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Seed Lab at Ball Horticultural Company

Even though the average home gardener, like myself, isn’t a direct customer of the Ball Horticultural Company many of the packaged seeds and plants we buy at garden centers and nurseries were developed by Ball Hort. An example being petunia ‘Black Cat’ which is the world’s first black petunia. Recently, I was invited on a tour of the gardens at Ball in West Chicago, Illinois., which include container gardens, a seed lab, example gardens for vegetable and shade gardening, and a trial garden where Ball Hort plants are grown alongside competitor’s plants. If you’ve read this garden blog with any regularity you may have noticed that seeds are regular topics so I jumped at the chance of touring a seed lab. Below are a couple of pictures from the seed lab that I thought other seed-obsessed gardeners may find interesting.

Seed Coating Ball Horticultural Seed Lab

The seed lab within Ball Hort’s newly built, LEED-certified facility, is state-of-the-art for the seed business, but it was reminiscent of sets for the Batman television series or something out of Doctor Who. This isn’t a knock, just an observation and an example of how my overactive imagination works. This is the seed coating room where seeds like: marigolds, geraniums, zinnias, gazania, ranunculus, anemones, and dahlias are coated with something called Ball Controlled Growth, Slick Coat. Employees stand in front of those tubes and pull levers all day long as a supply of seeds and the seed coating mixture is mixed inside. Among other things, the seed coating increases the visibility of seeds for the person sowing them, and makes them heavier so seeds can’t easily fly away. Behind us were seed sorting machines that separated the very lighter seeds that may be duds and not suitable for sowing.

Seed Coating, Seed Lab: Ball Horticultural

The seed pelleting room where seeds are mixed in the large seed mixers pictured at right. I never understood why it was necessary to pellet seeds until I sowed petunia seeds I saved from my garden. Pelletted seeds are easier to handle and sow in seed trays. If you've grown the SimplySalad mix this is where the seeds were pelleted. Another reason for pelleting seeds is that it makes combining three different seeds in one pellet that makes growing plant plugs easier. These plugs are used for planting those lush and full hanging baskets you may see hanging from lamp posts around your city or town. Pictured at left are pelletted: begonias, dianthus, marigolds, impatiens ornamental millet and tomato seeds.

Testing Gardening Seeds, Ball Horticultural

The germination testing room is probably the best example of the use of technology in the seed growing process. Seeds are placed on these pads (1) where they are suctioned into tiny holes that keep them in place while the (2) technician sows them into the cells. Imagine having one of these to help you sow seeds into your seed starting trays? The seeds are sent away into other rooms to germinate and when they're brought back they're placed under a camera (3) where a computer program counts the cotyledons, first set of leaves to emerge from a seed, the rate and total germination to eliminate weaker seed lots. There's another machine in the room that scans plugs and conducts even more tests on the seedlings. Definitely a lot more high-tech than the seed germination tests you can do at home.

Seed Misting Room, Ball Hort Seed Lab

One of the rooms the seed trays are sent to, before the germination testing is done, is this misting room. Pictured above is a seed misting room where seedlings are grown under flourescent lights. You may be able to make out the yellow coil in the back of the picture. That's the misting mechanisim that travels across the seed flats misting the seedlings. How much easier would your seed starting season be with one of these rooms?

There are other rooms and sections not pictured here for the sake of brevity. There was one room where batches of seeds are brought to the brink of germination and then stopped at just the right time. This priming of the seeds makes for higher, faster and more uniform seed germination, and allows seeds to germinate at a wider range of temperatures. Another room I left out because I didn't want to enter it was the humidity room. As you might imagine the humidity of this room is set rather high-kept at a constant 100% humidity. The humidity room is my idea of hell on earth. As much as I like seeds and wonder what it would be like to work in a seed lab I wouldn't want to have to deal with that room.

While Ball Hort sells primarily to plant growers and retailers there is a section of website for gardeners where you can learn about the various plants they bring to market. A lot of the public landscaping around Chicago is done with plants from Ball Hort and when I see a new plant variety that I'm not familiar with I poke around their website to find the name of it. The same may hold true for plants used in planters and streetscaping in your town or city.

Update: Someone in the comments asked how one gets a job in the seed lab at Ball Horticulture and I wanted to add something. The day I toured the seed lab I noticed that a lot of the employees had accents and wanted to point this out in the original post, but didn't for fear that the observation may be misconstrued. As luck would have it I was at a dinner that included Becky Boonman, wife of Ball Seed President Cornelis Boonman, and I managed to ask her about the employees in the seed lab. She explained that Ball Seed hires just about all of the advanced degree graduates in agriculture in the Midwest, but that they have to bring many from overseas to fill their need. So, if you're wondering how you get a job in a seed lab the answer is education. ;0)


  1. This is SO COOL. Damn I wish I could have been there too. You know, I imagined high-techedness in the fast-paced corporate world of seeds, but not quite this much ;). I agree though, it does totally look like the Bat Cave.

  2. Hi MBT.

    What a coinincidence, I am going there tomorrow for a private tour as they are only open to the public on the weekends. I can't wait to see the seed labs and all of their plants in the test gardens.


  3. Kelly, if you're ever in the Chicago area you could probably get a tour of it. It was fascinating just how high tech it was. I'll post some of the other pictures either on Flickr or my Facebook page that show some of the other machines.

  4. Eileen,

    That's cool. I'm going back on Weds with some friends, you're going to love all the container garden examples.

  5. Thanks for posting-fascinating! I live close to there and interviewed for an accounting job a long time ago. I'd much rather work in that lab!

  6. OMG, this is SO COOL! I've seen a seed sorter in real life, which I completely geeked out about, and it was an older model and not even in operation at the time. Still, *swoon.*

    This whole setup looks so cool and high-tech, and it's fun to see how everything that goes on before we open the seed packet. The coatings are a really good idea (esp. the orange ones, lol), and I had no idea they tracked germination rates so precisely.

    Also, I didn't realize 'Black Cat' petunia originated at Bell.

    P.S. How can a comparison to Doctor Who possibly be negative?!

    P.P.S. I may have been so taken by the photos that I shouted out a phrase I haven't used since college. I can only tell you in person.

  7. Thanks for showing this! It certainly attracted this seed nerd.

  8. My gosh - technology invades us everywhere. Even nature's enclave of the garden can't get away from it.

  9. MBT, thanks for pointing out that a lot of Chicago's public landscaping is done using plants from Ball. It's great that the city is taking advantage of this local resource.

    The seed lab looks like a fascinating place for seed nerds and garden geeks to visit.

  10. Never gave a thought to where seeds come from - thought it had something to do with birds or bees, or what was it that Mother tried to tell me?? Well, anyway...

    Have decided to make a big attempt at a cutting garden for next year. Do you have any recommendation for where I should look for good quality seeds. (Or, perhaps more importantly, where I should not look?) thanks.

  11. so how does one get a job in a seed lab? sounds like a perfect career!

  12. Michele, LOL. It's pretty cool, right? I wonder if there's a job there that combines accounting and working in the seed lab. Like, counting out seeds all day long.

    @Monica, You've seen the lab for yourself now. If you didn't realize the 'Black Cat' originated at Ball then you didn't read my post on 'Black Cat' petunia. HA!

    @Ann, It is even better in person and there's a bunch of pics that I left out that I may include later. Monica, who commented above you, just got a tour so check out her blog for pics too.

    @Carol, I see your point, but I think gardening has always been a bit high-tech, no? I mean, we're "talking" about gardening on a blog on the Internet and it doesn't get more high-tech than that. ;)

    @GardenGirl, I really like that the plants are produced, in one form or another, here locally and now that I know I can see them in a garden setting and not just in planters I see them differently.

    @webb, First I'd try to see if you have a seed savers group locally and checking out their availability. Companies that I can think of that would be good for cut flowers: I'd recommend Renee's Garden, Botanical Interests, and D. Landreth Seeds. I've gotten some nice flowers from them like zinnias that would make good cut flower garden additions.

    @Nakhoda, I posted an update with some information for you. Basically, an advanced degree in agriculture is required for working in a setting like this.

  13. Anonymous3:06 PM

    I know it's redundant, but SO VERY COOL! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  14. Does Ball Seed company sell to seed packaging companies, or just to growers?



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