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Growing a Buckwheat Cover/Smother Crop
November 7, 2013

I really wanted to give this feature story a catchy title such as Buckwheat: The Superstar of Cover Crops. I'm fairly certain such a title would have brought in more hits than the rather mundane title I ended up choosing. But buckwheat, while a really useful cover and smother crop, probably isn't quite a superstar. But if it fits your gardening situation, it may become a valuable part of your regular gardening/soil improvement routine, as it has ours.

honeybee on Buckwheat

Narrow raised bed seeded to buckwheatBuckwheat can be grown for seed, but our use of the grain has been as a cover/smother crop. It can tie up soil nutrients that might otherwise leach away, add some organic matter when turned under to help loosen heavy clay soil or improve sandy soils, and act as a smother crop to hold down weeds in garden areas that would otherwise lay idle for a time.

Because it has a rather tidy, rapid, and upright growth habit, one can seed buckwheat in small areas that open up in the garden as crops are harvested or plant rather large tracts of it. In 2015, we seeded one of our narrow raised beds to buckwheat after clearing the previous crop of broccoli and cauliflower. While our raised beds generally have very good soil, periodic soil renovation with turndown crops such as buckwheat and/or the addition of peat moss, compost, or manure help keep them in good shape.

We've used buckwheat on a fairly large scale in our East Garden to hold areas where previous plantings failed. When it became apparent in 2012 that the drought had taken our sweet corn, we tilled it under and seeded the 30' x 30' area to buckwheat.

Dry bed for buckwheat Great Stand of Buckwheat
Dry seedbed for buckwheat (2012) Great Stand of Buckwheat (2012)

We got a huge break when we caught a half inch of rain just after the seeding. As you can see from the image above, the soil was bone dry when we seeded the buckwheat.

In 2013, our planting of alfalfa in a 40' x 80' section of our East Garden that was rotated out from production failed to take hold. Buckwheat once again came to the rescue, smothering potential weeds in the area and providing a good bit of organic matter to be turned into the soil.

Seed

Buckwheat seedWe buy our buckwheat seed five pounds at a time from a local farm and feed store, Graham Grain, in Terre Haute, Indiana. Reliable online vendors such as Johnny's Selected Seeds, R.H. Shumway, and Territorial Seeds carry the seed, but shipping can be expensive. There are some superstar, named varieties of buckwheat, but what we use is simply labeled "common buckwheat."

Where to Grow

East Garden with buckwheat patch tilled and readyBuckwheat isn't terribly picky about the soil it grows in. The Alternative Field Crops Manual states, "Buckwheat grows on a wide range of soil types and fertility levels. It produces a better crop than other grains on infertile, poorly drained soils if the climate is moist and cool."

Our large East Garden can only charitably be called a recovering cornfield. It's made up of compacted, heavy clay soil bereft of any organic material. We've worked hard for several years to restore the soil to fertility, using buckwheat as one of our more effective green manure crops. Successfully growing buckwheat on this soil pretty well convinces me that it will grow in some of the worst soils one has.

When to Plant

Buckwheat likes warm soil, so it's best to wait to seed it until late spring or early summer. Our use of it has been for mid-summer plantings with the buckwheat maturing about five weeks after seeding. For fall plantings, buckwheat should go in at least six weeks before the expected first frost, as the sorter day length in fall takes a bit longer to mature a crop. Note that buckwheat has absolutely no tolerance to frost.

Planting

Buckwheat patch after second tillingAs with any crop, preparing a good seedbed is essential. For our large, East Garden planting of buckwheat, that meant tilling the ground three times before seeding buckwheat. Such tillage was necessary as grass and weeds had quickly overgrown our planting of alfalfa. Tilling at one to two week intervals pretty well suppressed the weeds.

During the tilling process, I did add some soil amendments. Soil tests a week or two before planting with my ancient, but still somewhat accurate pH tester revealed that despite liming in the spring, some areas to be planted were at a soil pH of 6.0. Buckwheat will grow fairly well in acid soil, but I went ahead and spread some ground limestone over the plot. I also spread a bit of Milky Spore to control cutworms and discourage the moles that feed on them. Again, the Milky Spore was more for the future. And only because I had it leftover from our potato planting, I spread a little 5-24-24 commercial fertilizer. All three were thoroughly tilled in.

Buckwheat seed on groundI used a cheapie handheld seed spreader to broadcast five pounds of buckwheat seed over the 40' x 80' section of our East Garden, going first north to south, but going back and broadcasting seed east to west to insure good seed coverage over the soil. Then I set my pull-type tiller as shallow as it would go to mix the seed into the top inch or so of soil. The tilling also helped evenly spread the seed where it fell in clumps at times. Note that I've gotten away with just broadcasting the seed by hand over well tilled soil and gotten a crop in the past.

Seeding rates are listed in many of the references linked below. If you check them, you'll see that I spread way too much seed. But our plantings are small and the seed is relatively cheap. Even with our heavy seeding rates, we've not experienced lodging of our buckwheat, other than where our dogs have run through it or decided to hunker down. Note that once buckwheat is knocked down or has lodged, it doesn't right itself as some plants do.

Watch It Grow

I think our planting this year in the East Garden germinated from the moisture of morning dew only! The ground was pretty dry and we didn't get any rain until after the seed had germinated. There were a few bare spots that did germinate seed later after a good rain, though. But the thing to take away from this is that buckwheat doesn't require a lot of soil moisture to come up. We germinated a good stand of buckwheat during the drought of 2012 with just one, very light shower to help it get going.

Emerging buckwheat 1 Emerging buckwheat 2 Emerging buckwheat 3

Once seeded, there's not much to do with buckwheat other than to watch it grow. There aren't any herbicides to suppress weeds that won't also kill the buckwheat. A bit of hand weeding of serious weeds in small plantings isn't a bad idea if one can reach the weeds without stepping on the buckwheat. But the rapid growth habit of a good stand of buckwheat on properly prepared soil is ones best insurance against weed problems. It truly does smother most grasses and weeds under its canopy.

Buckwheat 17 days after seeding

 

When to Turn Under

Zinnias and buckwheat

I have to admit that I so enjoyed seeing the white buckwheat blooms covered with bees last year that I waited entirely too long to cut and turn under the crop that grew on our failed sweet corn patch. All in all, I still think it was a good deal, as I haven't seen that many honeybees in a long time, and a large plot of buckwheat in bloom is a beautiful sight.

Buckwheat in full bloom

Buckwheat for green manure should be cut and turned under around a week after it begins blooming in force (not just a bloom here and there). When it begins to put its energy into maturing seed, it has slowed producing the lush, green organic matter one wants to improve the soil.

Buckwheat downHow to turn under buckwheat can be a problem. We mowed ours both last and this year. A lot of organic matter stuck to the underside of our mower deck and some of the plants just got knocked over and not cut by the mower. I've read of using a weedeater to mow down a planting of buckwheat. That sounds like a good idea, but our weedeater gave up the ghost last year and I haven't as yet parted with the bucks for a replacement. So mowing had to do (with the muck from the mower deck returned to the buckwheat area before tilling).

Buckwheat turned underWith smaller plantings, just turning the buckwheat under with a garden fork should do. I've read elsewhere that it's a good idea to let tilled under buckwheat sit a week or two before planting something else on the ground. That makes sense, as the buckwheat (or any turndown crop) beginning to decompose probably ties up nitrogen in the soil for a while as part of the decay process.

New tillerI let the mowed buckwheat sit a day and then tilled it under with our pull-type tiller. It took two overlapping passes on two succeeding days to get the level of incorporation in the soil that I wanted. While tilling, I kept my wheel speed down to let the tiller's tines cut and work the buckwheat into the soil thoroughly. When I was done, I was pleasantly surprised to find only a little buckwheat wrapped around the axle of the tiller. It also didn't hurt any that I was using our rather new, John Deere 30" pull-type tiller instead of our twenty-year-old "senior" rear tine tiller.

Odds 'n' Ends

Since buckwheat seed is fairly cheap (less than $10 for a five-pound bag of it), I usually keep some on hand. I store the seed in a plastic bucket with a tight fitting lid in our garage. That way, when an area opens up in the garden that I won't be replanting for six weeks or so, I can just grab some buckwheat seed to fill in the area, hold back weeds, and even improve the soil a little.

Don't be shocked if your planting of buckwheat matures far faster than the usual six to eight week parameters often suggested. Our buckwheat in 2013 was seeded on August 21 and was mature for turning under as green manure on September 24! We mowed it on the twenty-third and turned it under the next day, just a day short of five weeks after it was seeded!

I'm certainly not an expert in growing buckwheat, but have had good success growing it for a number of years. It's that easy to grow. Below are links to some very good articles and extension pages about growing buckwheat.

I often write in our garden blog about things that make me smile in our garden. One of them is working in our garden, listening to the hum of bees visiting buckwheat blooms. In the quiet of the garden, the hum of the bees approaches a roar, depending on how close I'm working to the buckwheat. In this time when we're seeing a general decline in honeybee population almost certainly due to farmers' overuse of herbicides toxic to honeybees, it's a real joy to hear the hum of the remaining bees as they visit our patch of buckwheat.

Enjoy our Senior Garden with Us

I write a year-round gardening blog (or site), Senior Gardening, that relates most of our garden activities throughout the year. It is available as our main site page on a day to day basis, but also is archived by the month. Most of the information in this and other all too infrequent feature stories is generally gleaned from the daily blog.

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