By the numbers: the humble peanut

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Virginia peanuts

I didn’t mean to grow peanuts this year.  I didn’t need to conduct an experiment and weigh them to know that peanuts are not cost effective in backyard gardens.  And yet, last fall, at a community seed swap, there they were.  I brought home a scant handful; perhaps a 12 peanuts, give or take.  Few seeds go unplanted in Finch Hollow for long.

Peanuts are not a nut; they are a legume native to South America and first domesticated in the distant past, but they have spread all over the world.  They are exceptionally healthy, very calorically dense, and transport and save well.  Here in the US most of us eat peanuts roasted as a snack or as peanut butter, or eat things fried in peanut oil, but you can find other snacks, soups, sauces and sweets in many cuisines.  In the South they are popular boiled green in the shell with various spices, which is probably yet another culinary brainchild of African slaves.  You’ll see roadside BOILED P’NUT vendors from midsummer to fall.  If you haven’t tried them this way, next time you see one stop by and spend $1 for a cup.  You’ll be glad you did.  It’s messy, but delicious.

Quick note: “raw” peanuts are not “green” peanuts.  “Raw” peanuts are dried, but not roasted or cooked.  Green peanuts are freshly harvested and undried.  You can boil or cook with either raw or green peanuts, but the moisture content is very different, which can affect your recipe’s outcome.  And green peanuts do not keep long.  Green peanuts taste like beans (which they are), not like nuts (which is what most people think they are).

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Peanuts are an odd plant.  The seed (that’s the shell and all) goes in the ground, it spouts and then blooms with small yellow flowers.  When the blooms are fertilized, the plant sends down sprouts (or “pegs”) which drill into the soil and the plant fruits underground.  As a survival strategy, I suppose it helps protect the next generation from hungry critters, and the plant migrates it’s colony slowly outward that way.  However, as you can see in the photo above, the plant spreads itself out generously and using raised beds is not advised: those pegs never found dirt and so never turned into peanuts.

I gave the peanuts two 1′ x 8′ strips next to the corn.  They took over the rest of the two 4’x8′ beds and tried to spread into the aisles.  My dozen peanut shells turned into 4 1/2 pounds of peanuts in the shell.  While that is an excellent reproductive rate, it’s not very many peanuts when all is said and done.  I can buy roasted, salted peanuts in the shell for about $1 a pound here.  While the peanuts didn’t cost me anything to grow, they also didn’t pay back financial dividends and took up space that could be used more productively.

  • Cost of seed, labor, fertilizer, etc: none
  • Labor: none, other than harvesting
  • Space: 16 sq ft to 48 sq ft
  • Yield: 4.5 lbs
  • Cost at retail: $4.50
  • Value per square foot: $0.09-0.28

However, there are reasons you might want to grow peanuts anyway.  Peanuts are legumes, so they are nitrogen fixers and don’t deplete the soil, and can make an excellent cover crop if you have enough growing space to let beds rest.  If you have a lot of space, they pack a nutritional wallop for almost no effort until it’s time to dig them up.  (Loose soil is advised.  For you, not the peanuts.)  And if you want green peanuts for traditional dishes, green peanuts can be very difficult to find outside of farm market stands in the South for a limited time in the late summer and fall.

Should you grow peanuts?  Probably not.  Modern agriculture brings us this tasty and nutritious vegetable for far cheaper than you can grow it yourself.  But in terms of fascination with the plant itself, I can understand why George Washington Carver devoted so much time and brilliance to the humble and unassuming Arachis hypogaea.

(By Nicole Castle)

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