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Buckwheat Plant: Cover Crop And Good Grain

Have you ever come across buckwheat pancakes, buckwheat flour, or buckwheat honey and wondered what the buckwheat plant is? Is it anything like regular wheat that you would find in bread and pasta? 

Although it is often used similarly to wheat, it is not related at all. Unlike wheat flour, buckwheat flour is gluten-free. In general, this crop is unlike cereal grain crops. The seeds from a mature plant are ground up and used as flour for baked goods like pancakes. Flowers of this crop are known to be beneficial to pollinators. The honey from hives of bees that utilize buckwheat flowers is sold as buckwheat honey. Other than food products, hulls from the triangular-shaped seeds are used to make buckwheat pillows. 

One of the best things about including buckwheat in the garden is using it in a rotation with other plants. Buckwheat can play a great role in crop rotations, serving as a cover crop. Its attraction to beneficial insects, weed control, and soil-improving properties make it an excellent choice to include in the garden. In short, buckwheat can attract beneficial insects, control weeds, and improve soil health. The benefits and care for growing buckwheat will be in more detail as you read onward!

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Quick Care Guide

Buckwheat plant
The buckwheat plant is both an efficient cover and edible grain producer. Source: Brandon HM Oh
Common Name(s)Buckwheat, qiaomei, ogal 
Scientific NameFagopyrum esculentum 
Days to Harvest80-90 days
LightFull sun
WaterKeep soil moist
SoilWell-drained, less compacted 
FertilizerOften unnecessary unless in extremely nutrient-poor soil
PestsJapanese beetles, aphids 
DiseasesPowdery mildew, stem rot, aster yellows

All About Buckwheat

White buckwheat flowers
White or off-white flowers with pink tinges are common as well. Source: anro0002

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) was domesticated and grown from five to seven thousand years ago in Asia. After originating in China, it spread to Russia and continued onto Europe. Eventually, buckwheat seeds came across the Atlantic ocean to the American colonies during their infancy in the 1600s. Since then, buckwheat production has not been very popular, with many farmers contracted to grow it rather than choosing to. In the United States, production has been most popular in the northeast and eastern regions. Buckwheat produced for seed rather than cover crop is mainly an export crop in the US. There are a few different varieties of buckwheat, including Koto, Masinoba, Manor, Common, and Keukett. Common buckwheat has smaller seeds than the other varieties. This variety is used for cover crop seeds and for pancake mixes. Koto and Masinoba are two dominant varieties grown under contract in this country. 

The buckwheat plant is a fast-growing, herbaceous, broadleaf plant with triangular, heart-shaped leaves. The buckwheat plant grows to a height of 2-4 feet. Buckwheat will tend to branch out more at the top of the canopy. While the plants grow tall, they have shallow roots. During growth and development, white to pink buckwheat flowers bloom up until harvest. For mature seeds production, the flowers must be cross-pollinated. The flowering plant attracts beneficial insects like honey bees that help pollinate the flowers. The brown seeds are about the size of a pea and are surrounded by a thick hull.

The seeds are the primary source of culinary use for this plant. As buckwheat grain, the seeds are ground into buckwheat flour. The raw buckwheat groats (seed inside the hull) are used in some regions in the same way as rice. Buckwheat is also commonly grown as buckwheat microgreens.

Eating the leaves of this plant is not a good idea. Fagopyrin is a phototoxic chemical found in the plant that you do not want to consume. This chemical leads to damaged blood vessels in non-pigmented skin when exposed to sunlight.

One of the most exciting things about buckwheat is the chemicals released by the roots. These chemicals are called allelochemicals. As this study shows, these chemicals produced by buckwheat work to suppress grass, weeds, and weed seeds. The study showed plots including buckwheat had overall reduced weed growth and weed dry mass. While the chemicals last a short amount of time in the environment (ranging from hours to months), growing buckwheat plants in a rotation when you have an unused or fallow garden bed can help reduce weeds. 

Planting Buckwheat

Determining when to sow buckwheat depends on the intended purpose. As the name implies, cover crops are grown to protect and enhance the soil between seasons. Utilizing buckwheat as a cover crop or green manure crop can have several benefits. It can serve as a mid-summer cover crop after something like green beans or a fall cover crop at the end of the season. If you want to grow the crop for the seeds, then planting them in the middle of July for most places in the Northern United States will yield mature seed before frost. Buckwheat can be sown at any point during the summer, and its fast-growing nature makes it easy to add in any rotation.

Buckwheat can thrive with in-ground, containers, or raised beds. When you plant buckwheat, it tends to take up the available space. It is a wonderful cover crop seed to plant in a fallow garden bed to fill space and reduce weeds. It is also a perfect choice for any gardener who wants to add plants to attract native bees and beneficial insects.  

Several methods for sowing buckwheat exist. The easiest way to sow buckwheat is to scatter seeds. This method is fast but is less uniform, and the germination rate will be lower. In that case, more seed will need to be applied. Another option would be to make rows and plant seeds that way. The distance between seeds for this crop is less important than with high nutrient-feeding vegetable crops. 

Care

Buckwheat just before flowering
Just about to burst into flower, this buckwheat is thriving. Source: floydriver

Now down to the details of how to care for planted buckwheat. This next section will show more specifics about environmental preferences for this plant. 

Sun and Temperature

Plant buckwheat in full sun areas as it will benefit from the long day length of summer (14-15 hours). Buckwheat is well-adapted to the climatical regions of the northeastern United States. It prefers warm temperatures of 70-80°F with cooler nights. Buckwheat is incredibly frost sensitive so planting before fall in many northern regions will kill it off at the end of the season. This crop performs well in between USDA hardiness zones 3-10.

Water and Humidity

Like most plants in the vegetable garden, watering in the morning is usually best. Avoid wetting the leaves to prevent diseases, though disease is less of an issue for this crop. Check to see the soil moisture and take note of weather patterns. Since the roots are shallow, feeling and looking at the soil can give an indication of whether watering needs to take place. In many places, the amount of annual rain is enough for buckwheat.

Soil

Buckwheat tolerates a wide variety of poor soil conditions. The base soil texture can range in the percent of sand, silt, and clay, but the preferred soil is one that roots can easily penetrate. As mentioned before the root system for this crop is fairly shallow, making soils with hardpan surfaces undesirable. Like most crops, well-drained soils are preferred. Unlike cereal grains like winter wheat and cereal rye, when you grow buckwheat it can tolerate a pH range of 5-6.5. A pH of 5 is low for most crops making this one a good option for a variety of soils. 

Fertilizing

In general, fertilizing is unnecessary to grow buckwheat. It greatly depends on how nutrient-rich the soil already is. 

In most cases for home gardeners, fertilizers have been applied throughout the season which means fertilizing buckwheat plants is not required. Organic and slow-release fertilizers work well because nutrients will continue being released as the main crops are finished growing. Too much nitrogen can be problematic as it causes the plants to produce less yield and more vegetation. If grown following legume crops such as peas, beans, clovers, and vetches, nitrogen is unnecessary because of the nitrogen fixation of these crops. 

If fertilization is necessary, top dressing the area with a small amount of compost (around a half-inch) would be ample to supply nutrients to this crop. Using an all-purpose organic fertilizer like Espoma Plant-tone (5-3-3 NPK) is sufficient if fertilization is necessary. Buckwheat is a soil phosphorus scavenger and can get this nutrient better than other plants. Most of the time, fertilization is not needed. 

Pruning

This annual crop does not require any pruning. Plants tend to branch in the upper section of the plant. If you cut off the seed head, the plant cannot produce another one.

When utilizing this as a cover crop, cutting the plants down when it firsts starts flowering is important. That way, the plant has not produced seeds that might be unwanted on the garden bed later. Dry plant material left behind can remain in place where it serves as mulch protecting the soil or can be moved to a compost pile. 

Propagation

Buckwheat is propagated via seeds. The triangular seeds could either have the hull still on or just the buckwheat groat (the seed with the hull removed). Sowing buckwheat seeds directly in the soil is the best option for this crop, as quick growing time makes transplanting inefficient. Be careful what you buy at the store, some health food stores sell groats that are not viable seeds because they are toasted. Untoasted groats and unhulled buckwheat seeds can germinate. 

Harvesting and Storing

Buckwheat seeds
Buckwheat seeds are triangular in shape. Source: Ervins Strauhmanis

Now that the buckwheat is in the ground and growing, what happens when it is time to harvest the seed? How is the buckwheat stored?

If you are choosing to grow plants for buckwheat seed, there are several things to consider for harvesting and storage. 

Harvesting

Unlike crops like wheat or corn where the whole plant dries before harvest, buckwheat is harvested while the plant is still green. This makes it difficult to decide when the buckwheat harvest should occur. The trick is harvesting when ¾ of the seeds have become dark brown and firm. This should fall about 80-90 days post sowing. Individual buckwheat plants will continue blooming and producing more seeds up to harvest. 

Harvesting buckwheat involves cutting the plant and separating the seeds from the plant. Cut the plants and let them dry out on a bedsheet. Once the plants are dried out the seeds can be easily separated by threshing with a stick or broom. The seeds should fall out onto the bedsheet where they can be collected. Another option is to separate the buckwheat seeds from the flowers by hand. Once the seeds are separated they can be taken through a grain mill to remove the buckwheat hulls. 

Storing

Buckwheat can be treated like many cereal grains with regard to storage. Keeping the seeds cool and dry is important for longevity. The Whole Grains Council suggests buckwheat should be put into an airtight container and stored for 2 months in the pantry and 4 months in the freezer.  

Troubleshooting

Buckwheat seeds forming
As flowers fade, the buckwheat seeds begin to form. Source: varresa

As with any crop, small things will pop up that present issues in the growing process. Thankfully there are solutions to these problems!

Growing Problems

One of the major problems with growing buckwheat is drought stress because of its shallow root system. Ensuring consistent watering is important. Drought stress on the plant can cause poor seed set, wilt, and poor leaf growth. Observing the plants and monitoring recent rain patterns can help prevent drought stress.

Another issue is planting the crop at the wrong time for its intended purpose. If your intended purpose is to grow these for their seeds, avoid planting buckwheat earlier in the season. Flowering buckwheat at times of high heat without cooler nights leads to a poor seed set, even if blooming buckwheat can be ornamental. 

Pests

Buckwheat tends to have a limited number of pests and pest damage. Aphids and Japanese beetles are two insect pests known to impact buckwheat plants. 

Aphids are a classic garden pest but do not cause significant damage to the plant to where it couldn’t produce a crop. They can spread disease, but the chances are low that it would impact this crop. However, their presence is a warning that they could cause harm to other plants in the garden. Treatment can be done with neem oil, insecticidal soap, spinosad, or pyrethrin.

Japanese beetles have mouthparts built to decimate leaves and can turn a beautiful, green leaf in an instant to nothing more than latticework. A common choice to control Japanese beetles is using pheromone traps, but they often cause more harm than good. The traps bought at the store don’t make a significant difference in controlling the pest but may attract more of them, causing more damage. If you want to take an aggressive approach to manage Japanese beetles, opt for organic chemicals like pyrethrin. Crop rotation can greatly help manage these pests. 

Another important tactic in managing pests is going out into the garden and observing how high pest pressure is. In some cases removing pests by hand may be a viable option. If you grow buckwheat as a cover, then the concern for pests should be low since it won’t be harvested for grain.

Diseases

For the most part, buckwheat has low disease pressure. Powdery mildew, stem rot, and aster yellows are three plant diseases associated with buckwheat, but overall, buckwheat is a great crop to grow because of limited diseases. 

Powdery mildew shows up on leaves as light spots that look necrotic. This disease is not likely to cause problems to the yields. Removing the affected leaves will help decrease the disease in the plant population, as powdery mildew cannot be treated or reversed on already infected leaves. At that time, spray copper fungicide or neem oil to prevent further infestation. 

Stem rot begins as brown spots on the stem that leads the stem to pale and dehydrate. The plant falls over and the seeds fall off quickly. This is a limited disease that cannot be treated. 

Aster yellows causes flowers to turn green and become sterile. The aster leafhopper spreads this disease. It has a small impact on the yield of the plant. This disease impacts other crops, so take caution in planting other crops impacted by this disease. This disease has no treatment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Pink Fagopyrum esculentum flowers
Some Fagopyrum esculentum varieties produce pink flowers. Source: anro0002

Q: Where does buckwheat grow?

A: In the United States buckwheat is mostly grown in the Northeast United States, but other states like Missouri represent the biggest growers. Worldwide it remains more popular in Asia, similar to where the crop originated from. 

Q: Is buckwheat an annual or perennial?

A:  Buckwheat is an annual crop, meaning sow seeds every year. If left to reach full maturity seeds will inevitably disperse into the area and volunteer buckwheat plants may sprout up the following season.


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