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Permaculture Plant: Peanut

peanut-plant
Photo by Wilaiwan Jantra
peanut-hand
Photo by SOMMAI

Clockwise from above: Freshly harvested peanut plants; Peanut illustration showing the roots and leaves; Harvested peanuts.

peanut-drawing
Photo by Nata Alhontess

The peanut (Arachis hypogaea) is a herbaceous annual that can grow 30–50 cm tall by approximately 1 metre wide. Being a member of the Fabaceae family links them to other legumes such as peas and beans. Peanuts are a fantastic plant in any garden, but particularly for an intensive permaculture system, as they provide both food for us and food for the soil.

Growing Conditions

Peanuts originate from the northern parts of South America so they prefer a warm climate. The more temperate and tropical northern regions of Australia are best suited for peanut growing, but don’t let that put you off, people of southern Australia. The key is to make sure they are always warm. Peanut seeds (nuts) are planted in a full sun aspect during spring and harvested when the plants begin to yellow in late summer. If unsure, start growing your peanuts in a hothouse during spring and plant out into the garden long after the risk of frost has passed.

Peanuts require a very well-drained soil, so if in doubt about your drainage, plant your peanuts into the top of a small mound. This assists drainage and minimises the chance of fungal infestation.

Something that needs to be considered when trying to grow any plant well is their pH range. Peanuts do well in a soil pH range of 5–8. This is a generous range, but best to test first to ensure a harvest rewards your efforts.

Peanuts are commonly called ground nuts because of the unusual way in which they produce their seed (nut). Once the plant has become mature it will begin to flower. Once self-pollination occurs, the flower stem elongates and burrows into the soil. The tip of this modified stem is called a peg.

Because the peg still contains the fertilised ovary from the flower, the ovary then produces the seed below ground level. As you can imagine, it takes a bit of time to develop a nut and shell, so peanuts require a fairly long growing season. You can expect it to take somewhere between 100 and 140 days, depending on variety and climate.

If you want to grow peanuts at home, you could try growing them from raw seed (not salted or roasted) from a grocery store, but for a better chance of success ask for the seed at your local nusery or seed company.

Sow the seeds approximately 5 cm deep and 20 cm apart in a hydrated but well-drained and friable soil. For those with minimal garden space, peanuts can be grown in pots. Ensure the pot is big enough so the pegs, when developing, can make their way into open soil. Whether growing in potting mix or in a garden bed, ensure your soil medium has not been enriched with too much nitrogen, otherwise you run the risk of producing lots of leaves and minimal nuts. As the plants begin to flower, make sure the surrounding soil is weed free and lightly cultivated so the pegs can easily penetrate the soil surface. If you’re wanting to grow in areas of heavy clay, consider using low nitrogen no-dig garden beds. These well-drained beds simply house the plant roots above the undesirable soil horizon.

Keep the plants hydrated but not wet. A little feed high in calcium (I use blood and bone) at flowering will help set the nuts in a strong pod.

To harvest, remove the entire plant (roots, pods and all) from the soil, dust them off and let them dry for a week or two on a hook in the shed. Then remove the pods and dry for an additional two weeks. Return all the matter back to your garden bed or to the compost to maximise all of the stored nitrogen that has accumulated on the roots.

Save some raw seeds in their pods for next year’s sowing. You can enjoy the rest of the harvest by salting and eating them or make them into delicious peanut butters.

Varieties

There are three main peanut types grown in Australia: Virginia, Runner and Spanish. All have their pros and cons, so be sure to ask your supplier as to which variety is best suited to your region.

In a nutshell (pun intended), here’s a brief rundown of varieties:

Virginia types produce a large pod and nut. They require a long season of approximately 140 days so are best grown in northern Australia.

Runner types have a smaller kernel compared to Virginia. They are also a long season grower.

Spanish types are quicker to mature and are therefore better suited if grown in southern Australia.

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