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Cover Crops – Buckwheat is one of the Easiest

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.

    Buckwheat blossoms.

  • 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.

A small patch of buckwheat in my garden bed.

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.)

Final Thoughts

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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20 comments to Cover Crops – Buckwheat is one of the Easiest

  • Alyona

    I am originally from Ukraina and I love to eat buckwheat, I am wondering how I can save seeds for food.

  • Theresa

    Alyona, I’ve never saved my buckwheat seed, but — yes — you certainly can. If you plant with your end goal being seed you’ll have to let it go to seed and then collect the seed. I am sure you could find much more detailed information with a few Google searches.

    Hope this helps.

  • Alyona

    Thank you. 🙂

  • Betty Dotson

    Hi Theresa,

    Where do you order your buckwheat seed and how much do you order for spring/summer/fall planting. I have 2 garden spots now, each approximately 50’X50′.

    We will be starting new garden areas as time allows, so will need more seed.

    Thanks,
    Betty

  • Theresa

    Betty, Most of the time I get cover crops from Pinetree. They are pretty reasonable and their shipping costs are less than other place I’ve seen.
    Here’s the link to cut and past into your browser for their cover crops:https://www.superseeds.com/products.php?cat=139
    Then select the buckwheat.

    I use about 10 pounds or more —BUT — I plant other covers in addition to the buckwheat. My garden is about 40 x 60. So you have a little more than twice the space that I have.

    Just something to think about Betty — but consider how you can get more out of the space you have rather than starting new beds. If I am understanding you correctly you already have about 5000 square feet in garden. I have about 2400 or maybe a little more.

    Once your soil is great — you can plant intensively and get tons of stuff from 5,000 sq. ft.
    Sometimes less can be more.

    I always want more space but think to the future and sustainability and realistically how much I am able to keep.

    Theresa

  • Betty Dotson

    Thanks Theresa,
    You are so right. We aren’t getting any younger so I will concentrate on improving the garden space we have for now, and see how it goes.

    Our youngest son will be leaving for college next month and our grocery needs will be A LOT less. I don’t know where he puts all of that food!

    Thanks again for taking the time to help us become successful at growing what we eat.
    Betty

  • julie

    Theresa,
    I am going to try buckwheat as a cover for the first time. I turned compost in the bed last week and plan on sowing the buckwheat next week. will it be ok to plant garlic in the same bed in October? can I just dig the holes right in among the buckwheat and plant the garlic?
    I live in Northern Virginia, so the buckwheat should die off in the first frost, but if not I will cut it back.
    thanks for all your great info.
    Julie

  • Theresa

    Julie, we have both been thinking the exact same thing! Since I have more garlic than will fit in the space I’ve already prepared, I had thought to plant some buckwheat in various spots and plant the garlic right in with it – since as you pointed out the garlic will die off in the cold and the garlic will get the benefit from it.

    I would sow the buckwheat as quickly as possible since the weather is so strange and you want some growth before the cold.

    I like our plan Julie! I think it will work out just fine. We’ll compare notes next harvest.
    Theresa

  • Anna D

    Hi,
    I’ve been doing some research about buckwheat mostly eyeballing it as a weed control on a sometimes garden space at a friend’s acreage. There’s a few friends of theirs that plant there and I plan on being one of them this coming year, but they often have terrible weed problems. So I was thinking it might be a good thing to put down over the season on whichever parts of the plot we don’t use at a given time and start working on keeping down some of the weeds to make it easier for us! But I was wondering, everything I read says “mow it” and “turn it under”. Can it be mowed with a regular lawnmower? does it need to be buried such as with a rototiller or is there a less labor intensive alternative (especially in locations I would just replant with more buckwheat or another cover crop)? I don’t know the exact size of the garden but it’s not huge and there are no farm tractors, etc available. 😉 I was thinking for fall planting maybe something that would winter kill. One site recommended a combo of field peas and oats. Does that sound reasonable? We’re in western Michigan, by the way. Thanks!

  • Theresa

    Hi Anna D.
    Glad you’re already looking ahead at how you can control weeds in the somewhat-community garden.
    Between cover crops and mulch you should be able to keep things under control.

    Buckwheat is an easy cover crops to work with, but it would not be my choice for weed control. Winter rye might be good if you’re still gardening there next fall. You could plant into the stubble the following season and there would be no need to turn it under.

    I can tell by your questions that you are new to my site. (And welcome, by the way!)

    I do everything by hand. No tilling. No mowing. I use a hand sickle to cut things like winter rye.
    Most things, I plan for winter kill. I plant into the stubble of some cover crops. I can’t do anything that is labor intensive.

    I leave all cover crop residue on top of the beds for the worms to pull down.

    Field peas and oats are great combination to plant in the fall. The oats will winter kill and by spring you can use the bed.

    It sounds as if you’ve done some good thinking on this Anna. Now just search my site for even more information and I think you’ll develop the perfect plan.

    You can do a search for cover crops and read everything to find details that apply to your situation. Or you may want to start with the following posts:

    http://tendingmygarden.com/cover-crops-ideas-to-help-you-make-the-choice/

    http://tendingmygarden.com/cover-crops-your-purpose-determines-when-you-cut-or-incorporate-into-the-soil/

    http://tendingmygarden.com/winter-rye-as-a-cover-crop-2-strategies/

    I’d enjoy hearing your final plan and how you do with it.
    Theresa

  • Pat

    Theresa,

    I am loving buckwheat this year! I only got one raised bed started last fall. And this spring, I managed to get one more bed double dug. I broadcast buckwheat on them both early in the season just to keep the weeds down until I had plants ready to set out. I also decided I would mark off one more bed, even though I didn’t have the time and energy to double dig it. I sowed buckwheat there. I am thinking that I can build that bed upwards over the course of a few growing seasons, rather than double digging. It will be interesting to compare the different beds.

    I also wanted to ask if you think it would be as effective as digging the buckwheat in if I just chopped it down, left it on the ground, and covered it immediately with grass clippings. I thought I could do that, then come back and insert plants after a week or so. I am hoping to do that with cucumbers for sure. (Yes, I am late with cucumbers!)

    -pat

  • Theresa

    Pat, sounds like you’re doing a great job! And yes, nature will prepare the bed for you if you have the time to wait. Double Digging just speeds up the great results.
    Laying the cut buckwheat on top is just as good. Cover with dried grass clippings is good too. Worms will pull everything down for you.
    I’m STILL planting cukes — so you’re not too late.
    Theresa

  • Michele Schroder

    I purchased a bag of organic Buckwheat late last year but read this too late so was too late to put it out. I’m eager to use it and wondered if there was any point in trying to sprinkle it in my beds early this season. I’m in Zone 5 in Ontario, Canada and the almanac says our last frost date is May 11, but most folks don’t plan to put anything out until June 1st because we just don’t trust the weather around here. I do plan on using hoops and covers for 4 out of my 5 beds this year to keep the white butterflies from laying eggs on everything, keeps the bunnies and birds off of my veggies, and as a shade cover. So my question then is, will the buckwheat survive if I put it out earlier under a Hoop Cover that protects the beds from frost or is it the cold buckwheat does’t like? I should mention my beds are raised beds in a cedar frame (2 feet high). If so, when would you suggest I put it out? I do purchase organic straw from a farm and wasn’t planning on putting it on right away on some of the beds as the instructions for some of my plants say to wait to do that. Would love to hear your thoughts. I do square foot gardening so am excited to hear that I could put some seeds down in any of the squares that I”m not using instead of waiting for the whole bed to be empty.

  • Theresa

    Good to hear from you again Michele and I’m glad to see you planning for the fast approaching growing season.

    Freezing temperatures will kill buckwheat. I don’t know how many degrees difference it is under your hoop tunnels. Do a temperature reading if you can to see the difference. That way if temperature fall to 32 degrees and it’s 2 degrees warmer under the hoop tunnel you’ll probably be fine.

    There are lots of ways you can try this. Since you have 5 beds — you could take a chance and try the buckwheat as early as May 11th under a hoop tunnel. Then you could plant more June 1st in another bed. Buckwheat goes from start to finish very quickly – about 6 weeks, so you’ll have the entire warm season to experiment.

    And yes, I would definitely put seeds down in any of the squares that you’re not using instead of waiting. I think you’ll find that to be VERY successful in many ways.

    One note about not putting mulch on. If you feel uncomfortable going against the instructions on the package — why not at least put a sprinkling of straw on the soil. Just enough to cover it and keep it soft and moist and keep the humus in rather than have it oxidize. Then as your plants grow you can add more and more for a nice deep layer.

    I hope I have answered your questions. If you have more, just let me know. Keep up the good work, Michele.
    Theresa

  • Michele Schroder

    Thanks so much Theresa. I’ll let you know how I make out…Michele

  • Michele Schroder

    Hi Theresa.
    I’ve got a few hundred plants started indoors this past weekend including onions and my tomatoes. As I was planting these I started asking myself “is there any reason why I couldn’t plant buckwheat indoors in a flat” under lights? I have the blue lights and the red grow lights as well.

    So before I started a flat of them indoors, I thought I’d ask the expert (that’s where you come in). Is there any reason why I couldn’t do this? My thinking was I could grow flats indoors as space permits and then bring them out to my tomato bed for one. Tomatoes won’t get planted outside until after the frost is gone, so I’ve got some time to plant indoors and work into the soil. I can control the temperature indoors mores than outdoors.

    I’m guessing you’d grow these indoors like any other seed. Interested in your thoughts….Michele

    What do you think? Would this work? If it would, is there anything I need to be aware of growing these inside.

  • Theresa

    I appreciate your vote of confidence Michele, but I don’t consider myself an “expert”.
    And, I can only tell you common sense things, since I have not started buckwheat in flats indoors.

    1. As far as – can it be done? I’m sure it probably can. There are lots of things that “can” be done that would not necessarily be in your best interest to do. That can only be determined by you.
    Thus, give it a try and see if it works for you.

    2. You do need to be aware that buckwheat will die with freezing temperatures, so you’ll want to wait until after all chance of frost and freeze has past before setting outside.

    3. I personally always think of cover crops as being started outdoors. It would be too work intensive for my taste to start them inside, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    I hope you’ll report back and let me know how you do.
    Theresa

  • Lois

    I use buckwheat as a cover crop and food for flying creatures. It grows fine from organic buckwheat groats purchased at the local bulk food store. Not kasha the dark brown toasted ones, just the plain green/beige ones!

  • Betty Dotson

    Good Morning Theresa,

    Just wanted to give you an update. I FINALLY bought the buckwheat seed & had the 2 youngest Grandsons help me plant it August 1st. I’ve really enjoyed watching the pollinators as they sipped from the flowers while I’ve worked to eradicate an awful weed that just appeared in an area of our garden that hasn’t been properly prepared yet. Alfred said it grows on the riverbanks (we live just over a hill from the James River), so I’m assuming some of the seed must have been on an animal’s feet and dropped onto the garden soil before we fenced it. I dug all of the root that I could get out & mulched with newspaper covered with leaves. I will be on the lookout for any strays that pop up.

    Back to the buckwheat, since Monday will be the 35th day & we’ll all be away for the holiday, I’m planning on having the grandsons helping me cut the buckwheat & cover it with a mulch of leaves when they get off of the bus today.

    I’m also hoping to double dig where we just harvested potatoes and seed some buckwheat there today. We have mice or voles who really enjoyed our potatoes! We only harvested a couple of the regular ones, enough of the reds for a couple of dishes of your dilled potato salad which was a HUGE winner with everyone who tasted it, plus a couple of dishes of mashed potatoes and only about 6 or 7 of the blue potatoes. We were so disappointed. I guess we’ll try to trap some in that area this winter because I also want to plant lettuce there & remember your solution for keeping their numbers down.

    Thanks again for sharing so much to help so many become more self sufficient. We’re walking that way more every day – Thanks to you.

    Praying your day will be a good one,
    Betty

  • Bonny

    Theresa
    I have cross referenced several of your cover crop articles. I too had an attack of harlequin bugs this year that devastated my collards crept under the row covers and ,like you, ate my red Russian kale. So here’s the rub; several references suggest that those pests winter over under leaf litter so I pulled up all of my lovely already mulch like straw to put down well composted leaves. Any thoughts on this? Plant cover crops over top? Too late for cover cropping? I’m in zone 6b.
    I have also tried buckwheat for the first time this year. I planted it in between the rows of garlic two weeks ago. It’s an experiment.
    Always enjoy your articles. Thanks.

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