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Garden-to-table Buckwheat

This weekend, we had garden-to-table buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. This buckwheat is my first real homegrown grain harvest, and it checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.

To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. If this is you, I encourage you to read Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon. It inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. This year, I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing a grain crop. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times. But I haven’t actually been methodical about harvesting the groats until now.

Buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:

  • You don’t need rich soil. In fact, buckwheat seems to do better in poor soil!
  • You barely need to irrigate.
  • Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
  • Buckwheat (like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth) has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
  • It’s gluten-free!

Growing buckwheat

Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.

Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.

 

Harvesting buckwheat

Harvesting the buckwheat groats is reasonably easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… After those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.

 

When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.

To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chicken and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.

When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.

 

Processing Buckwheat

This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.

The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.

Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.

After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.

You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.

  1. First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
  2. Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.

Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.

 

Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.

 

Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes

  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • butter (for the pan)

Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.

Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.

Garden Tour Video

Welcome to the inaugural video garden tour of our urban homestead!

Friends and family both far and near have asked me for a while to post a video tour of the garden. Here it is at last!

On the video, I share how we transformed a 1/3-acre urban lot with compacted soil and grass into a diverse edible landscape of vegetables, fruit, berries, medicinals and dye plants over the last 2 years.

So make yourself a glass of iced tea (or something) and imagine you are coming on a stroll along with me.

 

Our garden is designed using the design principles of permaculture. I will probably do a full post about the design process some day; in the meantime, below is the design drawing/map that might also help you to orient yourself as you go along (the greenhouse, which you see on the video, is not in the drawing since it was a later addition).

And if you’re curious about how we built good garden soil in our first two years, check out these posts on sheet-mulching and no-till gardening.

Questions? Let me know in the comments below!

For the new gardener

Dear new gardener,

If you’re planting your first edible garden this spring — first of all, thank you for taking this step. You’re taking responsibility for your needs and for your family’s needs. You’re taking responsibility for your food and how it’s grown, and that’s incredibly powerful in today’s world.

And you’re not alone. You’re joining hands with others who are also stepping up to become stewards of our degraded lands and our broken food system. People everywhere are picking up shovels and starting new gardens, or expanding existing ones. I see this on my daily walks in my neighborhood: people out in their yards, new raised bed boxes where there weren’t any before, vegetable seeds being sold out in stores (when was the last time that happened?). It’s one of the more life-affirming and empowering responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

So first of all, thank you for being a part of this movement.

 

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

— Audrey Hepburn

 

At the same time, starting out gardening can feel overwhelming. “Where do I start? There’s so much information out there and so much I don’t know. I can’t tell a cucumber seedling from a pepper seedling. I don’t know the Latin names of vegetables.”

I know all too well how that feels. I wasn’t always a gardener. I didn’t always know how to do this.

I now grow food on a third-acre lot. But this is where I started, about 10 years ago:

 

And because I remember being a new gardener, I know that gardening absolutely can be learned.

If you want practical tips, like finding planting calendars or choosing vegetables that grow fast or provide maximum calories, scroll to the bottom of this post. But what I want to offer first is some advice about the beginning gardener’s mindset. For along with good compost and non-GMO seeds, you also need some patience, self-compassion, and a good dose of humor.

 

It takes time, and that’s okay.

When I planted the first garden of my adult life — patio containers for some salad greens and herbs — I read in one of my gardening books that gardening involves a steep learning curve. To be precise, it said, it takes 10 years to learn how to garden. You can’t speed-date nature. You learn simply by experience, by making mistakes. There will always be a new unexpected challenge each year: a summer of nothing but rain, late frosts, a new pest, a new crop.

I remember despairing. Ten years! That’s too long! (Patience was not one of my virtues then and still isn’t.) I felt embarrassed about all that I didn’t know, I felt that I should be further along, and yes, I was wondering about all those Latin names.

But now that I’ve been gardening almost a decade, I can say that confidence in gardening really comes simply from doing it over and over again, year after year. You make mistakes and learn from them. But. It. Is. All. Worth. It. That feeling when you make your first meal entirely from homegrown ingredients, or grow your first perfect artichoke or braid of garlic — you can’t buy that in a grocery store produce aisle. In fact, a lot of the food you will go on to grow will also be food that you simply cannot buy in a grocery store.

Whether this is your Year 1 of gardening, or Year 10, there’s only one way to become a better gardener: to garden today, and the next day, and the day after that.

 

Start small.

You don’t need to have a lot of land to garden. You don’t need to own land to garden. And no, you don’t need to plant a jaw-dropping food forest your first year.

Start with some potted herbs, or salad greens on the windowsill. If you do have a backyard, build a couple of 4×8 raised bed boxes and start with that. The following year, you can add some blueberries in half wine barrel containers and try your hand at double-digging or sheet mulching.

As one of my permaculture teachers, Marisha Auerbach, puts it: Start small, and then roll over the edges. If you take on too much all at once, you’ll only become discouraged if you can’t maintain it all, and you might give up. Take on what you can manage, and then expand.

 

invest in good soil.

To grow healthy, nutrient-dense, delicious vegetables and fruits, you need good soil. This is the one part where I wouldn’t recommend skimping.

You can build good soil on a low budget over time; my two favorite ways of building good garden soil are sheet mulching and no-till gardening. But both of these take time. If you want to fast-forward things, invest in a bulk order of compost (by the cubic yard) from the best source you can find locally, and mix the compost with your existing soil to fill up raised bed frames or to establish beds. Start a home compost pile to grow your own soil fertility going forward.

 

Grow foods you actually like to eat.

If you don’t like kohlrabi, don’t grow kohlrabi. If pesto on a summer day is what makes you happy, plant as much basil as you can fit in. You get my point.

 

You don’t have to know everything.

You don’t have to read every gardening book on the planet. Find your 2-4 go-to resources that are like a couple of good friends you can turn to. (See my suggestions below.)

If a specific problem comes up, you can always find help on Google or Youtube.

Don’t fret about all that you don’t know yet. It will come. If you fall in love with gardening the way most people do, you will find yourself gravitating towards your garden beds, checking on the seedlings. You don’t need to memorize the Latin names of the different vegetable families. Over time, you’ll start to notice that turnip seedlings look exactly like broccoli and kale seedlings, and beets and Swiss chard look similar too, and so do carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. Over time, the family tree of plants will become familiar to you because the characters in it pop out of the soil every year to greet you, like old friends.

 

Dear new gardener,

We don’t know what lies ahead. But I’m willing to wager that 5 years or 15 years from now, you will not regret learning how to garden. Enjoy this time of apprenticing and growing. Put your hands in the dirt, be curious, and have fun.

And now…

 

My top resources for the brand new gardener

Online trainings and inspiration:

My go-to gardening books:

Other resources:

Fall Garden Checklist

When the harvest season winds down and the abundance of the late summer and early fall has been brought in, it’s the time to put the garden to bed. Here’s how to prepare your garden for the winter and for optimal vigor in the spring.

Harvest the last of…

  • basil for pesto
  • herbs for herbal teas
  • tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, squashes and pumpkins

 

Clear and Cut back

  • Clean up any remaining dead plant matter and compost it, unless it is diseased.
  • Cut back herbs and perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb. It helps them to grow with new vigor in the spring.
  • Cut runners from strawberries, and top-dress them with compost.
  • Cut old fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry.

 

Amend and cover the soil

  • Dig in amendments such as compost, manure, bone meal, kelp, or rock dust. They will have all winter to break down and enrich your soil.
  • Rake leaves and mulch garden beds with them. A thick layer of mulch helps to regulate the soil temperature, protects your crops from freezing, and adds organic matter into the soil.
  • Alternatively, leave the leaves where they are – it’s free fertilizer for your lawn, and an all-around good thing to do.

 

Cover crop

  • Plant a winter-hardy cover crop such as rye, vetch or Austrian winter pea. Cover crops help to prevent erosion, as all those tiny roots hold the soil in place; they aerate the soil and break up compacted lumps; they increase the level of organic matter in the soil. A leguminous cover crop such as vetch or peas adds nitrogen to the soil. Grasses, such as rye, improves the structure of compacted soil.

 

 

Protect your plants

  • Take cold-sensitive house plants and potted tropical plants indoors
  • Protect young trees and shrubs from deer, rabbits etc.
  • Prepare to protect overwintering vegetables with row covers. Mulch all the frost-sensitive plants with straw or leaves to protect them from frost.

 

Plant

We get to plant some, too, in the fall! Fall is the time to plant:

  • Garlic, shallots, and leeks (mulch generously to cover them well)
  • Flower bulbs (daffodil, crocus, tulip etc.) that will surprise you with their color in the spring

 

With these simple measures, your garden will wake up with the return of the spring, rested under cozy blankets of organic matter and replenished by amendments and cover crops.