Growing Peanuts in the North
If I could wave my magic wand, tossing a handful of seeds into every open palm across the globe, I wouldn’t be sharing the still novel cucamelons nor glass gem corn though they are both incredibly magical crops. It would be the leguminous ground nuts, aka, peanuts. Peanuts are in a class all their own in my opinion, a beautiful crop that creates food in the most unique way, something children and adults alike will marvel at in your garden. In other words, a must-grow for your garden bucket list.
I was completely unsure of how peanuts would do in Minnesota, but was confident this legume deserved space in our rambling gardens simply for the adventure of it. Part of pushing the growing season is growing things that aren’t normally considered locally hardy, and peanuts are a great crop to prove that more is possible in the North than convention tells us. Thankfully, there are many other like-minded, adventurous souls out there doing the same thing all over, and until you plop those seeds down in your own little microclimate, the potential is unknown, awaiting your curiosity. And , as you’re going to learn, they are a beautiful addition to a vegetable garden and if you have children, they are a sure way to get them into the garden, too, if they aren’t already snacking on all the bite-sized fruits and veggies your garden produces.
Harvesting even a handful of peanuts was measure for success in my book, setting my expectations very low because so much was left to the weather. Knowing a hot summer was a necessary for success, I prepared the bed with PVC hoops in the event I needed to create a hotter microclimate if a cool Summer ensued, which is known to happen from time to time. Mother Nature had other plans, turning on the heat by Memorial Day and maintaining warm temperatures all summer long. Needless to say, they grew just fine without my intervention.
The peanut is an endlessly fascinating plant to grow from seed, from its airy, pinnately compound foliage to its understated flowers that will happily blossom underfoot going unnoticed. I speak from experience, having missed some of the first blossoms but wised up well before the show was over. Besides sharing the nitrogen-fixing benefits of its leguminous cousins like the pea and bean, the peanut develops its edible nut underground like potatoes and root vegetables. The way the ground nut is produced is all the reason you need to add these to your garden. No other food grows this way, and the experience is magnificent for gardeners of every age.
The flowers are a beautiful orange-yellow and delicate, resembling a pea flower which should come as no surprise given their place in the plant kingdom. Whereas when you see a flower on your vegetable plant it typically becomes the fruit as in a cucumber, tomato, pepper, and the like who are all encased in their seeds, peanuts throw their fruit down a little farther from where the flower is pollinated. From the self-fertile flower drops what’s called a peg. This peg drops down into the ground where the tip of the ovary will swell and grow those yummy edibles we know and love. This process takes quite a bit of time, and that’s why these are not typically grown in the North.
The two fastest maturing organic peanut seeds I have found are Tennessee Red Valencia and Schronce’s Deep Black, both 110-day varieties from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. That’s a long time for a hot crop, to be sure. While Brussels sprouts are the crop I would peg with a maturity time like that, they can more than handle a few early frosts while still maturing. Peanuts, on the other hand, just stop growing once the nights drop down into the 40s, which happens here in September for sure.
Lets compare the peanut’s time frame to our usual garden suspects, just to drive home this point. Most tomatoes mature within 80 days, and many are closer to 70 - or cherries can be closer to 60 days to maturity. Cucumbers and summer squash race to maturity in about 60 days too, or roughly 1/2 the time it takes peanuts to mature. Many beans mature in the 50-70 day time frame, its entire life cycle completed before peanuts are sending those pegs into the earth, which makes growing them here truly remarkable.
To heed this potential issue, sowing them indoors a good 4-5 weeks before transplant is necessary. I sow my peanuts in late April and will plant them out, weather permitting, right after Memorial Day or in early June. I don’t advise just direct sowing this in cold northern soils in Spring. Personally, I really enjoyed the sprouting of the peanut, watching the large nut split open and the cotyledon spring forth. Like with other seeds, the larger the seed the more dramatic and instant the plant is at birth. Peanuts wake up and grow, their foliage as enjoyable as the nut itself. It’s such a fabulous thing to grow, especially with children — or if you’re anything like me, an adult whose curiosity thankfully never dimmed with age.
Like potatoes, peanuts benefit from hilling to promote the development of more nuts, and I wasn’t fully thinking about this when I transplanted the starts in short rows across my bed instead of long rows parallel to my bed lengthwise last year. This year, I will transplant them in long rows and hill them like I would a potato patch; I think it’s both easier to hill and more beautiful to plant them in long rows rather than short rows.
I’ve spoken of the very long and hot summer, so we can all just cross our fingers for one of those and charge forward. Additionally and in line with that requirement, warm soil, as noted above is a must-have before setting any plants out — and that soil should be well-amended as it would be for any other darling food or flower you plan to grow. We use a complete slow-release organic fertilizer at transplant time, and do one more light top dressing once we see flowers.
In addition to being warm and well-fertilized, the soil should be well-draining. I’d say your soil should be in as good of shape as possible before planting anything you’ll eat, so go with what you have. Water is needed especially once they start to flower to ensure healthy formation of the pods, those underground jewels of the garden. Set plants out 6-9” apart in rows 30” apart.
While we weren’t overwhelmed with pounds and pounds of fresh peanuts, the peanuts we did yield were the most flavorful we’ve ever tasted. And if my teenager could plan the garden, it would be nothing more than tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and peanuts. The large bowl of peanuts and their extraordinary flavor was more than enough for us to allot them space again this year, and probably every year to come for the foreseeable.