For people living in Northern Europe, particularly in colder areas where wheat is hard to grow, such as the steppes in northern Russia, a traditional grain substitute (the seed of an edible plant related to sorrel) is the plant we know as buckwheat.
Often referred to as a “pseudocereal” because the way it can be used is similar to true cereals, because the dried seeds can be ground to make a nutritious flour, buckwheat is also valuable as a nitrogen fixing cover crop while it is growing. Well adapted to northern climates, buckwheat offers an interesting option as a “northern grain.”
Fagopyrum tataricum, as buckwheat is known scientifically, is a broad-leafed low growing plant. Like its relatives rhubarb, knotweed and sorrel, it does very well in poorer soils, and colder climates. A highly nutritious food, it offers an alternative to wheat for people sensitive to gluten and is considered by some to be a super food, that they believe can improve heart health, promote weight loss and help manage diabetes.
One cup, or 168 grams (g), of roasted, cooked buckwheat groats (hulled seeds) contains the following nutrients:
- 5.68 g of protein
- 1.04 g of fat
- 33.5 g of carbohydrate
- 4.5 g of fiber
- 148 milligrams (mg) of potassium
- 118 mg of phosphorous
- 86 mg of magnesium
- 12 mg of calcium
- 1.34 mg of iron
Buckwheat also contains vitamins, including:
- vitamin K
HOW TO GROW BUCKWHEAT
Buckwheat grains for planting can be obtained locally from the coop store in St. John’s but for more robust and tasty varieties, it is worthwhile to search online since the seed obtained locally is mainly intended as a cover crop, to add nitrogen to the soil. Buckwheat can be hand scattered over a field or planted in rows for ease of harvest. It can be planted in spring for fall harvest, or as an overwintering cover crop.
Buckwheat is easy to grow — in fact, it’s unequaled at growing on poor soil . . . cut the stems with grass shears when about three-quarters of the seeds have turned brown. Threshing the seeds is fun: Just lay the stalks on a clean sheet and beat them with a broom!
Buckwheat is one of the best sources of high-quality protein in the plant kingdom. It’s easy to grow, harvest, and process; it prospers on soils too poor for other crops; and it’s not susceptible to any major disease or pest problems. On top of all that, buckwheat is an excellent smother crop for weed control, a superb green manure crop, and a legendary nectar source for honeybees.
Yet few gardeners use it! In all the years we’ve planted buckwheat for bread and pancake flour, we’ve never heard of any other gardener raising the crop. Buckwheat provides fine flavor and wholesome nutrition while asking for just a little care in return. We think buckwheat is the backyard grain you can bring in a usable harvest from as little as 40 square feet! It well deserves a place in American gardens.
Some guidelines on how to grow buckwheat: This quick-blooming crop doesn’t like hot, dry weather and is produced commercially only in the northern states. Still, while high temperatures — particularly at night can reduce yields by causing flowers to “blast” (fall off without forming seed), buckwheat’s long period of bloom generally ensures at least a moderate crop even when it’s planted as far south as Tennessee.
Buckwheat is also quite tolerant of acidic conditions — there’s little to be gained by adding lime to the soil. What’s more, soluble nitrogen fertilizer is definitely not recommended for buckwheat, because it can cause the plant to favor vegetative, rather than seed, growth. However, buckwheat does respond well to nutrients supplied by the natural breakdown of organic materials. Winter cover crops such as rye and hairy vetch plowed under as green manure are excellent for maintaining soil fertility where buckwheat is grown.