Bombs Away: The Seed Bombing of Water Street

Jeff Clark says that planting plain old seeds in a field is fine, but seed bombs are sexy.
"You roll up a ball of clay, compost, and native wildflower or grass seeds," Clark says. "You take it out of your pocket and you chuck it into some native space, and the next time a rain happens, with luck, that little nugget begins to grow. They're useful as projectiles in fenced-off urban areas, where you can chuck them over a fence, and they're useful for fun. But most importantly, it's a sexy term and it's a good way to go about bringing plant life back to a space."
Clark is one of the key players behind the Seed Bomb Water Street project, which is organizing the seed-bombing of an acre of Ypsilanti's Water Street site on May 1. Despite over ten years of city government efforts to develop the 38-acre brownfield plot, it's remained unused--which, Clark says, has made it perfect for unofficial community use. Occupy Ypsilanti met at Water Street, and last year it was the site of a May Day gathering drawing around 100 people.
"It's not only because it's beautiful and it's wild, but also because Water Street is the ugly, controversial, unused, bankrupted thing in our city right now," Clark says. "So it seemed pretty clear to us that one way to push back against that would be just to go out there and use it and find it beautiful and take walks through it and have potlucks."
The repurposing of Water Street took a more concrete form at the end of March, when Clark's friend Mark Maynard suggested the idea of seed bombing the plot on his blog. Clark says various groups have had "some version of that brainstorm" for years, but Maynard's post provided a rallying point for community feedback and involvement.
"A whole lot of people piped up," Clark says. "A lot of people felt proprietary about that space, like, ‘Hey, I'm the guerrilla gardener, and not you.' And it became very messy, in a productive way. It helped that all kinds of people came out of the woodwork, bitching and offering ideas and stuff."
A gardener himself, Clark quickly joined Maynard and Jason Tallant as one of Seed Bomb Water Street's key organizers. In the space of a month, the trio raised $677 for supplies via crowdfunding site FundRazr, mustered a crew of community partners and volunteers, and officially adopted an acre of Water Street from the city. 
One of the biggest challenges, however, was choosing and obtaining seeds for the bombs. Tallant, who works a day job at the University of Michigan Biological Station, gave input on which native species would be best to introduce to the site, which is currently dominated by the invasive species spotted knapweed. Maynard reached out to numerous local seed wholesalers and eventually settled on a seed mix from Three Rivers' Native Connections , including native grasses and flowers like switchgrass, showy goldenrod, and black-eyed Susan.
Clark estimates that the assembled clay and seeds will yield a few hundred seed bombs for participants to throw and slingshot at this year's May Day event. After that, he says it will take "a fair amount of work" to make sure the bombing succeeds; he and the other organizers are considering plans for other, more traditional plantings on the plot. Although there's no current plan to expand the adopted seed bombing site, Clark says he hopes this is the beginning of a big change for Water Street.
"I'm hoping it's permanent, that it's going to become a commons that people will keep visiting, and that it will become a commons forever," he says. "My hunch is that, in a really unofficial way, other things are really going to start sprouting out there, and I think it's going to be exciting."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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