The Buckwheat's Buzzing

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 24, 1998

The buckwheat's buzzing. Sounds from the pollinating insects on its waist-high, bright white flowers stop me in my tracks between chores. There are at least a dozen different kinds - honey bees, bumble bees, wasps, flies, and others I can't identify. Insects are everywhere I look. They range in size from well over an inch long to so small (and fast) that they're nearly invisible. They have a wide variety of colors and markings. It's obvious that most are feeding on nectar, just what they must to do in order to survive. They are also doing exactly what the buckwheat needs, and what we need, too. The buzz of the insects on the plants, and the complex, interdependent relationships between them and our farm, seem the very essence of the beauty of nature and of the benefits of ecological farming. And, the more I watched, the more wondrous it became.

In something akin to our prohibition against marrying close relatives, each of the hundreds of flowers on a buckwheat plant needs pollen from a different plant in order to produce a seed. This self-incompatibility is created by subtle genetic signals on the pollen and the stigma. To encourage cross-pollination, each plant has one of two flower forms. In one type, the stamens (or male parts) are long and the style (the female part) is short. In the other, the reverse is true. As an insect feeds, the shorter organ touches its underside and the longer part brushes its head. Cross-pollination occurs when it feeds on a plant with the opposite flower type. Because there are hundreds of flowers on each plant (with more opening every day) and thousands of plants in the two patches we have, there's lots for the insects to do.

We'd only grown a small quantity of buckwheat in past years, and there may be none growing for miles around, yet all these insects found this particular stand. And, pollinating the buckwheat is just the beginning of their beneficial contributions. At other times of day, these pollinators visit squash, beautiful wildflowers, or shrubs whose berries feed the birds. Bees use the nectar to make dark, delicious buckwheat honey. Other pollinators may also eat harmful insects. A reference says that 40 different species of flies and solitary bees visit this wonderful cover crop.

Our son Dan planted buckwheat on several areas of bare ground in late spring. Like all green plants, buckwheat converts sunlight, air, water, and just a few minerals from the soil into stems, leaves, flowers, nectar and seeds. When turned into the soil, buckwheat adds organic matter and builds fertility. It makes phosphorus available for the next crop, loosens clay soil and is also effective at storing fertility for future crops. That would be quite enough, but a buckwheat cover crop performs other functions, too. It grows quickly and shades the ground so that other weeds are discouraged. Now, after about a month of growth, the buckwheat is very dense and covered with flowers and buds.

The patch which captures my attention is located where our steer was fed when he wasn't on pasture, so it had accumulated a bit of manure and bedding. Dan dug most of that up into a compost bin, but there are probably some excess nutrients remaining in the soil there. The buckwheat will absorb them for its own nourishment, reducing the possibility of polluting the groundwater.

Later, before it is killed by the frost, young chickens in a portable pen will travel through the buckwheat to dine on its nutritious seeds and leaves, leaving behind their manure to nourish rye this winter and vegetables next season.

In nature, every living thing has multiple functions. Ecological farming encourages complex relationships and multiple purposes, using nature's resources. With a monoculture of vegetables or lawn, these insects have no role or food source.

Because it is a tender plant, buckwheat needs to be sown after the last spring frost and will be killed by the first fall frost. It grows so quickly, it can be planted almost any time in June, July or early August and will grow vigorously before dying back. In a situation where buckwheat growing next season from seeds could be a problem, turn it in before the seeds form. When you do this, however, the pollinators lose out.

The seeds are edible and important in Russian and Eastern European cooking. However, because they have hulls which require special equipment to remove, we'll let the chickens eat whatever we don't harvest for planting next year.

Discover the wonders of cover crops. Plant some buckwheat soon to feed beneficial insects and improve your soil.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.