Cover Crops

Time to start a Forest Garden!

It has begun! We have owned our land for just over a year, and have lived here for almost 9 months. We have experienced all four seasons. We are significantly more tuned in to our land. We are finally ready to start designing our food forest.

A food forest, also known as an edible forest garden, was one of the first unique ideas that introduced me to Permaculture about 15 years ago. While forest gardens are not the sole domain of Permaculture, an affinity exists between the two. And this concept, a small forest containing plants which provide for our needs (the 7 F’s: food, fuel, fodder (feed for our animals), fiber, fertilizer, farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines), fun), was so intriguing to me that I soon became a bit obsessed with Permaculture.

The first goal on our farm was to start producing food for ourselves. We started with animals as they have a fast turn around and could be started on our land as it was. We are finally really getting into a rhythm with their care and maintenance. Any overages (chickens and eggs) are sold for a small profit – well, more of decreasing a small bit of our costs at this point. The next stage is to start our plant production systems. Trees are going to stay put for a long, long time, and so we wanted to make sure we knew the right place to put them. This is why we took a full year before we even started the design process of our food forest. Of course, there are many plant systems other than a food forest, and we plan on incorporating many of these onto our farm.  But we are going to start with the food forest.

We chose a location that was close to our house. It is a southeast facing slope (we are in the northern hemisphere). It is one of our more flat (i.e. less steep!) areas on the farm, so managing it for decades to come will not be as taxing as other locations. There is also an area of lower elevation that holds a lot of water and is just begging to become a wetland/marsh. This will allow us to grow plants that like drier roots up top and water-loving plants down low. Diversity is king… and it’s a whole lot more fun!

A view of the future forest garden.

The site of the future forest garden.

We are currently pulsing our animals through this area. Of course they will be adding a fair amount of manure to the soil, and this is great. Another reason we will be using the animals is to remove the grass in this pasture. The geese and sheep primarily will go after the grass, but the chickens, ducks, and pigs will also eat their share. After this is done, the geese and sheep will be moved off. The pigs will rotate with the chickens and ducks to remove as much of any grass and other plants in this pasture. We will of course be supplementing the feed for these animals at this time. But the goal is to let the animals do the plowing and rototilling for us. I know that there are some folks who do not want to use animals to do this kind of work. I understand. I love to give my animals fresh, green pasture as often as possible. But this is not a permanent set-up. They will get in, do their thing, and we’ll get them out. The pigs will especially enjoy it.

The area of the future forest garden as defined by

The area of the future forest garden as defined by

I highly recommend when you are working on design plans. This is a free site that allows you to measure area and distances. I use it frequently, and it is very user friendly. As you can see, our future forest garden is right at 2 acres (0.81 hectares). This is not small! It will take a lot of work and many years to “complete”, but we are so excited to get started!

This is a google map's image of the area of interest.

This is a google map’s image of the area of interest.

You can see we’ve already been improving the soil with our sheep and pigs (far left) and our chicken tractors (center). The patchwork appearance is due to the daily, or sometimes twice daily, moves of the tractors. As mentioned above, this rotation will become more intense as we near the time of planting.

The area drawn to scale.

The area drawn to scale.

It’s important to have a basic scale drawing of the land we are designing. This drawing will be used over and over again as the master template that all mock-ups and samples and ideas are based on. This particular drawing is very simple. It took me about 5 minutes to make. It was made by shooting the google map image onto a wall with a projector. I simply traced the important features onto a piece of paper. The only slightly difficult part was zooming in and out until the scale matched a usable distance on my architect scale.

Some major features of this area.

Some major features of this area.

These are the main features on this drawing:

  1. House
  2. Garage
  3. Fence – The entire property has a nice, tight woven fence of about 5-6 feet (152-182 cm). This fence was put up by the original owners to keep coyotes IN. They ran a coyote hunting farm. The bottom of the fence rolls toward the interior of the property (see the photo below). This worked for a hunting property, but causes some trouble when we want to grow something (or clear weeds!) next to the fence line. We are still trying to decide what we want to do about it, but it does work to keep rabbits and other unwanted creatures out of the forest garden area.
  4. Gate
  5. Main road
  6. Bottom of the valley – This is where water collects and flows during the rain. The closer you get to the lower portion of the property border (bottom left), the more water there is and the longer it stays after a rain.
The fence

The fence rolled under at the bottom – like a letter “L”. Lots of plants have grown through, including some trees. This really needs to be dealt with so that we can avoid “weed” problems in the future.


Basic topography on this site.

Basic topography on this site.

This is a basic topographic map (not drawn to scale by any means). I made this just to show the general lay of the land. #1 by the house and the #1 on the far upper left represent hills. The land slopes down and then back up at #3 toward the back of the house. If you keep going along that interior road, the land would continue to rise. But that is out of our area of interest for this project. #2 represents the start of the valley floor. A line connecting from #2 to #4 represents the run of this valley. When it rains, there is water in this location running from #2 to #4. After the rains stop, there will be standing water at #4 for 1-2 weeks, sometimes longer.

Soil in this area.

Soil in this area.

  1. The soil around the house is decent. Much of this soil was either placed back after excavation for the house or it was trucked in. All of the area from #1 down the long, steep driveway to #7 is currently planted to lawn. The soil here ranges is depth from a few feet deep before hitting rock around the house, to fairly shallow toward the lower and northeastern (right side) of the drive.
  2. The slope is steep in this area. The soil in this area is poor. It is only about 1/2 – 1 inch deep before hitting a lot of rocks. There is space and soil between the rocks, but not much. This is a difficult area to regenerate, but not impossible.
  3. As the slope is a bit gentler here, and we are a bit further downhill, the soil is deeper. I can dig 6-12 inches before hitting rock. And the rock is spaced farther apart.
  4. Toward the lowest end of the field, the soil is the deepest. I can dig to 24 inches before hitting rock. This area has no standing water after a rain, so the drainage is still good.
  5. This is toward the highest part of the valley floor. This has running water during rains.
  6. This is the lowest part of the valley floor. This has standing water after the rains.
  7. These are areas that were planted to grass (just like #1 above). These areas have fairly deep soils.

The soil on this property is generally poor. It has a very high, reddish-brown clay content. Little organic matter. All areas that are currently pasture have been compacted to some degree by tractors and continuous, open-grazing of cattle. It would be wonderful if the soil was great, but that’s not how it is. We deal with what we have, and fortunately, with good management, there is a lot that can be improved. Our animal rotation is one way we are going to improve the soil. The second is with cover crops. We will take about a year to grow cover crops  with a variety of functions. Here are a few plants we will be using, for example: buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) for biomass; clover (Trifolium species) for biomass and nitrogen fixation; borage (Borago officinalis), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and radish (Raphanus sativus) as deep-rooted/tap-rooted plants to break up the deep layers of the soil. Also, these plants are ones I don’t mind growing in the established forest garden if any of their seeds survive and reseed. We are still toying with the idea of spreading rolls of old/less-than-prime hay over the area to further suffocate/mulch the existing pasture. Of course, these rolls of hay will come with their own seeds, but we will use the chickens to de-seed as much as possible as well. These are just a few of our strategies for improving the soil of our forest garden before ever place a permanent plant.

Next week, we will be taking the next step. We will be collecting soil samples to be sent off to a few labs for analysis. Fun stuff!

Permaculture Plants: Buckwheat

Common Name: Common Buckwheat, Tartary Buckwheat, Perennial Buckwheat
Scientific Name: Fagopyrum species
Family: Polygonaceae (the Knotweed or Smartweed or Buckwheat family)

Common Species (there are 15 or 16 species):

  • Common Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
  • Perennial Buckwheat (Fagopyrum dibotrys)
  • Tartary Buckwheat (Fagopyrum tataricum)
Common Buckwheat is a rather tall, fast-growing annual.

Common Buckwheat is a rather tall, fast-growing annual.

Buckwheat, while not a grain or even related to wheat, does produced edible seeds that make a gluten-free, and quite tasty, flour. It is well known as a cover crop that builds organic matter, but it also suppresses weeds, mines phosphorus and calcium from deep in the soil, prevents erosion, and attracts many beneficial insects especially bees; Buckwheat flowers yield a highly sought-after honey!

There is a Perennial Buckwheat, but it does not seem to be highly productive outside its natural range in the high altitudes of the Himalayas and Southeast Asia, although there seems to be some people working with this plant… it will be interesting to see how things develop. Most Buckwheat species are annual and can be a useful addition to Permaculture designs and forest gardens, especially in the developmental stages.

Common Buckwheat Fagopyrum eir

Common Buckwheat Fagopyrum esculentum

Buckwheat likely originates from East or Southeast Asia. Common Buckwheat is the domesticated plant that originates from the wild Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum spp. ancestrale. The wild form of Tartary Buckwheat is Fagopyrum taraticum spp. potanini. Sometime around 6,000 BC, Common Buckwheat was first cultivated, and it spread west. Common Buckwheat is the most common species grown in the world, but Tartary Buckwheat is commonly cultivated in the Himalayas.


  • Buckwheat is not actually related to wheat at all, but to sorrel, knotweed, and rhubarb!
  • Buckwheat is not even a grain, because it is not in the grass family.
  • Buckwheat has no gluten.
  • People use Buckwheat as a grain, so it is known as a pseudocereal (like amaranth, chia, quinoa, etc.)
  • The common name “Buckwheat” comes from an older name “Beech Wheat”. This is due to the triangular seeds which resemble the seeds from the Beech Tree. The Middle Dutch word for “Beech” is boec, and the modern Dutch word is beuk.
  • The scientific name Fagopyrum comes from the Greek… fagus = Beech, and pyrum (pyros) = wheat.
  • Buckwheat is the highest cultivated plant growing at an average of 14,800 feet (4,500 meters) in the Tibetan plateau (mostly Tartary Buckwheat)
  • Tartary Buckwheat is more bitter than Common Buckwheat, but may contain more phytonutrients.
  • Common Buckwheat was a significant crop before nitrogen fertilizers (Buckwheat does not go to seed well with high levels of nitrogen). In 1918, over a million acres (4,000 square km) were harvested in the United States!
  • Buckwheat Noodles are called soba in Japan, naengmyeon in Korea, and pizzoccheri in Italy.
  • Buckwheat is considered allelopathic – this means it suppresses growth of other plants, which makes it a great “weed” control/suppressing plant.

    The seeds of Buckwheat, while not a cereal grain, can still be used like a cereal grain.

    The seeds of Buckwheat, while not a cereal grain, can still be used like a cereal grain.

...and Buckwheat Pancakes are delicious!

…and Buckwheat Pancakes are delicious!

here’s a recipe for Spiced Buckwheat Pancakes!


Primary Uses:

  • Edible Seeds – sprouted seeds can be eaten raw. The seed can be cooked and used as a cereal grain (i.e. dried and ground into a powder). Used in breads, pancakes, noodles, etc. Can be mixed with true cereal grains for making yeast breads. Can be used as a thickening agent in soups and sauces. Note that Perennial Buckwheat may not produce nearly as many seeds as the annual species.
  • Edible Leaves – used like spinach – can be eaten raw or cooked, but is usually significantly more bitter when raw
  • Cover Crop / Green Manure – used as a fast-growing cover crop that breaks down (rots) quickly providing lots of organic matter to the soil as well as soil coverage/protection and fertilization/composting in place. Sow at 60-135 lbs/acre (65-150 kg/ha) when using across large areas.

Secondary Uses:

  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant – Buckwheat Honey is distinctively dark and is a highly sought after honey. These flowers are known for attracting predatory wasps, hoverflies (Syrphid flies), and more.
  • Dynamic Accumulator – phosphorus and calcium
  • Weed Suppressing Plant – the vigorous, fast-growing Buckwheat smothers unwanted “weeds”.
  • Erosion Control Plant – the deep, fibrous roots hold the soil and prevent erosion
  • Wildlife Shelter – especially small birds and mammals
  • Alcohol – gluten-free beers and whisky have been made using Buckwheat
  • Buckwheat Hulls – used in pillows and as upholstery filler

Yield: Variable.
Harvesting: Annual Buckwheats produce edible leaves by 6-8 weeks and ripened seed at 10-14 weeks. The seeds do not all ripen at the same time, so harvesting is a bit time consuming. It is easiest to harvest when about three-quarters of the seeds become dark brown (ripe). If you wait longer, then many of the seeds with shatter (fall off). Cut the stems gently and move them to a tarp or sheet. Then hit the stems with a broom or carpet beater. Most of the unripe seeds will stay on the branches, and the ripe ones fall on the tarp. Winnow the seeds (blow the chaf away… leaves, bugs, older hulls, etc.) by pouring the seeds back and forth between buckets in a breeze or in front of a fan.
Storage: Use leaves fresh within a few days. Seeds can be dried and stored for years if kept in an airtight, minimal oxygen container – like with oxygen absorbers. Otherwise, the seeds, which have fats, can go rancid. Buckwheat flour should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or other cool/cold place, and it can store for a few months.

The fragrant flowers are honeybee magnets!

The fragrant flowers are honeybee magnets!

...and Buckwheat Honey is considered a super-healthy delicacy!

…and Buckwheat Honey is considered a super-healthy delicacy!


USDA Hardiness Zone: Not relevant for annual species. For Perennial Buckwheat, it appears to be hardy to Zone 7 (maybe 6).
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information is available
Chill Requirement: Likely for Perennial Buckwheat, considering where this plant originates, but no reliable information is available.

Plant Type: Annual/Perennial
Leaf Type: Annual/Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer (Cover Crop)
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available. If you want a seed for eating, make sure you find one that is specifically for seed, and not just for a cover crop. These will taste much better!

Pollination: Not self-fertile. Pollinated by bees and flies.
Flowering: It all depends on when it is planted. Perennial Buckwheat blooms in late Summer to early Autumn (or Winter in warmer climates). Annual Buckwheat will form flowers in 2-10 weeks (yes, as early as just , but hot weather will cause the flowers to fall off without forming seeds (this is called “blasting”).

The leaves of Buckwheat are edible as well.

The leaves of Buckwheat are edible as well.

...but Buckwheat Flour is the most common edible from this plant (picture are soba noodles from Japananese cuisine).

…but Buckwheat Flour is the most common edible from this plant (picture are soba noodles from Japananese cuisine).



  • Common Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and 1 foot (0.9 meters) wide
  • Perennial Buckwheat (Fagopyrum dibotrys): 2.5-3.5 feet (0.75-1 meter) tall and 6 feet (2 meters) wide
  • Tartary Buckwheat (Fagopyrum tataricum): 2.5 feet (0.75 meters) tall

Roots: Dense, fibrous root system close to the surface with a deep taproot (3-4 feet/1 meter deep).
Growth Rate: Fast – Very Fast

Perennial Buckwheat seems to better in cooler and higher altitude climates.

Perennial Buckwheat seems to better in cooler and higher altitude climates.

Buckwheat is mostly grown commercially, but it is easy to grow at a smaller scale.

Buckwheat is mostly grown commercially, but it is easy to grow at a smaller scale.


Light: Prefers full sun or partial shade (especially for Perennial Buckwheat)
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Dry to wet soils, but it needs good drainage.
pH: 4.0-6.0 (but tolerates a wide range of soil conditions)

Special Considerations for Growing:

  • Buckwheat grows very well in low-fertility soils. In fact, if the soil has too much nitrogen, seed yield will be reduced… so it depends on what you are growing the Buckwheat for: manure or seed (flowers).
  • Buckwheat seeds best in cooler weather, so if you live in a hot climate, then a late season sowing is recommended.
  • If you want a seed harvest, then plant 2-3 months before the first killing frost.
  • If planted in Summer, then there will be little seed production, but it will work great as a cover crop/green manure/weed suppressor.
  • Buckwheat does not seed well in wind – the seeds shatter (drop), and it has a tendancy to lodge (tip over).

Typically from seed. Can be divided at any time during the growing season.

Minimal. Can be mowed or sythed down before flowering, and many of the plants will have a second growth.



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