Some years you think you will never get the garden in on time, and sure enough you don’t. It’s the weather, a trip, a family wedding, or whatever but suddenly it’s too late to plant peas, then too late for lettuce, and finally too late even for squash. Even if you accept with grace the compromises of a busy life, there’s bare ground to deal with, and weeds are poised to do their job. Cover the beds with black plastic? Yuck.
Happily, there’s an alternative that will look good, smell sweet and do the garden some good. It’s buckwheat. You might know this plant by its end products: a nutty-flavored grainlike food often called kasha, or a flour used in soba noodles and pancakes, or dark honey made from buckwheat nectar. You might have used buckwheat hulls as a mulch. But the living plant also gives benefits just by occupying garden space.
Buckwheat is not, botanically, a grain but a broad-leaved plant with soft, hollow stems. Though spindly and shallow-rooted, it quickly makes a splendid mass several feet tall, shading the ground so that most new seeds fail to grow. Scatter its seeds on weed-free, reasonably light soil at the rate of two to three pounds per 1,000 square feet, raking in lightly about an inch deep. After a month or so, fragrant white flowers appear, attracting bees and other beneficial insects.
Water, if very dry, and cut the stems down before the brown seeds form.
Buckwheat itself can be a weed if allowed to go to seed (though it pulls out easily). Before this can happen, cut the stems down, till or spade the green residue into the soil, where it will decompose fast, thereby improving the soil’s tilth and making phosphorous, calcium and other nutrients available to crops that follow.
Even when you’re well on top of things, a sowing of buckwheat may be the perfect thing to follow a bed of lettuce or some other crop that you have just pulled. Keep some seed handy. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply is a good source. Buckwheat is not frost tolerant but germinates well in hot weather. Heat may hinder its ability to set seed — in this case a good thing! It makes a great interim crop if you’re waiting for cool weather to plant late-season vegetables such as fall and winter carrots.
And if you’re still too busy to plant those, just keep sowing and cutting buckwheat. Use a sickle or scythe for big areas, hedge shears for small ones. No time to till it up? Put it on the compost pile or just leave it as a mulch – a simple task even in a crazy year.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”