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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Themed gardens are a fun way to get the entire family involved in planting garden foods and eating them as well.
One such themed garden that has been prompted by Tammy Roberts, a University of Missouri Extension health and nutrition education specialist, is a “Cracker Jack” garden.
“It is possible to grow peanuts and popcorn which are the main ingredients in cracker jacks,” said Roberts. “Getting children to actually eat more vegetables is just the tip of the iceberg when you look at the benefits of children and gardening.”
Peanuts and popcorn, however, have some unique needs that require planning and patience if done in southwest Missouri.
Although usually considered a crop of the “Deep South,” peanuts can be grown successfully in most of the country. With special care, peanuts can even be grown in most of the northern states.
Peanuts require a minimum of about 120 frost-free days to reach maturity. For that reason, it is best to plant them when soils are thoroughly warm.
Loose sandy soils are considered the best for peanuts and that type of soil may be limited in some areas of Missouri.
Composted raised beds or berms that improve soil drainage and aeration would be ideal for peanuts in most home gardens.
“I would not consider peanuts as a commercial crop in the Ozarks. But, for the home vegetable garden, peanuts do offer a crop change of pace from the regular produce,” said Patrick Byers, a horticulture specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
Varieties of peanuts suitable for growing in shorter-season areas are Early Northern, Early Spanish, Jumbo Virginia, Red Tennessee and Valencia.
For the best growth, plant two or three individual seeds about one or one and one-half inches deep in hills 10 to 12 inches apart with 36 inches between rows.
Keep the soil loose and hilled toward the row of plants. After the bright yellow flowers are pollinated, the flowering shoots elongate and sends a “peg” into the soil. Do not disturb the soil after the flower pegs have buried themselves.
Usually 50 to 75 peanuts can be found under each hill.
“Dig the plants after they have matured in the fall and be sure that you harvest them in early to mid-October before a hard freeze,” said Byers.
Popcorn is one of America's favorite snack foods and it has been cultivated for several thousand years. It comes in two types (rice and pearl) different shapes and several different colors (white, red, pink, blue, yellow, and multi-colored ears).
“Popcorn is grown for its tasty, exploding seed. Heating the kernel converts the moisture inside the kernel to steam and turns the seed inside out. The quality of the end product depends on the conditions during growing, harvest, and storage,” said Roberts.
Several different varieties are available to home gardeners and most take 100 or more days to mature. Horticulture specialists recommend sowing seed directly into the garden -- during the spring -- in several short rows. This ensures good pollination.
“Do not plant sweet corn in the same garden with popcorn. The quality of the sweet corn will be reduced if it is cross-pollinated by popcorn,” said Byers.
The key to preparing popcorn for drying is making certain to harvest only after the kernels are hard and the husks are completely dry. This means leaving the ears of popcorn on the stalks until the kernels are well-dried.
After harvest, remove the husks and place the ears in mesh bags and hang in a warm, dry, well-ventilated location. Once or twice a week, shell a few kernels and try popping them. When the test kernels are popping well and tasting good, shell and store the rest of the kernels.
Store the kernels in sealed, airtight containers. If stored properly, popcorn should retain its popping quality for several years.
University of Missouri Extension programs focus on the high-priority needs of Missourians. Each county extension center, with oversight by locally elected and appointed citizens, is your local link to practical education on almost anything. More information on this topic is available online at http://extension.missouri.edu.