BUCKWHEAT: IT’S NOT just for pancakes anymore. While pancakes are one of the finest culinary pleasures humankind has devised, buckwheat is a much more important crop than it typically receives credit for. It’s been in cultivation for more than 6,000 years and is still a staple food crop in cultures spanning the globe. Buckwheat was one of the most widely grown crops of early America, but its popularity here declined dramatically during the 20th century.
Today, buckwheat is enjoying a ride on the “ancient grain” and “gluten-free” bandwagons, but it really shines when used as a cover crop.
Cover crops are plants grown to improve soil health rather than provide an edible harvest. When incorporated into the soil, they improve its structure and water-holding capacity by adding organic matter and essential nutrients. They also can help reduce soil erosion, lower weed and pest pressure, and summon beneficial insects and wildlife to the garden.
Buckwheat makes a particularly handy cover crop, because it grows quickly and performs well in hot weather. It can shade out even very competitive weed species, making it an excellent form of first aid for degraded soil. Buckwheat has a long list of other beneficial attributes, too: It produces a potent nectar source for bees, draws phosphorus from the soil and decomposes so quickly that new crops can be planted in its place only weeks after it’s tilled into the soil.
The background on buckwheat
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) has a fascinating lineage. Although it is called buckwheat, it is not closely related to wheat. Buckwheat actually hails from the same plant family (Polygonaceae) as rhubarb, sorrel and Japanese knotweed (which you are likely to recognize on sight as one of the most rampant invasives in our region). As a food crop, buckwheat is classified as a pseudocereal because it is used in much the same way as a true cereal, which must be derived from a grass, such as wheat or rye.
Buckwheat’s superfast growth makes it unique among annual cover crops. Species suitable for cover cropping typically are an either-or proposition: They can be grown as a food source or as a soil-building cover crop in a given season. But because buckwheat grows so quickly, it is possible to do both in a single summer. You can grow it as a cover crop, incorporate your early-summer plantings directly into the soil and then sow a late-summer crop for harvest.
How to grow it
Buckwheat is best direct-seeded, and to maximize its weed-blocking potential and reduce lodging (breaking stems), it should be sown thickly. Plan to sow ¼ cup of seed per 100 square feet. After seeding, rake over the bed to slightly cover the seed and ensure it has good contact with the soil. Seedlings should emerge quickly, and flowering can begin as soon as three or four weeks after planting.
While it is technically possible to sow buckwheat three times on the same ground during a single summer, two crops is a much safer bet. If you want to try the double-cropping system, seed buckwheat in early to mid-June, and till it into the soil four to six weeks later. You can sow a new crop directly into the residue, but will have better germination if you wait two weeks before seeding the second planting. Mid-July is an ideal time to sow your second crop, but just make sure to get the second planting in the ground at least 10 weeks before your average last frost to ensure it has time to mature.
If you don’t plan to harvest your buckwheat crop, be sure to cut down the stems or incorporate them into the soil before the seed heads have time to develop. Any cover crop can accidentally become a weed if left to its own devices.
Because buckwheat is not frost-tolerant, late-season plantings can be left to winterkill in your beds. If you want to plant spring crops in your beds and use buckwheat as a late-season cover crop, you simply can leave it in place to help shield the soil from winter rains. The following spring, you can incorporate the remaining debris into your beds, or simply transplant directly into the decaying buckwheat stems.
Grow it as a cover crop, grow it as a food or do both — there are many ways to incorporate buckwheat into your vegetable-garden planting plan. And however you plan to do it, you can be sure that your soil and local bees will thank you.