Monday, March 3, 2014

Gardening for peanuts

Each year I grow something I haven’t tried before. Often it’s a new-to-me variety of a crop I already grow. In these cases I’m looking for a variety that we might like better, that may yield better or be more pest or disease resistant, or might be processed in a different way. Sometimes I try a new crop and have to learn how to grow the crop as well as how to process it. In 2013 one of those crops was peanuts. The results were good enough, and the crop is rarely enough grown in gardens, that a post on how I grew and processed them is in order. I’m planning to devote more space to them this year, and perhaps some of you will want to try them as well.

I chose the variety ‘Tennessee Red Valencia’, available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, based on the information in an article on growing peanuts from the April 2006 issue of Growing for Market. The author, Pam Dawling, recommended it for its 110 day growing season, its high productivity, and its willingness to produce with little to no hilling (pulling loose soil around the plants). SESE offers five different varieties of peanuts in its 2014 online catalog.

Peanut seeds are sold in their shells; remove them from the shells as you plant them. Somewhere I read that you should retain the skin around the peanut seed as you plant it, and I did so. On June 3 I planted 2 to 4 seeds each in spots 1 foot apart, planting two rows of peanut seeds two feet apart in the middle portion of a bed that had had peas planted in the outer portions in spring. I didn’t record how deep I planted the seeds but it was probably an inch or so. Dawling suggests planting them 2 inches deep and 12 inches apart in the row, with rows spaced 30 to 36 inches apart, and planting them when the soil is 65F at a depth of 4 inches for three consecutive days. John Jeavons suggests a spacing of 9 inches each way for peanut plants in the 8th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables, a spacing too close for hilling the plants. I decided to plant the peanuts far enough apart so I could hill them up but closer together than Dawling’s spacing, and compare the yield I obtained to the yield figures in Jeavons’ book.

I chose not to inoculate the peanuts when I planted them because I was curious to see how they would grow without that input. If you want to inoculate them, make sure to buy inoculant that says it’s for peanuts. The bed used for peanuts was one of the two that did not get the 2013 fertilizer mix designed to remedy the mineral deficiencies in my soil, one of which was calcium. Dawling says that for peanuts the soil should have a pH of 5 to 6 and if calcium is deficient, gypsum should be added. That’s because gypsum will add calcium without increasing the pH. I would only add gypsum if the soil is also deficient in sulfur, but that is based on the re-mineralization I have been doing. Dawling has years of experience growing peanuts to back her recommendation.

As Dawling notes, peanut seedlings resemble pea or clover seedlings. She says to hill them up when they are about a foot tall but not to disturb the soil after they begin to flower. I don’t remember how tall mine were when I first hilled them, but I think I hilled them up twice. My record sheet indicates that I first saw flowers on July 7, a little over a month after planting. Peanut flowers grow downward to peg themselves into the soil, where the seeds develop. Since I couldn’t see if seeds were forming I put my trust in the plants and left them alone to develop.

On October 16 the weather was cool and the soil was moist. The plants had had over 130 days to mature seeds. So I dug the peanut plants and their pegs out of the soil with a garden trowel. I was delighted to find multiple peanuts had pegged from each plant! As I removed each plant I pulled the peanuts off the pegs and piled them in a basket. It didn’t take long to do and was pleasant work.

Dawling discusses the proper drying of peanuts at some length due to the danger of aflatoxin developing if the peanuts should mold. She recommends drying them quickly, in the sun if possible or using a fan to blow across them if it isn’t sunny. Because I harvested only about three pounds of peanuts (wet weight), I spread them in a single layer on a window screen that was propped up on both ends so air could circulate under and through the peanuts as well as over them. I did not use a fan to aid drying. I chose not to wash the peanuts before I dried them, thinking that might reduce the chance of their molding. I left them on the screen for several weeks to dry before I put them in a plastic one gallon container for storage prior to roasting. The peanuts appeared to be free of mold, at least any that I could detect by eye, and none developed during storage. The yield of dried peanuts was 5 pounds per 100 square feet, compared to Jeavons’ yield figures of 4 pounds for beginning gardeners, 10 pounds for more experienced gardeners. Not bad for the first year of growing them!

A few days ago I set aside a pint glass jar that I filled with dried, unwashed peanut seeds for planting this year. I then used our sun oven to roast the remaining seeds without washing them first and without salting them. The sun oven’s temperature was between 300F and 350F while the peanuts roasted. It took 25 minutes to roast them fully. Mike says he would prefer them to be salted but they still taste good. I think they are delicious as they are!

This year I’ll do two things differently that I think will improve the quantity and quality of the final product. First, I’ll fertilize the bed with the same mix I use on all the beds. As with the other crops, I hypothesize that a proper mineral balance will improve the yield and/or flavor and/or disease resistance of the peanuts. Second, I’ll wash those that I roast prior to roasting them. Mike thinks that soaking them in salted water, then roasting them, will result in the salted product that he prefers, so we will treat one batch that way and roast another batch washed but not soaked in salted water and compare the results.

I found that peanuts are easy to grow and delicious, plus they provide a higher proportion of fat and protein for their weight than most garden crops. That makes them a valued part of my garden and our diet.  If you try them, let me know what you learn!