23 Jan 2022
How easy are peanuts to grow here? When I asked Paul Hoschke of Barefoot Fruit and Veg for any growing advice, aside from stick them in the ground and keep the rats away, he looked rather perplexed. Eventually he said no.
Peanuts are a plant who provides a lot of a long storing food rich in protein and energy, for minimal effort, and improves your soil while it is growing as well.
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When peanuts do well here, they really take off. They can be so abundant that they become too much and need to be addressed as a weed. On the other hand, when they don’t get what they want they fail spectacularly. You may get a harvest of a single peanut. I’ve heard multiple instances of both extremes.
What do they like then?
First let’s look at the plant and how it grows, which is quite unusual.
Peanut is a low growing plant. It can be a short bush, or a ground level scrambler or a low rambling bush that’s a mix of both. It only reaches about 60cm high and sometimes higher but can spread a metre wide. It does not always cover the ground thoroughly ie there can be plenty of space for weeds to grow amongst it. Peanut flowers in bright yellow and when the flower is fertilised (self pollinated at night!), each one drops down a cord called a peg into the ground below it. This is where the actual peanut forms; below ground within a shell, attached by a peg to the flower above ground on the bush. Very weird.
Because of this odd way of growing, peanuts require really lovely loose soil. The pegs are not strong. They cannot push their way into clay or anything hard. If you cannot push your hand into your soil, the pegs probably can’t either. If they can’t get into the ground, they won’t make peanuts. If your soil isn’t ideal, you could try adding a thick layer 15 – 20cm deep of lovely fluffy soil when you see the plants begin to flower. Earlier will just encourage weeds. Hill up around the plants, not just the base but under all the foliage as well, with lovely loose soil. Perhaps some compost you were making, or some quality seed raising mix that conveniently appeared in a big bag.
Peanuts also have a higher than usual requirement for calcium. If you have excitedly harvested all the peanuts at the end of the season and begun to crack open shells only to find them empty, then there wasn’t enough calcium for the nut to grow. In a happy twist, loose fluffy soil is a byproduct of abundent calcium in the soil.
The other soil requirements are potassium and phosphorus and small amounts of sulphur and boron. Being a nitrogen fixing legume, peanuts don’t need nitrogen at all. pH preference is 6 to 7. Because the peanut is created underground the soil needs to have very good drainage. Peanuts sitting in wet soggy soil will rot. This is generally true for veg created underground.
What else do they need? Full sun. They are not an understory plant. And because of their unruly rambly nature they don’t make good companions. Give them their own bed where they can bask in the sun and you can dig them up and thoroughly sift through the soil when they are ready. Be prepared to stay on top of weeding.
Peanut is a frost sensitive warm season annual plant who needs 5 months of warm weather to make those delicious underground nuts. Here that means they need to be in by December at the latest. Peanuts grow best when the weather is above 25°C. “Planting should be timed so harvesting is conducted in a relatively dry time of the year” is a little bit tricky here I think, given our wet season is our warm season. Historically our wettest months have been October to Jun, but the rain is usually easing off in April. Personally, I’d want them out before March / April or whenever you find your local rat population tends to explode.
A minimum soil temperature of 18°C is required for germination, which is usually from about September around here. They can take up to two weeks to germinate though are usually a lot quicker. Inoculate with a group P inoculant for the best plant growth and soil health. Sow the peanuts 5 – 7cm deep.
You can try planting any uncooked peanut as long as the papery skin holding the two halves of the nut together is undamaged. If the papery skin is damaged the peanut cannot germinate. Popping the peanuts out of their hard outer shell is optional. They will germinate regardless though this is much faster if they are popped out beforehand.
Unless you don’t have rats or bandicoots, it is prudent to germinate peanuts in a fortress before planting out. Peanut butter is the gold standard for rodent bait which is great when you’re trying to lure them in but a disaster when you are trying to grow peanuts. Once they have germinated and begun to grow leaves they should be past the stage of rodent enchantment.
Plant peanuts about 45cm apart in rows 60cm apart. How many? You can expect 25 – 50 peanuts per plant. There are four different types of peanut plant to explore.
Virginian – can be a bush or a scrambling plant. These have large nuts usually grown for snacking peanuts. Known as the gourmet peanut.
Runner – scrambling plant. Needs really even regular water. Uniform medium sized nut usually used for peanut butter and confectionary.
Spanish – bush plant. Uniform small sized red skinned nut usually grown for peanut butter. Great flavour roasted.
Valencia – bush plant 1m tall. More than two nuts per shell. Most popular in southern USA states for boiled peanuts. Not really grown commercially in Australia.
This is a drought hardy plant with a deep taproot but it will be much happier and create better peanuts with regular watering when it’s in the throes of peanut making. For the first 5 weeks it doesn’t need much water and it might be better to water stress it. Then it will start flowering…wait…give a foliar feed, add fluffy soil if you need to and add calcium (gypsum) around the plant….wait… it will go into overdrive making flowers in weeks 6 and 7. This is when to make watering really regular. When you see the pegs forming (about week 8), give it another foliar feed, and again a month later (week 12). Keep the water up to the plant until about week 18. The young peanuts should be nearly ready and if so, ease off on the water. They don’t need as much right at the end. You should be able to harvest at week 20.
When are they ready? That’s a tricky one. The nuts don’t all mature at once and yet the way to harvest is to pull the entire plant up and then check through the soil for the nuts that have come adrift. For home gardeners it’s generally recommended to harvest when the plant turns yellow. Professional growers only expect about 65% of nuts will be mature at harvest. The rest will be too old or still growing. Old nuts have a black shell. Mature ones are deep brown. Orange to light brown and yellow are young and white ones are babies. It’s better to have mature peanuts dug up and drying during wet weather than in the ground. Another harvest sign might be when the rats start digging, the peanuts are ready. Harvest or they will eat them all.
Boiled peanuts are made from freshly harvested (undried) nuts. The Valencia type are best for this. So are any baby nuts at harvest time.
Peanuts for roasting or raw storage are dried after harvesting.
Pull them up, tip the entire plant upsidedown and leave them in a heap in the sun or hang them up or spread them out indoors to dry out. As long as the nuts aren’t in contact with the soil they will shed water and dry out quickly. After a few days you should be able to easily separate the peanuts from the plant.
Peanuts are up to half water when first dug up. This needs to be reduced slowly but surely over about a week or two to 8.5 – 10% for them to be stored without going mouldy. Ventilation helps a lot with drying them. Spread them out on shadecloth or a wire rack. For storage, pick through and throw out the bad ones. Keep the nuts dry and in a warm place or they may still go mouldy. They should taste like peanuts. An earthy or mushroomy or musty taste means they were probably dried too slowly or not enough and may be invisibly mouldy.
Peanut seed usually only lasts one year for planting. Don’t replant peanuts in the same spot for 3 or 4 years. For crop rotation, note that potatoes and soy beans share the same pests and diseases as peanuts.
There is a tree that is not local to this area but does happily grow here known as a native peanut tree or red fruited kurrajong. It’s from much further north. It’s a deciduous rainforest tree of usually 5 – 15m and up to 30m height, 4 – 6m wide. It flowers over the warm season and the seedpods are bright orange balls of 4 – 8cm diameter. When they pop open there are up to 8 hazelnut sized seeds inside. Once their black skin is removed, the seeds can be eaten raw or roasted and they taste like raw peanuts.
The tree is noted for withstanding cyclonic winds, being happy in infertile soil and coping with drought, though it likes to be well watered and in well drained, preferably sandy, soil. It likes growing in full sun and fruits after only three years.
Big thanks to:
Paul from Barefoot Fruit & Veg
and also to Pete Bufo, Carole & Phil Helman, Nick Radford, Michele Morozumi, David Pepper, John Vernon, Jennie Fenton, Mark Graham, Lauren Natili, Kathryn Wood, Glenda Borsboom, Kris Heather.
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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Native peanut tree
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