|By William Scheick
The communal complexity and environmental essentialness of bees have always fascinated me. As the number of honey and native bees has disturbingly dwindled during recent years as a result of diseases, various “cides” and habitat losses, my interest in them has only deepened (see “Beeing in the Garden,” Texas Gardener, March-April 2008). So it isn’t surprising that I have been attending the monthly Fredericksburg Area Beekeepers meetings at the Gillespie County Extension Office.
It was there that I met Tony Roca. He has transformed about 5 (out of 10) drought-stricken acres of former ranchland in Harper into a habitat that so far is sustaining 10 thriving bee colonies. Roca is following the standard prescribed by the agricultural land-use guidelines established for the state of Texas, which limits beekeeping to between 5 and 20 acres, with a required minimum of 6 colonies on 5 acres.
Roca is an impressive can-do person who even constructed a huge rake designed to clear his land with a minimum of scraping. He removed dead, fallen and dying oaks from the Harper acreage, and then attached the homemade rake to a bulldozer to get rid of cacti, yuccas, green briar, thistles, sandburs, bindweed and buffaloburs, among many other Hill Country nuisance-plants. This effort resulted in a relatively tidied-up and certainly more manageable landscape dotted with a few remaining drought-stressed but (hopefully) viable trees.
The rake was also designed to lightly disturb the soil surface of Roca’s property. This undertaking fostered a welcome abundance of wildflowers whose seeds (previously buried beneath decaying ranchscape debris) finally got to see the light of day one spring. Both outcomes were total plusses for Roca as well as for his “bee islands,” as he refers to the apian colonies located in dappled settings beneath the saved trees on his land.
The unexpected wildflowers were good news for as long as they lasted. But desiccating drought is still miserably rampant in the Hill Country, and drought is inimical to flowering native plants and likewise to bee-colony health and endurance. So Roca began to consider creating an open space to be covered with a flowering crop that would compensate for long periods when wildflowers were absent from his rain-parched locale. In late August 2013, he cleared a third of an acre and planted buckwheat, a tried-and-true, nectar-rich bee-magnet that contributes to a uniquely flavored dark honey.
There are not many varieties of buckwheat readily available in U.S. markets. An unclassified type (simply labeled “buckwheat” and indeterminate in its genetic consistency) is fairly common at farm-supply outlets. Roca, however, selected ‘Mancan,’ which he ordered through Behrends, a local feed store in Harper.
“When I looked around for seeds, I found several varieties and sources, some nearly three dollars a pound — I think from sources catering to ‘boutique’ growers,” Roca recalled. “I was able to get ‘Mancan’ for about one dollar a pound in 50-pound bags, which was as much as I was willing to pay for this first level of my experiment.”
‘Mancan’ is a newer cultivar developed by Agriculture Canada and has become a prominent choice for buckwheat growers in the southeastern states of our country. ‘Mancan’ is more vigorous than older buckwheat cultivars, such as ‘Tempest’ and ‘Tokyo.’ And this newer mid-season buckwheat potentially yields larger leaves, stems and seeds.
Roca’s land has good soil, enriched by years of ranching. Even so, sunlight-loving buckwheat is easy to grow in poor soil, too, as long as its drainage is excellent. And buckwheat is a short-season crop. It grows rapidly, tending to bear flowers within 4 to 6 weeks after germinating from seeds planted less than an inch deep. After that, at least in Roca’s late-summer/early-autumn experience in Harper, buckwheat blooms prolifically for 2 weeks on 10-to-12 inch plants before going to seed. In less droughty and heat-saturated environments than Texas, buckwheat plants can grow taller (between 2-to-4 feet high) and their bloom period tends to be a few weeks longer.
There is more good news about buckwheat as a pollinator-sustainer: it thrives without deep watering. In fact, lingering wetness will kill it. It has a strong, though slender, moisture-retaining taproot that enables the plant to endure droughty conditions. So while Hill Country water resources remained limited, Roca had to wet only the surface ground of his buckwheat crop about once a week.
Whereas this plant’s moisture-conserving taproot might grow as deep as 10 inches in more favorable climatic conditions, Roca’s plants achieved only 2-to-3 inch taproots. Still, that size proved to be ample enough to sustain his plants. In his experience, as well, most of buckwheat’s dense fibrous, superficial root system stayed close to the top of the soil, making light (surface-only) maintenance watering sufficiently effective.
Buckwheat is not a grain, but actually a rhubarb or sorrel relative classified as a pseudo-cereal. For some of us, the mention of buckwheat might stir memories of morning groats (porridge) and pioneer-type pancakes. For others, this plant might appeal because it is a source of gluten-free food, including buckwheat noodles (soba) and a type of beer.
Such thoughts, however, are not likely to advance the case for buckwheat as a top choice as an ornamental plant for home landscapes. It’s pretty, in my opinion, and its cute, mostly-white flowers are fragrant. Even so, buckwheat plants tend to remain small in most of Texas and do not quite escape an agricultural look. Nor will home-milling buckwheat seed be a likely payoff, either, because removing the outer hull of its triangular-shaped seed requires special equipment.
If for some gardeners buckwheat might not seem to be the most appealing addition to a garden bed, it is nonetheless by far preferable when compared to the opportunistic and irksome weeds that commonly pop up in disturbed beds not presently under active cultivation. In fact, fast-growing buckwheat has a strong reputation as a “smother crop” because it readily suppresses and displaces weeds.
And there is still another way to think about this plant. Buckwheat the smother crop also makes an excellent cover crop. So besides being a boon to local honey and native bees that need all the help they can get at present, buckwheat can be used to revitalize a “tired” garden bed. It is not a nitrogen-fixer (such as clover, cowpea and peanut), but buckwheat adds organic richness to the earth when turned under as a “green manure.”
Among other benefits, buckwheat can take up insoluble phosphorus, which in that form remains unavailable to most plants. When spent buckwheat plants are hoed into the soil, they decompose and then refund this captured phosphorous in a form now easily accessed by other plants grown later in that same garden bed. Phosphorus (P), the middle number of the three listed on plant fertilizers, is critical to root-development, photosynthesis and both flower and seed proliferation.
In garden beds, reseeding can be an issue with buckwheat, though such stray rebounders can be simply pulled up. Roca, of course, is glad if his crop reseeds — between 12 to 20 seeds per plant, he estimates. He managed to harvest “a lot of seeds and only did so after the second frost.” The seeds “must be dry and mature before attempting to harvest them,” he advises.
Eventually, deer foraged what buckwheat seeds remained after Roca’s harvest. Actually, he was lucky in that regard. Elsewhere in Texas, beekeepers report considerable and much earlier buckwheat loss to deer raids. Roca wonders whether the deer in his vicinity “might now have an acquired taste for this ‘new’ food source.” If so, he is typically prepared: “We have a deer fence we would put up if we decide to grow buckwheat before or after the wildflowers bloom.”
Sometimes, indeed, good fences make good neighbors. Sometimes, though, fences are not enough. It is very likely that some avian denizens of Harper took their seed-share of Roca’s original buckwheat bounty — possibly while his back was turned. Buckwheat appeals to birds as well as other pollinators (especially butterflies), and it is an ingredient in some commercial birdseed. So whether or not the deer come calling again — perhaps sooner rather than later next time — the pirating birds will be back, for sure.