Going Bananas


Alice Ramirez

Published in the Dec. 1995 Fruit Gardener Magazine

Yes, bananas can be grown outdoors in Southern California, but too many people still believe otherwise because of commonly-held beliefs that persist even though they are wrong. A discussion involving three gardeners who have successfully brought banana plants to fruit trashed some of the myths while offering sound advice to other, wannabe, banana gardeners.


Often, through ignorance, we fail to meet the needs of our plants, and when they fail to thrive, we blame it on climate. Sometimes people, because they don't know any better, plant an ornamental variety of banana that would never produce edible fruit anyway, then come away convinced that our winters are too cold and our summers too dry to harvest bananas.


Eph Konigsberg, who harvests bananas out of his yard in the San Gabriel Valley described a typical mistake he made with his first few banana "pups," as the sprouting root chunks are called. He had put them into the ground in a narrow stretch between two fences. He even nicknamed this patch "banana alley." He had believed the location was perfect because it had plenty of sun and shelter from winds that might otherwise tear the large, fragile leaves. To his surprise, those banana plants completely failed to thrive. Others that he had planted later, into other areas, grew and produced fruit, but these first ones never did.


He finally learned that bananas stop growing if the soil temperature drops below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant wants sun on its leaves, of course, but to produce fruit, the roots need to be warm. His arrangement had shaded the soil, which in turn had kept its temperature too low. The easiest way to maintain warm soil is to situate any banana plantings in an open, sunny location. Another banana grower at the meeting volunteered the information that his best results came with those he had located against a south-facing wall at the top of a gentle slope.


To plant, simply stick the pup into a hole you've dug in the ground then fill it back up. Sandy loamy soil works best, but Eph has harvested bananas from plants growing in all sorts of soils--as long as they could be kept adequately warm.


If planting more than one variety, leave at least 6-8 feet between them. First of all, they will spread. Secondly, putting them too close guarantees that they will be competing with one another for nutrients. The plants can survive this, because they are tropical weeds, but they will produce none of that delicious fruit.


If you discover too late that you have located your banana plants too close together so that one of them (typically in the middle) is failing to thrive or is sickly, dig a trench between the more aggressive plant(s) and the one needing help. This will cut the roots of the more aggressive plant, thereby creating a barrier between it and the weaker one. Once the trench is dug and the roots cut, back-fill it with the soil previously removed. Eph finds that if he does this, uses his trench method, he can plant his banana plants 5-6 feet apart. (He also mentioned that this method will work for any overcrowded grouping of trees except for jujube, which tends to send up new plants from the cut roots.)


Eph cautions potential banana gardeners to be careful about planting banana pups harvested out of someone else's soil. Oak root fungus is pretty much omnipresent, but if you know your own land is fungus-free, abstain from taking someone else's banana plants in order to avoid infecting your own soil. Buy sterilized roots from a commercial nursery instead. Although the fungus will not harm your bananas, it could obviously cause problems for any oaks or other susceptible plantings you might have. Someone at the meeting suggested that most fungus can be gotten rid of by using a weak Clorox-water solution, the idea being to dip the roots in the chlorine-water solution before planting. This method might very well work, but it hasn't really been tested on bananas or proven.


Inadequate fertilization, whether from overcrowding, neglect or ignorance is another important reason why bananas often fail to produce fruit in our climate. Potassium is a key nutrient to the success of any banana plant. Banana gardeners must make sure that theirs are getting enough of it. Commercial growers will chop up spent banana plants and use them as mulch, thereby returning potassium to the soil. This may be too unsightly for residential use. Eph himself uses strandard citrus fertilizer, such as the Bandini product, with a side dressing of some high-potassium product. Any reasonably good garden center will offer choices.


Another successful banana enthusiast, Eunice Messner, embraces the organic alternative. In her experience, bananas respond especially well to generous applications of compost and other strictly organic sources of nutrients. Whatever method the banana gardener chooses, the keyword should be generosity. Bananas are heavy feeders. They also respond well to mulching.


Once the banana plant has produced enough leaves for its particular variety, it will develop a flower stalk. In the tropics, the whole process from beginning to end takes approximately nine months. We here in California do not have soil that is 68 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for nine months out of the year. The timing of leaf output and stalk production depends upon the soil temperature. A banana plant in soil less than 68F will not die. It does grow, but more slowly. Bananas fruit once they have developed a certain number of leaves, depending on variety (12-20). To trigger bananas into fruiting more quickly, feed generously during the warm months when the temperature is greater than 58F. Toss fertilizer down and hose it into the soil.


When the plant has shown all its little fingerling green bananas, cut off the large, mahogany-colored flower hanging from the stalk's bottom so that the strength of the plant otherwise used to sustain the blossom will go into the fruit instead.


In some parts of the world, banana flowers are considered, if not a delicacy, at least edible. Eph learned the hard way that it depends on variety. Some produce the edible flowers found in tropical cuisine; others do not and will never. The problem is oxalic acid. Because he was curious, Eph had tried all the usual methods with those cut off of his own plants, including boiling the flower in three or four different changes of water. Nothing helped. Although tasting such a flower will not harm you, it can be unpleasant.


As the bunches develop, brace the plant. This can be done in a variety of ways. Some gardeners slip electrical conduit through a length of old hose. This is looped around the fruiting stalk so that the plant's weight is cushioned against the comparatively soft surface of the hose. The wire is then tied to a chain link fence, or to a pipe or 2 x 4 board anchored securely into the ground. Others create more elaborate and aesthetically pleasing constructions. Any method that keeps the stalk from bending down under the weight of a six to nine-hand bunch of fruit, while allowing juices to flow within the stalk, is the goal. (Bananas grow in layers around the stalk. Each layer is called a "hand." A bunch with six layers would be called a six-hand bunch. One with nine-layers would be called a "nine-hand bunch," and so on. A nine-hand bunch can way 50+ pounds.) The garden hose method will leave a dent in the stalk, but the damage is more aesthetic than functional. You are still able to harvest good bananas.


If you find that cool weather is approaching and your bananas are far from ripe, a popular method of protecting them is to cover the developing fruit with a blue plastic bag. Just pull it up around the bunch and tie it in place. This method is used by Richardson's Banana Garden in Ventura county, California's only commercial banana grower. It has also been adopted by many other banana gardeners, although others consider it unnecessary.


Bagging your bunches serves a number of purposes. It holds in the available heat which is important during cold or cool weather. Bananas also give off ethylene oxide as they ripen. Bagging keeps that gas close to the fruit, which in turn accelerates ripening. It prevents fruits from developing blemishes. The plastic also serves as a barrier to keep out tree rats and other pest species that like to feed on bananas.


A bunch ready to be harvested will have reached its full size, will have achieved its full yellow (or red or blue) coloration and will have rounded out. (Immature bananas have an angular quality that softens as the fruit ripens).


Many people also do not realize that after each stalk gives forth its fruit, its banana producing days are over. If you go driving in Southern California neighborhoods, you often see banana plants in huge groupings. They are not being fertilized adequately, they are overcrowded and they do not produce fruit.


Eph points out that bananas are essentially weeds. Each planted root section will sprout its own pups. While the original plant sends up a stalk, it is also sprouting those outgrowths from the base, called pups. These, in turn, sprout stalks of their own as well as new pups, which in turn... If you fail to control this process, you will end up with a small, crowded forest of non-producing banana plants that compete with each other for a diminishing supply of nutrients.


The commercial practice is to cut off a recently-harvested stalk about four feet above ground. This removes a no-longer useful part, while enabling its juices to go down and sustain the main plant. A few days later, dig out some of the root clump, leaving no more than two to three pups at the most around the banana plant. If you intend to replant any of these culled pups, the digging-up and replanting should occur fairly soon after you cut down the parent stalk.


(Glen Young, Chairman of the Foothill Chapter, by using his own wonderfully direct method of harvesting the fruit saves an entire step in this process. Since he does not want to climb ladders to cut down heavy bunches of ripe bananas, and since he knows that the stalk will have to come down anyway, he simply cuts off the stalk while the fruit is still attached, and lets the bananas come to him.)


Everyone who grows bananas stresses the importance of wearing old clothes, or else dark brown ones, when cutting down, digging up, or harvesting from banana plants. The juice, when it comes out, appears clear, but it dyes clothes on contact with a dark brown stain that never goes away.


Eph sees no reason why bananas cannot be grown or fruited indoors as long as the requirements for heat and light are met, but outdoors, at least in many parts of California, frost is not an insurmountable problem. If a cold frost occurs, the leaves will all blacken but often the stalk remains green. Eph remembers a time when freezing weather hit a plant that had some good-sized but unripe bananas left hanging on a completely denuded but still-green stalk. He left them there. He had reasoned that since the stalk was still green, it must still be getting energy and nutrients from the root system and from the stalks of other attached plants. He was right and eventually harvested that fruit. Don't worry about cold spells killing stalks. Bananas are a weed that will return in non-alpine parts of Southern California. Once you plant a good variety of bananas, you'll have bananas for life.


copyright Alice Ramirez, 1995

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