Buckwheat adds nitrogen to garden plots, produces beautiful flowers and delicious pancakes.
Each year I start my garden with grand visions of endless bounty. Something happens around the first part of July, though.
By then, I’ve had plenty of squash and cucumbers, and even had a few choice tomatoes; basically, my stomach gets too full to keep up.
Now, the spring vegetables are petering out, as well as some of those early squash and cucumbers. The stifling heat and humidity make going out in the garden almost impossible before 7 p.m.
This year I have a plan to keep those garden beds from turning into pastureland. No, it’s not mountains of mulch or more hours with the hoe and tiller. It’s buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum).
Buckwheat is an unusually fast-growing plant produced by commercial agriculture for its grain-like seeds. In the home garden, it is one of the best summer cover/green manure crops available.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were some of the first American farmers to grow buckwheat, as they recognized its benefit in a healthy crop rotation. Native to Russia, the flexibility and adaptability led buckwheat to be grown on more than a million acres in the U.S. in the late 1800s.
The grain is ground into flour and used in a variety of foods, from noodles in Japan to breakfast staples like cereal and pancakes in the U.S. I even had pillows made from buckwheat hulls when I lived in the tropical Pacific. The pillows are meant to be cooler because of the increased space for air. I never got past the crinkling noise I heard each time I moved.
Buckwheat is easy to grow. Simply broadcast the seeds and lightly rake them in. A pound of seed is recommended per 500 square feet of garden space, or 3 ounces of seed per 100 square feet. You can’t really put too much seed down. Since it’s usually sold in bulk from the local feed store, it’s better to err on the side of too much. Buckwheat does not require highly fertile soils but will benefit from modest levels of nitrogen. Its many fine roots are well adapted to find lower levels of phosphorous, and when crop residues are returned to the soil, it becomes more available for other plants.
Germination begins in about three to four days, and within 10 to 14 days, the ground should be fully covered with emerging leaves. This quick leaf cover protects the soil from erosion, retains moisture and shades out those dastardly weed seeds.
Now just sit back, drink some iced tea and wait for the best part: the floral display that begins three to four weeks after planting. A large, dense planting will literally stop traffic. My neighbors tell me they always slow down to admire the 5-by-100-foot strip I planted along the roadside.
The prolific flowers on buckwheat are a good nectar source for honeybees and other pollinators. The resulting honey is dark-colored and distinctly different in taste from clover or wildflower honey. The timing of flowering is also very beneficial to bees because midsummer is usually when there is less native forage available.
Remember that those prolific flowers turn into a seed if allowed to develop and dry on the plant. If you do not want buckwheat carrying over into your next planting, cut the plants or till them under two to three weeks after flowering. Some farmers cut it and leave the plant residue on the surface as mulch, which will provide a premulched area for new transplants.
(Josh Fuder is the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agricultural and natural resources agent in Cherokee County.)
Buckwheat is an unusually fast-growing plant produced by commercial agriculture for its grain-like seeds. In the home garden, it is one of the best summer cover/green manure crops available.Download Image
Buckwheat is a summer cover crop that also provides beautiful flowers for pollinators. Photo on left was taken on April 17 and the photo on the right was taken on May 18.Download Image