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
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
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
(C)1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first
appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted
weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are
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