|By Patty G. Leander
They’re not peas and they’re not nuts, but they are a wholesome, nutritious and fascinating crop to grow. The peanut (Arachis hypogaea) is a warm-season legume that begins its growth like any other bean, pushing through the soil and unfolding its leaves above ground, growing into a small bush that produces sunny yellow blooms. But in a truly amazing twist of botanical showmanship, the flowers produce a thin stem, called a peg, which elongates and grows down to the ground, burrowing into the soil where darkness triggers the formation of the peanut fruit. Farmers call this process “pegging.” Once the peg goes underground the tip begins to swell, taking in water and nutrients, and then forming a thin shell that encapsulates and protects the kernels. Planting to harvest takes four to five months, but it is truly worth the time and effort to witness the amazing lifecycle of a peanut plant.
It’s a tropical perennial native to South America, and archaeological evidence indicates that the Inca Indians of Peru held the peanut in high regard as a sacrificial offering as well as a food source at burial to be carried into the afterlife. The prized peanut made its way to Europe, Asia and Africa, eventually sailing to America onboard slave ships. During the Civil War, peanuts growing in abandoned fields across the South helped soldiers survive, providing fat, protein and calories for weary warriors, regardless of the color of their uniform. George Washington Carver’s insatiable interest and dedication to peanut research and promotion, including replacing weevil-infested cotton fields with peanuts, earned him the title “The Father of the Peanut Industry.”
Known regionally by various monikers, including goober peas and groundnuts, peanuts are grown from Virginia to Florida, and across the Lower South into Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. From ballparks to casual steakhouses, roasted peanuts in the shell are a ubiquitous American snack, but across the Deep South boiled peanuts have a loyal following. If you’ve never waited in line at a roadside stand for a bowl of warm, juicy boiled peanuts, you might want to add this Southern experience to your bucket list (see sidebar).
PICK YOUR PEANUT
Peanuts are classified as either runner (low, spreading growth habit) or bunch (peanut pods are clustered around the taproot) and there are four types grown in the United States distinguished by growth habit, rate of maturity and type of kernel. Valencia is considered by some to be the tastiest peanut, but no matter what type you choose to grow, the reward will be a surprisingly rich and full peanut flavor. Because peanuts are not widely grown in the home garden, retail availability of cultivars is limited. Some gardeners simply purchase raw peanuts from the local grocer, though peanuts from a reputable seed supplier are likely to have a better germination rate. At the end of this article I’ve included a few varieties that can be purchased from online seed catalogs, but you will often find quality peanut seed for purchase at your local farm supply or co-op. It’s a good idea to try a few different varieties to determine which grows best in your area.
Spanish. Generally considered the best type for Texas, Spanish peanuts produce 2–3 small, uniform kernels with reddish-brown skin. Crunchy and sweet, Spanish peanuts are popular for confections and snacking. These Drought-tolerant plants are compact and upright, maturing in 120–130 days.
Valencia. Primarily grown in West Texas and New Mexico, the Valencia is considered by some to be the tastiest peanuts, with a rich, full flavor good for snacking or boiling. Long, straight pods contain 3–5 kernels sporting a bright red seed coat. Valencias tolerate heavier clay soils and are fast-growing, maturing in 90–110 days. ‘Tennessee Red’ is an older variety, still popular across the South. ‘Texas Red and White’ is similar but with 2–3 smaller kernels, each one streaked with red and white skin.
Virginia. This is the classic “Mr. Peanut” peanut. Its jumbo pods contain two large kernels and are popular for roasting and eating out of the shell. They are often referred to as the ballpark peanut. These plants grow about two feet in height with a three-foot spread. It takes about 150 days to produce these large pods. ‘Gregory’ produces high-quality pods on vigorous plants.
Runner. High yields and excellent peanut flavor make runner peanuts the main commercial crop grown in the United States, used primarily for peanut butter. Vine-like runners spread out from the center of the plants and help suppress weeds as they fill in. The medium-sized shells of these peanuts contain 2 uniform kernels.
Peanuts like consistently warm weather and should be planted after the soil has warmed to 65° F, generally mid-April to early June, depending in which part of Texas you reside. Though peanuts are not fussy plants, there are a few things you can do to improve the growing environment and promote a more plentiful harvest. Because of the burrowing nature of peanuts, loose, sandy soil that allows the tip of the peg to easily penetrate the ground will give good results, but heavier clay soils can be amended with a few inches of organic matter to improve texture, thus facilitating the pegging process.
If your soil is extremely heavy or alkaline, consider growing peanuts in raised beds filled with a purchased garden mix blended especially for growing vegetables. The leguminous nature of peanuts means they are able to meet some of their own nitrogen needs and do not benefit from over-fertilization. They prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH but, like most legumes, will tolerate a soil pH ranging from 5.8 to 7.0. A soil test is recommended to determine soil pH, fertilizer requirements and possible mineral deficiencies, but in the absence of a soil test the addition of a low-nitrogen, balanced fertilizer, applied in narrow bands on each side of the peanut row, should be sufficient.
Peanuts sold for seed look just like any other peanut except they are raw, of course, not roasted. Shell the peanuts carefully, keeping the kernels intact, and plant each seed 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart in rows that are at least 18–24 inches apart. Seeds will germinate in 7–10 days and about a month later the plants will start to bloom. The small, self-pollinating flowers resemble pea blossoms.
After pollination occurs the petals slowly wither and soon you will notice a thin peg growing downward from the leaf axil. The tip of the peg contains the fertilized ovary of the fruit, which will start to develop after the peg elongates and penetrates the soil. Blooming, pegging and pod development will continue over several weeks, usually occurring in the height of summer, which means you may need to irrigate if rainfall is limited.
Expect about 30–40 pods from a mature plant, though yields can vary depending on weather, moisture and variety. Some gardeners hill their peanuts when they are about a foot tall, mounding loose soil around the base of the plants to encourage pegging and higher yields.
After 3–4 months of growth, the leaves will start to yellow, an indication that the plants are ready to dig. Hold back on irrigation a week or two before your anticipated harvest so that the soil is dry. Use a garden fork or shovel to dig the plants, shaking the soil loose as you pull them from the ground. If excessive dirt clings to the pods rinse them carefully with a light spray of water. Let the plants dry in the sun for a few days. Then remove the pods, place them in open bins or trays and cure in a cool, well-ventilated location for two to three more weeks (be sure to add leaves and stems to the compost pile). After curing, peanuts can be eaten raw, roasted or ground into peanut butter; they will last several months at room temperature.
Roasting couldn’t be any simpler but it really intensifies the peanut flavor: spread clean, dry shells on a baking sheet and bake for 20–25 minutes in a 350° oven. If you plan to boil peanuts, skip the curing process altogether and cook the peanuts when they are fresh and full of moisture. (See www.boiled-peanut-world.com for a plentitude of recipes.) Freshly harvested, uncured peanuts are like any other fresh produce and should be cooked or stored in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage.
BORDERS AND POTS
There is no reason to limit peanuts to rows in a vegetable garden. This versatile plant is attractive enough to be planted as an ornamental border in a flowerbed or even in a patio container. If you want to actually harvest peanuts from a container, use one that is 15–20 inches across so there is room for the plants to peg. Fill with a commercial soil mix, water thoroughly and plant three seeds in the center of the pot. This may not seem like much in such a big container, but remember that the plant will be growing for 3–4 months and one peanut plant will eventually fill the pot above and below ground. Place the pot in a warm, sunny location and water only when dry. Once the seedlings reach 4–6 inches in height, snip off two of the three sprouts, leaving the most vigorous one to grow. Feed with a liquid fish emulsion or soluble fertilizer every 3–4 weeks and then sit back and enjoy the show as the plant blooms, pegs and ultimately rewards your patience with flavorful home-grown peanuts.