Fields of buckwheat used to be a common sight in America in colonial times, especially in northern areas. But in the modern era it has fallen out of favor as food for humans or livestock, with corn, soybeans and wheat occupying much of the space in farmers fields these days. But buckwheat still has a place in home gardens and on small farms as a fast growing cover crop, or ‘green’ manure. And for beekeepers like me, it also does double duty as a honey crop.
Buckwheat is a warm-season cover crop that goes from seed to bloom in just 30-45 days, depending on the weather and the variety planted. That makes it great for any garden areas that might go empty in summer or early fall. I had two such areas in my garden this year. One was a bed where potatoes were grown and the other had a spring planting of brassicas (cabbage family) in it. Both areas are going to be planted with garlic later this fall, which I usually get in the ground in mid to late November. So they were prime candidates for buckwheat. The flowers in the above photo are on buckwheat that was sown just 30 days ago.
I do have another ulterior motive for planting the buckwheat. You see, honeybees and other pollinators just love it! Buckwheat makes a great honey crop, though the resulting honey is dark and has a strong, distinctive flavor. Around here, most of the fall honey is dark anyway, when things like goldenrod and other fall wildflowers are the main nectar sources. A little bed of buckwheat won’t provide that much nectar for our bees, but every little bit helps. I am hoping to get at least a bit more honey from the hive this fall before cold weather arrives and things stop blooming. And I actually like the dark, stronger flavored fall honeys.
Buckwheat rapidly grows to around 24 to 36 inches tall, providing lots of succulent green growth to eventually turn back into the soil. You can often find seed in garden centers, or you can get some from a health food store if you only need a small amount. If you go the latter route make sure you get whole seeds or groats suitable for sprouting, and not toasted or otherwise processed seeds. Germination is quick, usually in 2-3 days. The groats in the below photo have a lot of damaged grains, but they will still sprout and grow.
I’ll use a fork to turn the buckwheat into the soil about two week before I’m ready to plant the garlic. I might be doing it sooner if we get a forecast for freezing weather or a hard frost, because buckwheat isn’t the least bit winter hardy. And unless you want volunteer buckwheat plants, it needs to be turned in before the seeds mature. I’ll probably use my small Mantis tiller to chop it up in the soil, unless I feel like doing it by hand. Either way, the buckwheat will smother out weeds and keep them from taking over while the beds are waiting for garlic planting time. And when turned under it will add organic material to the soil, and provide a bit of nitrogen as it breaks down.
The buckwheat itself will remove some nutrients from the soil while it’s growing, so I worked in a nice layer of compost and some organic fertilizer before sowing the buckwheat and raking it in lightly. I’ll also add a bit more compost to the silty soil before planting the garlic, since it is a heavy feeder and will be occupying the space for about 8 months or so.
If you have a bare spot in the garden that’s going to be idle for at least 45-60 days, you might try growing a cover crop of buckwheat there. Buckwheat is a magnet for all kinds of beneficial insects, so you’ll be doing them and your garden a favor in the process!