Painless botany lesson: growing peanuts
"For the fun of it!" That's what gardeners told us when we asked why they grew peanuts. And most dedicated peanut growers said home-grown ones taste fresher than purchased kinds, too. They're also a great summer project for children.
The large seeds are easy to poke into the soil, and plants require little care. Kids find it fascinating to discover how the nuts develop.
Whatever your reason for trying peanuts, you'll find that they're simple to grow and very rewarding. Each nut produces a sprawling vine 1 to 2 feet tall with 30 to 60 pods per plant. The longer the growing season, the bigger the harvest.
Peanuts grow best in warm, humid climates, but you can get a good harvest in any area with a long growing season-- even in cool coatal climates. Though last summer was abnormally cool in the San Francisco Bay Area, we harvested a good crop from Sunset's garden by growing the plants under floating covers (top right photograph) for the first two months.
Black plastic would also help boost growth and keep weeds down, but it must be removed when plants start flowering.
Which kind should you grow?
Three kinds of peanuts are commonly available: Spanish, Valencia, and Virginia. The Spanish types have a high oil content, which maks them tastier than the others--but they're much smaller and more time-consuming to crack. Since Spanish peanut plants mature faster than Valencia and Virginia ones, they tend to produce better in marginal climates; the plants are also more compact.
Both Valencia and Virginia are large-shelled peanuts. The narrow, red-skinned Valencias contain up to five nuts per shall and have a good peanutty flavor. The familiar Virginias commonly sold at the ballpark have the mildest flavor of all. Their soft, easy-to-crack shells hold two or three large nuts, and the plants are very productive.
Prepare your soil well
Peanuts have been described as the only plant that sows its own seed. After flowering, fruiting pegs--the shoot-like structures pictured above--grow 2 to 3 inches down into the soil and enlarge to form the nuts (which are actually legumes, just like peas). The soil must be loose enough for the pegs to penetrate it.
Peanuts grow best in sandy soil, but any loose, well-drained type will do. If your soil is heavy, plant peanuts in a raised bed or mulch thickly so they can develop in the mulch.
Choose a site that gets full sun most of the day. At planting time, add fertilizer and a legume inoculant (available in nurseries and through many seed catalogs) to the soil. But don't fertilize later in the season or you'll get lush green plants and few peanuts. If you live in an area where wire worms or maggots are a problem, you may want to mix diazinon granules into the soil before planting. …