If your grocer says, “Yes, we have no bananas. We have no bananas today,” it
isn’t surprising since the banana is the world’s second favorite fruit,
surpassed in popularity only by the apple. Once only grown in tropical
climates, the good news is that several varieties can be grown in northern
areas as well as in the south.
Because it takes nine months or more to reach maturity, some northern gardeners grow the banana plant only for its spectacular ornamental foliage. However, in the hobby greenhouse, even northern growers can achieve a fruit harvest and reap the added benefit of seeing the amazing way in which fruit is produced.
Probably because of its height, the banana plant is often incorrectly called a banana tree. Actually, though, the banana is the largest herbaceous perennial and belongs to the monocotyledons of the Musaceae family, which also includes palms, grasses, and orchids.
Bananas grow from rhizomes, which are stems that take root and send shoots (suckers) up through the soil. Banana plants may also be propagated through suckers (also called pups or ratoons) that grow from the main stem of the banana plant. If you have difficulty in finding banana rhizomes at your local nursery, you can find them in most garden catalogs as well as Internet garden outlets.
Site and soil
The banana plant grows best in full sun in soil that provides excellent drainage. Good drainage is crucial since saturated roots may die in less than an hour. It is also important to shelter the banana plant from heavy winds that can tatter the banana plant foliage.
The banana plant is a very heavy feeder. Soil should be nutrient rich, slightly acidic, and loamy enough to retain moisture and keep nutrients from leaching below the shallow roots of the plant. Amendments of good organic compost and green sand or kelp meal will help maintain the banana plant’s high mineral requirements.
Dig a hole about a foot wide and ten to twelve inches deep. Set the rhizome in the hole so that the union between it and the sucker stem are about six inches deep. If your site isn’t level, the eye of your banana rhizome should be on the uphill side of your hole. Fill the hole with soil and tamp down firmly to remove any air pockets. If planting more than one rhizome, plants need to be spaced at least ten feet apart so that each gets the benefit of full sun. Water your planting sparingly to keep the rhizome healthy until the plant is established.
Because of its rapid growth, the banana plant is one that you almost can
sit back and watch grow.
When the banana plant is about three-quarters grown, it produces several suckers at its base. Remove all of these, save one, by trimming them at ground level with a sharp knife. The saved shoot is called a follower. It will become your banana plant’s main stem after the mother plant fruits.
The “trunk” of the banana plant is actually a densely packed group of concentric leaves, a pseudostem. After the banana plant has grown about thirty leaves, the fruit stem shoots through them from the rhizome and emerges as a terminal inflorescence (a group of flowers at the tip of the stem). The fruit stem matures three to four months after its emergence. Flower bracts soon cover the stem and then roll back almost daily, each exposing a “hand” of bananas. At the beginning of their development, the little hands grow downward, but as they grow, they turn their fingers towards the sun and appear to be growing upside down. This phenomenon is called “negative geotropism”.
A banana bunch is ready to cut when the fruit is round and plump with no
obvious ribs. At this point, the flower bracts will be very dry and easily
break off from the fruit tip. To harvest bananas, the stalk of the bunch
should be cut well above the top hand of bananas.
Bananas ripen by self-producing heat and ethylene gas. To maximize your banana harvest, pick individual green hands to ripen them for use. Seal the hand in a plastic bag with another ripening banana or a fruit like a red apple. The hand makes use of the gas produced by the ripening fruit and speeds up the process. Place the bag in a cool dark place, like a cupboard (a refrigerator is too cold!). After 24 to 48 hours, remove the ripening fruit. The hand of bananas should be able to finish the ripening process on its own.
After harvest, cut the mother plant down to ground level. The “follower” will take her place for next year's banana growing!