If people are interesting in supporting that effort, shoot me an e-mail and we can talk more about that process: tgilllotti@cityofypsilanti.com.

    The short version is that the City is doing a pilot phytoremediation where we feel there would be potential benefit based on the contaminants present, the potential treatments, and the time frame required to have any impact.

    As part of that grant, the City worked with its environmental consultant to develop a scoring mechanism to help determine if sites are good candidates for phytoremediation, which may be of some interest to folks.

    It sounds like there’s interest in beautifying the area visible from Michigan Ave. The site soils vary in quality throughout the site, and in some areas where there was recent demolition and replacement with crushed concrete (from building slabs and foundations), there is not a great deal of organic matter for growing (Michigan and Park St area). Additionally, the City does provide some basic maintenance on the site; mowing about 100 feet south from Michigan Avenue during the spring and summer months.

    For these reasons I would suggest that if there is a group coalescing around this idea that you follow Andrew’s lead and adopt a portion of the Michigan Ave. frontage to coordinate a planting/bombing. This will cue in the City to not mow down anything intentionally planted, while also giving the City some assurance that there is a group of folks who are committed to caring for the plantings. Seed bombs may take in some areas of the site, but having a more intentional location and a commitment to tending plants, whether sunflowers or wildflowers, will show that it’s obviously cared for, rather than bringing up the annoyquestion of “plants or weeds?”.

    Adopt a Park:

    I’m happy to meet with whatever group is forming if you want to work with the City on a more formal arrangement. Also – thanks to earlier posters who are mentioning the tree nursery planting days on April 19 and 20th. I hope to meet some of you during the workdays.

  31. Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Just a couple more thoughts — many native plants don’t require good soils to thrive. Take a look at Honeybee Alley at the Food Coop for the proof of the pudding! That alleyway was basically gravel and concrete debris — it was difficult to get a trowel into the soil, it was so poor. Yet the nectar plants there have thrived to an astonishing degree. Also, the entire point of seed balls, EOS is that they do not in fact need to have the soil turned. The clay protects the seeds from birds & other animals — the clay dissolves away when rains come, then the seeds are in a moist little cushion of compost to help them germinate. Then the seedlings burrow into the unimproved dirt for which they are perfectly adapted — which is why natives thrive in nature without care.

  32. EOS
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks Lisele,

    Additionally, if the ground is contaminated with lead, turning over the soil could release lead into the air where susceptible individuals might inhale it. Seed balls are a better method.

  33. John Galt
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Do they make seed bullets?

  34. Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Also incidentally, these plants are not native to the USA — “shasta daisy, queen anne’s lace, chickory, and daylillies are low maintenance flowers…” They thrive here because they have few natural enemies and are in fact invasive. Each of these plants have important uses (contraceptive, food, drink, medicinal, etc.) which is why we value them, yet native plants provide an environment for communities of wildlife and restore a natural balance in our local environment. They also make our PLACE here in SE Michigan uniquely beautiful and different from other locales, beyond the “strip mall effect” of identical acres of queen anne’s lace/chicory/daylilies…

    Honeybees & earthworms are also non-native but they ARE critical to our agricultural system and providing good nectar plants for bees also benefits native pollinators.

  35. Posted April 6, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    OK, there’s now a new post on what needs to be done.

  36. Kai
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    Is hemp native to Michigan? I’m not suggesting that we plant it at Water Street. I’m just curious as to whether it’s native to this region.

4 Trackbacks

  1. By The seed bombing of Water Street… Who’s in? on April 6, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    […] seed bombing of Water Street… Who’s in?By Mark | April 6, 2013Since we last spoke about the idea of seed bombing Water Street, quite a bit has happened. Most notably, I’ve been in discussions with the City and various […]

  2. […] areas of contamination.So, while there are still a few issues to be worked out, it looks as though the seed bombing of Water Street will happen on Wednesday, May 1… While it looks as though a few school groups might come […]

  3. […] an invitation through Facebook.[note: Background on the seed bombing of Water Street can be found here. This entry was posted in Agriculture, Education, Environment, Special Projects, Ypsilanti and […]

  4. […] More Information: http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ggseedbombs.html http://www.redtedart.com/2014/02/12/how-to-make-seed-bombs-recipe/ http://markmaynard.com/2013/03/1000-seed-bombs-for-water-street/ http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/diy-seed-bombs  […]

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