Buckwheat pancakes, buckwheat eye pillows, and soba noodles are all made from buckwheat seeds, but what is it, really? And what can it do for your garden or landscape?
Despite its name, buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is not a type of wheat. Nor is it a type of grass. Instead, buckwheat is related to knotweed, sorrel, and, you won’t believe this - rhubarb!
If you compare buckwheat seeds with rhubarb seeds, you can see the similarity. Both produce triangular seeds. Buckwheat gets its name because it is used like wheat, but it has triangular seeds, similar to the beech tree. [The Dutch word for beech is boec.] Buckwheat, like quinoa, is a type of pseudocereal.
Originally from Yemen, buckwheat was a popular food staple for nearly 8,000 years. This was true until nitrogen became commercially available, which made other cereal and pseudocereal crops more productive than buckwheat.
The buckwheat plant
Buckwheat has a taproot that goes deep in search of water, and a dense, fibrous root system that stays within the top 10 inches of soil. Here, roots produce a mild acid that breaks down phosphorus, making it easier to absorb. Buckwheat is three times more effective at phosphorus extraction than barley, and ten times more effective than wheat. In areas with excessive phosphorus, growing buckwheat can help bring micronutrients back into a better balance for other plants. When the buckwheat is used as a green manure, those nutrients are returned to the soil. The buckwheat plant reaches a height of 30 to 50 inches. Its seeds are a type of simple dry fruit called an achene.
How buckwheat grows
Buckwheat does not handle heat, drought, or compacted soil very well. That being said, it’s fast growth makes it the best choice for newly cleared or overly farmed land. I have planted buckwheat next to my fences, partially under large, established plants, in an effort to bring life to soil that was exposed to the elements for decades before we moved in.
How to grow buckwheat
You can broadcast buckwheat seeds over an area, or you can drill holes for it. Drilling 1/2 to 1-1/2 inch holes for your buckwheat seeds means more will grow, and local birds will get less. These holes can be surprisingly close together. Converting the farming instructions of 50 to 60 pounds of buckwheat seed per acre, using 15,000 seeds per pound, you can cram 15 to 20 buckwheat seeds per square foot of garden space.
Buckwheat pests and diseases
Like many other ancient grains and pseudograins, buckwheat has very few pests or diseases that affect it. Occasionally, leaf spot and root rot can take hold. Also, competition from lambsquarters and pigweed can seriously reduce buckwheat growth.
Buckwheat as cover crop and green manure
Buckwheat makes an excellent cover crop and green manure. Buckwheat is a fast-growing plant that grows well in crappy soil. Germination usually occurs in only 3 to 5 days. Because buckwheat grows so quickly, you can plant it just before harvesting one crop, and before the next crop takes hold. This will help stabilize the soil, support soil microorganisms, and add nutrients in just a few days. In less than 45 days, your buckwheat plants will grow, flower, and be ready for mowing, as a green manure. You can also mow your buckwheat in the early stages of flowering to encourage regrowth and to extend the growing season. If you want the seeds for food or replanting, they will be ready in 70 to 90 days.
Buckwheat as insectary
Buckwheat plants start producing flowers within 3 weeks, and those flowers can last for 10 weeks. This is good news because buckwheat flowers are favored pollen and nectar sources for many pollinators and beneficial insects that parasitize aphids, mites, and other garden pests. Some of these beneficials include minute pirate bugs, green lacewings, insidious flower bugs, hoverflies, predatory wasps, big-eyed bugs, tachinid flies. and lady beetles.
The “other” buckwheats
Completely different from the pseudograin buckwheat, California hosts a collection of over 125 native plants known as buckwheats. These plants are in the Eriogonum genus. You can find both annual and perennial native buckwheats. These plants are also enjoyed by butterflies and other beneficial insects. Unlike the edible buckwheat, native buckwheats are very drought tolerant, and most of them are evergreens, adding color and texture to the landscape for most of the year. Popular varieties of native buckwheat include:
Native buckwheat provides food and habitat to native beneficials, with minimal effort. Edible buckwheat suppresses weeds, attracts pollinators, and improves soil structure and soil health.
Whichever type of buckwheat you decide to add to the garden or foodscape, the soil and local beneficial insects are sure to improve!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!