Beat the high cost of goobers by growing 'em yourself

Within a few months of emigrating to the United States from South Africa, I discovered that there is, indeed, something far more American than apple pie. It's the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

Peanut butter, in fact, outsells every other spread. It's included in numerous recipes and is the top ingredient in at least one popular candy. All of which compounds the severity of the recent skyrocketing price of the little nut.

Apparently, the hot, dry weather of last season bit deeply into the peanut harvest. As a result, the free-market economy, being what it is, responded with price increases that made conventional inflation seem benign by comparison. The 40-ounce jar of crunchy spread which we bought in Boston this very morning cost only one cent less than $5. A colleague tells me that the $1.60-a-pound price that he paid last year for roasted jumbo peanuts has jumped in recent weeks to $ 3.75.

So what can we do about this? We can grow our own, that's what. Peanuts do well in home gardens, even here in the North.

Apparently, a good many gardeners have decided that the gourmet prices of the otherwise humble little nut have made them a worthwhile crop for the home, and this is reflected in a hefty increase in the sales of peanut seeds around the country, says Jim Waltrip, product manager of Gurney Seed & Nursery Company of Yankton, S.D.

"I think that they plan on making a year's supply of peanut butter come the fall," he says with a smile.

Peanuts, particularly the red-skinned Spanish type, take 100 or so days from germination to harvest. That means a crop of them will mature in all but the most short-seasoned areas. The plants will also withstand very light frosts, unlike their subtropical relative, the snap bean.

In genuine peanut country -- that is, the South -- the seeds are sown up to 4 inches deep. In the North, however, it is considered advisable to plant the seeds around 1 1/2 inches deep because of higher soil temperatures nearer the surface. Sow the seeds about 4 inches apart in rows 2 feet apart. If you go in for wide-row planting, sow the seeds 6 to 8 inches apart in every direction.

Plant the peanuts a week or two sooner than you would snap beans in your area.

Dig the soil deeply, working in compost, leaf mold, or aged manure.

Given warmth and moisture, the little nuts will germinate in about a week. But it could take twice as long if you experience cool weather after sowing. About 8 weeks after germination the peanut plants will lose some of their lower leaves, leaving stems on which little pegs form at the end. These stems turn downward and the pegs go into the ground, where, over the next few weeks, they develop into mature peanuts.

Some people recommend hilling up the soil around the plants to make it easier for the pegs to "go underground." Mulching with shredded materials will do equally well.

Under the right conditions and with adequate space, each peanut plant will produce about 40 or more mature pods. As the plants mature they lose a little of their attractive green color, a sign that the plant's energy is being diverted into the kernels.

Test for maturity by carefully feeling under the soil and removing a pod. Shell it and check that the nuts are plump and that they taste nutty. Harvest by digging up the plant with a garden fork, gently shaking off the soil to expose the nuts.

After all the plants have been dug up, search through the soil again for those pods that may have broken off a lifting time.

In an area such as Massachusetts, peanuts can be sown toward the end of April , but a little later farther north. Nuts should have matured sufficiently for harvesting sometime in September.

Dry the nuts either on the plants or in a warm dry area (shed roofs are considered ideal, as is the interior of a warm garage). Avoid cool, damp cellars, since the peanuts could readily mold. Drying should take from 4 days to a week.

Unshelled peanuts will keep about 4 months in a dark, dry container, but will keep almost indefinitely if packaged in moistureproof material and placed in the freezer.

Another option is to roast the peanuts. Place the podded nuts no more than 2 layers deep in a shallow baking pan and roast for 45 minutes to an hour at 300 degrees F.

You can roast shelled nuts, as well. Place them in a single layer in the pan and roast at 300 degrees F. for about 45 minutes. For added flavor, add a tablespoon of margarine for every cupful of nuts. Drain the peanuts on absorbent paper toweling when done.

By the way, turning your nuts into butter is simply a matter of pouring them into the blender and throwing the switch. You can also pass them through a meat grinder for the same result. If you prefer your peanut butter crunchy-sty le, then don't blend or grind them as long as you do for cream style.

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