Sometimes, these plants and combinations have super-hero like powers to assist the crops (and the environment) around them. These are our garden super friends. They’re super special to me, because some of them don’t get as much attention as more well-known partners, or end up pigeonholed, but many of them can work in association with a wide, wide range of crops, annuals to perennials, and serve ecosystem functions and more organic growing functions as well.
Buckwheat is a common cover crop for soil building and erosion control, but has another big benefit to orchards and small growing spaces, even with its reduced yields in comparison to other grains and pseudo grains.
The use of buckwheat as a weed suppressor and erosion control is fairly well documented, and it’s a relatively fast-growing starch crop. The plant lacks the nitrogen fixation of legumes, and requires a fairly fertile preexisting soil bed for best production, but it can tolerate poorer soils still in the development phase. It is also widely used to return organic matter to the soil, maintaining healthy soils. It breaks down relatively quickly once mowed and-or tilled in, allowing for fast succession planting in long-season climates.
It isn’t really a grain, pancakes and side dish uses aside. It’s a dicot with two coyteledons, not a monocot, and to be a true grain, you have to be a grassy monocot. Still, buckwheat is tasty and new food trends suggest that it is healthier than some of the monocot standbys. Buckwheat is also shorter than some other grains, pretty, and has more uses than just as a table grain or large-operation soil management.
Game plantation managers are fairly fond of buckwheat. Doves, partridge, and pheasants like it, and it can be planted near flyways to encourage migratory waterfowl. Sadly, deer also like buckwheat; a lot.
Buckwheat can be awesome for areas where quail are being encouraged or reestablished on two fronts. One, there’s the “grain” that attracts the quail and other game birds. However, buckwheat has other advantages for quail, especially in conjunction with thorny hedges and bramble berries, and spoked woodlands. Baby quail sometimes have a hard time fighting through thicker grasses, and baby quail are largely insect eaters. Traditional grains, and in some cases even tall bee-fodder and soil-holding yellow clover and mints don’t address those needs.
Buckwheat stays low and is relatively bushy, but is denser at its canopy than the soil line. This allows it to prevent storm water damage to soils while also allowing young quail to maneuver under it, seeking out ground insects. Buckwheat is also a nectar-seeking insect attractant, and those insects contribute to a healthy young game bird populations.
Buckwheat prefers warmth and will not tolerate frost when young. In combination with its 70- to 90-day planting-to-harvest cycle, this phases well with young game bird habits. They leave their nests after planting, utilize buckwheat stands for insect hunting, and are mobile enough by harvest not to be destroyed even in larger-scale machine operations or where an opportunistic predator like hogs will follow as cover-crop foragers and tillers.
Bees, Trees, and HOAs
Buckwheat is an incredible bee plant, heavily scented and brimming with nectar. Even when not planted in a density for significant grain harvest, its use in attracting pollinators makes it a valuable addition to small gardens. Even a two-gallon container grown for blooms will bring in bees for a couple of squash plants and a tomato. Buckwheat blooms indeterminately, creating a long season of attractant for positive insects.
The flower heads are made up of numerous small flowers, and that can attract small wasps that then parasitize some common squash pests and stink bugs, helping to remove those pests. Narrow rows or a small block or two scattered around beds, edging fences, and bisecting growing space can add both color and insect diversity to a garden. In doing so, the buckwheat can also bring in insect-chasing songbirds. That might be bad for bees and ladybugs, but the birds will also go after pest insects, and there are always more herbivores than low-level predators in any ecosystem.
The size and looks of buckwheat can make it an attractive pseudo-ornamental in places where HOAs rule with an iron fist. Although somewhat tall, as a foundation “hedge” or lining driveways and the backs of beds, buckwheat can offer small yields for livestock, wild birds, or the table, or to maintain a constant seed supply for emergencies without anyone suspecting there is grain production taking place.
Buckwheat adds to this by very quickly springing to life with flowers, then constantly flowering throughout the season. The flower heads form pretty white balls that turn nearly cranberry as they mature, creating a striking color contrast and regular changing interest. Buckwheat’s stalks are tall enough and bushy enough to hide and camouflage a stand of crimson clover or crowder peas behind it, to serve as nitrogen-building components, or can shield less-attractive veggies from sight (with proper angling for light).
Buckwheat can also be used to form a pretty lake around fruit trees, bringing in pollinators without the harassment clover can get in some Gestapo-run associations. The tight upper canopy buckwheat forms can also perform as a living mulch, especially around young trees, shading the roots for improved water retention and acting as weed control.
The speed with which buckwheat breaks down makes it ideal for direct mulching and direct tilling in even relatively small raised beds. It quickly re-feeds the beds and any shrubs or trees around it, especially those sensitive to excess nitrogen early or late.
The same bee-attracting, weed-choking and fast-break down properties work just as well in between the rows of larger orchards and berry plots large or small, as long as light gets through. Buckwheat’s indeterminate flowering also creates a bee fodder for after the initial spring tree blooms. Pollinators stay in the area and can then hop to the next set of maturing tree flowers or the second main-set season for blackberries faster. Keeping bees in the area with prolonged flowering periods cuts down on return time and results in both faster and increased overall fruit set.
Once its flowering is complete and heads start turning brown, buckwheat can easily be harvested with a curved knife or garden snips in small operations, or conventional machines in mechanized orchards or plots. In hand-harvest situations, the buckwheat can be harvested “high” for just the heads, and chickens, pigs, cattle or non-climbing, non-escapist, non-tree-munching sheep or goats can be introduced to graze the stands.
The dense canopy with narrower ground-level footprint can make it easier to harvest, compost separately, and hand-sow or machine-drill a following crop around or through the soil-holding stubble with less competition for the next seedlings. Low stalks can also be under-planted with game or livestock forage and fodder, a nitrogen fixer, or the plants can be left to form a protective over layer once they die off from frosts.
As a fast growing crop, narrow lines of buckwheat to the west can be used to shade low, cool-loving crops like baby spinach, radish, beets, leaf lettuce, mache, turnips, small cabbage, woodland cress, and carrots from the worst of the afternoon sun as June heats up. Once finished, lines of buckwheat can also be left standing to provide additional shade – from the west or north, or from two sides, or in hollowed-out boxes in hand-tended beds – to protect seedlings for autumn crops from harsh August and September heat.
As a shade companion, buckwheat serves to help keep soil from drying out, which improves germination of the neighboring seeds. In no-till schemes, harvested buckwheat can be dropped in place as composting mulch between the still-standing lines of veggies, further reducing evaporation and soil compaction around summer- or autumn-planted seeds.
In some cases, like buckwheat and other cover crops, we can forget to see the plants as members of guilds, as something that can interact with a microclimate and impact other harvests. Even lacking the chemical interactions of some companion plants, buckwheat and others can act as temporal and spatial companions and provide resources for their neighbors. Buckwheat in particular has been pigeonholed, but it has far more to offer than just a pseudo-grain and soil protection or development, whether a system is measured in acres or a few square feet.
We don’t have to leave buckwheat and other covers like clover, barley, oats, crowder peas, cocksfoot, rye, rape, trefoil, and phacelia off in isolated stands or out in wide open spaces by themselves. They can serve useful purposes among row crops, orchards and even small beds and containers. However, most of that list doesn’t manage to do quite as much as buckwheat when it comes to a food crop for man or beast as well as beautification, soil building, pollination, and pest reduction.
There are innumerable plants and combinations that can improve a specific target crop’s flavor or yield, produce an ideal microclimate for a target crop, and reduce pests. County extension offices, and master gardener programs can regularly help with organic, multi-purpose “solution” planting for local problems and can provide starting places to seek out companions for all plants, big and small, for all sizes of growing operations.
Some plants don’t get along, though, and it’s important to be aware of water and nutrient competition, shade cast and shade sensitivity, and crowding sensitivity, and to try and plant in guilds that put roots at different levels for the most success. Mother Earth News has large lists of companion plants available, and other lists can be found across the internet. Use some discretion in selecting sources, and you can find plant-to-plant interactions that will help make any amount of land more productive and healthier.
About the Author: R.S.N. is a former Marine Corps combat correspondent with overseas experience. After the service, her interests turned to sustainability in growing and in maximizing the produce from small spaces.