Clockwise from above: The buckwheat flower; Drying buckwheat plants; The colourful stems and flowers make buckwheat an attractive plant in the garden. Photos by Maude Farrugia
Despite its name, buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is neither a grain nor is it related to wheat. Originating from Asia, this fast growing annual is most closely related to sorrel and rhubarb. It’s most prized for its triangular edible seeds which have a long tradition as a staple in many countries from Japan (as soba noodles) to Russia (as kasha). They are having a small revival in modern times due to the fact that buckwheat is gluten-free, despite its confusing name for wheat-avoiders.
For the home gardener, buckwheat can be a great green manure or cover crop, particularly in temperate climates where there is a gap in plantings from summer into autumn. This is because buckwheat requires heat to germinate, yet cooler weather to successfully set seeds. The plants grow extremely quickly and are best planted en masse as each individual plant is fairly small. Grown together, their nodding white flowered seed heads are quite a spectacle as well as being a useful bee forage at a time in the garden when lots of things may be coming out or going in. Other benefits include the edible seeds (or groats) and the residual carbon-rich straw from harvested plants.
Buckwheat can grow on relatively infertile soil, and too much organic matter in the soil can decrease your harvest. This makes it ideal for planting after hungry summer crops have come out. Sowing can be done by scattering quantities of the seed and raking them back into your bed. Keeping seeds moist until germination is also a good idea if the weather is particularly hot and dry.
Buckwheat can be ready to harvest in as little as three months from germination, though they do flower over a long period of time. This can make timing your harvest tricky. Seeds turn a deep brown to black when ripe and will fall off easily when gently pulled. Seeds do not ripen uniformly, so you can either hand harvest to get early ripening seeds before they shatter, or sacrifice a few of the later ripening flowers by harvesting the whole plant before they are fully ripe.
Harvested buckwheat plants can be hung in bundles to dry for a few weeks before being threshed. In small quantities, home gardeners can easily do this by hand. Threshed seeds require winnowing before being stored in a cool spot in an airtight container.
Buckwheat seed hulls can be tricky to remove unless you have a dedicated huller, however they can be milled into delicious buckwheat flour with their hulls on, and the chunkier bitter bits can be sieved out later. For the freshest buckwheat flour it’s best to simply mill as required. The remaining straw from harvested plants is also very useful as a mulch, compost carbon or for chooks to scratch through. Chooks will gladly eat any unhulled seeds.
Buckwheat hulls and chaff have been used in the past to stuff cushions and pillows. I can’t imagine they’d compete much with duck down, but according to the internet they are enjoying a bit of a revival as they are beneficial for people with back and neck issues requiring a firm yet malleable sleeping surface, as well as being an ideal natural stuffing for yoga and meditation bolsters and cushions.
Buckwheat seeds are rich and flavoursome, though the subtle bitterness of the flour can be off-putting for some (in which case, you could use them to stuff pillows). We love to eat buckwheat flour in yummy buckwheat pancakes (see Pip issue 10 for our favourite recipe from Brydie Piaf) but we also find it a useful additive to have on hand when gluten-free guests are visiting. That said, buckwheat can be an allergen, so ensure you check with guests before serving them up a plate of kasha.
Pests & Problems
Buckwheat is a pretty hardy plant with few pests and problems. The main issue we’ve found is that it readily self-seeds, so ensure you harvest the seeds or dig plants in as a green manure crop before seeds have ripened or you might become a buckwheat farmer. Individual rogue plants are easy enough to hand weed where they are not wanted.
All in all, buckwheat is an incredible plant with so many uses, and a great starting crop for those wanting to grow more of their own staples at home.