Planting a cover crop is one of the best things you can do to help avoid depleting your soil of nutrients AND to add organic matter. My favorite cover crop to revitalize my soil is Buckwheat. It’s also one of the easiest.
Our forefathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson recognized the value of rotating their crops with buckwheat. According to the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural institute, Jefferson and Washington were two of the first American farmers to do so.
Benefits of Buckwheat
- Buckwheat is very quick to germinate, grow and flower, going through its entire cycle as a cover crop in about 6 weeks. This allows you to reap its benefits between crops in the same season.
- The residue decomposes quickly when dug into your soil and adds needed organic matter. A planting of buckwheat leaves your soil beautiful and ready to plant other crops.
- Its roots scavenge phosphorus, calcium, and mineralized rock phosphate making these nutrients available for your next crop.
- The beautiful flowers of buckwheat attract parasitic wasps, ladybugs, hoverflies and bees. All of them beneficial to your garden.
- It does well in low fertility soils that you are preparing for vegetables. I’ve just recently started using buckwheat in low fertility places in my border that I want to prepare and make suitable for strawberries or other vegetables.
Examples of How I Use Buckwheat
I’m a big onion fan as most of you know. I grow 1500 or more onions each year which takes up 5 or 6 of my garden beds. By the time my onion harvest is complete at the end of July or the first of August, the mulch has diminished to thin instead of thick. That results in the soil being more exposed to the elements than is good. So I reach for my buckwheat seed.
I’m usually in a hurry to get the job done. So believe me — I don’t make a big deal out of it. When I think I’ll have the opportunity to plant a bed that’s open, I’ll put the bag of buckwheat seed in the basket I always carry with me to the garden. Then if I get to it — I’m ready.
I sow the seed generously for good coverage and then cover with straw rather than covering with soil. Then I wait for rain.
I also plant after potatoes are harvested. Potato beds have lots of straw on them. After digging the potatoes, I put the straw back and sow the buckwheat right on top of the straw. (Just so you’ll know — most instructions on planting buckwheat say to plant 1 inch deep. I guess my seed falls down into the straw deep enough to allow it to germinate and grow just fine.)
If the entire bed hasn’t been harvested, I just sow buckwheat where I’ve completed the harvest. As I harvest more potatoes, I sow more buckwheat.
You can do the same thing after any of your spring or summer crops are finished and space becomes available.
To Prevent Reseeding
Buckwheat must be turned under or cut within 10 days of flowering to prevent reseeding.
Buckwheat sets seed quickly. Unless you want to be pulling up volunteers (which are easy to pull up by the way) you want to turn under the buckwheat no more than 10 days after flowering. It sets seed very quickly and is doing so while those beautiful white flowers are blooming. So about 35 days after seeding turn it under.
If you want to leave the roots in the ground longer, cut or mow the buckwheat — no more more than 10 days after flowering — about 35 days after seeding. (30 days is too soon — as it will still grown again and set seed and 40 days is too long as it will have already set seed.)
The Advantage of a Late Season Planting
If you plant about 5 or 6 weeks before the first frost, you won’t have to turn it in. Buckwheat is frost sensitive and will be killed. After that it can remain in those beds until spring, helping your soil and protecting it from the elements and saving your straw or other mulch for another day.
Buckwheat life cycle in ideal growing temperatures. (Usually in July and August)
- Germinates in 3 to 5 days
- Most leaf production occurs during 3rd to the 6th week after seeding.
- Buckwheat blooms and sets its seed in the 6th and 7th week.
- Seeds develop the 8th week. (This is when you want to cut it down or turn it into your soil. This will be about 35 days after sowing)
Memo just for the record:
If you are growing for grain – buckwheat grain will mature the 10th to the 12th week. Then buckwheat is no longer a cover crop but a regular crop. Nutrients taken from the soil will have to be replaced as with any crop.
Buckwheat disadvantages that I know of:
- Deer and turkey are fond of buckwheat. Thus — it could draw them.
- It can reseed if you don’t turn it under or cut it at the right time. (About 35 days from seeding.) (This does not apply for a late planting of buckwheat that will be killed by frost before it sets seed.)
- Aphids and tarnished plant bugs can be attracted. (I’ve never had a problem.)
If you want an easy and quick way to improve your soil’s tilth, add organic matter and nutrients for your next crop, draw beneficials to your garden, or cover your soil for winter – – – try buckwheat. I think you’ll like it.
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