If you want to have almost instant success as a gardener, then the banana plant may be perfect for you. They are among the easiest and fastest growing of all garden plants. In fact, given steamy conditions and moderately high temperatures, some cultivars can reach heights of 17 feet or even more, in the space of only a few months. That’s not really surprising when you consider that at the height of the summer, banana plants have been known to grow a full foot in a single week.
Bananas are native to Southeast Asia, but over the years have spread throughout many tropic and sub-tropic areas of the world where they continue to thrive today. Despite the fact that banana plants are found primarily in tropical regions, it is possible to cultivate them in many parts of the United States, although there are some special requirements. Keep reading to find out how to grow banana plants in your area.
Banana plants are tropical herbaceous perennials which grow from underground rhizomes. They are highly prized for the tropical feel they give to their surroundings, although you may want to choose a dwarf variety that is limited in height for certain areas around your yard.
Although all banana plants produce fruit, most grown in the US are not like the bananas that you purchase at the grocery store. Some decorative varieties have fruit which is not edible. These are grown for their striking foliage and unique flowers. Banana plants that grow in Baton Rouge, for instance, are primarily ornamental although there are some varieties of edible bananas which can be grown.
An entire banana plant is referred to as a mat. It consists of the trunk part which is called a pseudostem, the rhizome which is located underground, and the fibrous root system. Although the pseudostem looks like a trunk, which is why banana plants are sometimes mistakenly thought to be trees, it is actually layer upon layer of tightly packed leaf sheaths. It supports the leaves, flowers and fruit.
Banana Plant Site Selection and Soil
When choosing a location for your banana plants, there are a few important factors to take into consideration.
For the best results, they need full or almost full sun. On excessively hot days where temperatures hover in the high 90s, your banana plants will appreciate some afternoon shade. But too much shade may delay or even stunt the growth of both the plants and the fruit.
And it’s important to plant bananas in a protected area of the garden to prevent wind damage from occurring, and to shield plants from cold weather. A southern or southeastern orientation is best.
Since banana plants need constant warmth, planting them beside a building or near a paved area can moderate temperatures during cooler evenings and provide your plants with some extra protection.
It’s important to get the soil right. Although banana plants will grow in a variety of soil conditions, they thrive in compost-rich, nutrition-filled soil. To keep weeds from competing with your plants for water and nutrients, and to better hold in moisture in the soil, mulch your plants thickly and continually. As the mulch breaks down it will continue to deliver nutrients to the root system.
Regardless of your soil type, banana plants absolutely need soil which drains well. If your soil tends to be heavy or drains poorly, it may be beneficial to plant them in raised beds. But be sure to build the beds deep enough so that the root system stays above the bottom layer of soil which may remain wet long after the rest of the soil has dried out. The main purpose of the raised bed system in this case, is to remove excess water to prevent root rot.
Climate and Temperature
Banana plants like heat and humidity, as those conditions mimic their natural environment. But you may be surprised to learn that bananas don’t need the extremely high temperatures found in tropical regions to flourish. In fact, they seem to grow best in temperatures which range from the low 80’s to the low 90’s with nighttime temperatures in the mid 70’s.
As bananas are tropical, they are quickly affected by temperatures which fall below their optimum level and will not survive freezing temperatures for more than a short time.
When temperatures dips below 60°F, plant growth begins to slow and below 50°F, growth pretty much stops. At or slightly below the freezing mark, freeze damage will certainly damage and may even kill plants right to ground level. It is possible to protect the underground rhizomes though, so new growth will sprout in the spring.
If you live in a colder region of the country, you may want to opt for a cold hardy variety, such as the Japanese Fiber or the Chinese Yellow. Both will produce fast growing tropical banana plants with beautiful foliage, striking flowers and ornamental fruit.
Watering Banana Plants
Banana plants require a lot of water to keep their large leaves in good condition and to produce fruit which is sweet. And it’s important they not be allowed to dry out, as this will reduce fruit size and yield, but can also affect the size and appearance of leaves.
But at the same time, you don’t want to over-water to the point where the soil is over saturated and not draining. When roots are continually sitting in wet soil, plant growth can be stunted, leaves can begin to yellow and fruit yields can be reduced. The worst case scenario is root rot which can destroy the plant.
If you’re growing banana plants in Baton Rouge for instance, you’ll want to thoroughly water at least every second or third day if it doesn’t rain. In other areas a good rule of thumb is to water deeply and slowly whenever the top half inch to inch of soil dries out.
Spacing Banana Plants
If you have a spectacular looking banana plant, you’ll probably want to show it off. But in general, it’s best to plant bananas in clumps or blocks, to replicate their natural environment, especially if you are growing them for the fruit.
Spacing varies depending on the variety. For dwarf varieties, it’s suggested that they be planted no closer than about 8 feet apart. Larger varieties need at least 12 feet left between plants.
Banana Plant Propagation
Bananas do not grow from seed. Instead, they are grown from suckers, tissue cultures, or rhizomes.
Although there are 3 different types of suckers (sword, water and peepers) the best type to use for propagation are the sword suckers. Generally, sword suckers can be anywhere between 1 foot and 5 feet in height.
If you are cutting these suckers yourself, use a sharp spade to separate the sucker from the main plant. It’s a good idea to trim off most or all of the leaves to reduce evaporation until you get it planted. This won’t delay or inhibit the growth of your banana plant as growth is at the bottom of a banana plant and the leaves will quickly grow back.
Banana plants which are propagated commercially from tissue cultures are a relatively new development. These are available through nurseries or online sources of plants. As with any new development these come with both advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that these plants tend to be uniform in size and free from nematodes and disease.
They are smaller than the usual suckers and availability may be limited, especially if you want to buy from a local nursery. The other disadvantage is that they tend to be smaller to start with so it will take longer to develop and bear fruit.
If you purchase from a nursery or order online, rhizomes are often what you will receive. Rhizomes, or corms, are the underground stems which have the meristems or growing points coming from them. At the base of each plant is a large corm. The main stem of a banana plant (pseudostem) grows from the corm and then suckers branch out from the main plant. If the rhizome or corm is very large, it can be cut into several pieces and each piece can then be planted separately.
Planting Banana Plants
Once you’ve selected your site and decided whether or not to use a raised bed, it’s time to plant. The size of the hole will depend upon whether you are starting with a sucker or with a rhizome.
Start by working the soil in an area that will be about 3 times deeper and wider than the sucker or rhizome. This loosens up the soil in all directions making it easier for the roots to expand and take hold both down and around.
If you’re planting a banana sucker, plant no deeper than it was in the ground or in the container it came in. Before planting, remove any broken or damaged leaves.
Before planting a rhizome, snip off any damaged roots and dark tissue. Rhizomes are planted upright and should be covered with at least ½ inch of soil. Tamp the soil down lightly around the root area. New leaves should start to appear within 10 days.
Be sure to water thoroughly and apply a thick layer of mulch around each sucker to maintain moisture and keep weeds at bay.
Fertilizing Banana Plants
Bananas are heavy feeders, so even organic gardeners may have to supplement organic materials with fertilizer, during the growing season, especially if you want to produce fruit. It’s best to fertilize lightly once a week or so using a balanced fertilizer and water right after fertilizing. Fortunately there are a number of good quality organic fertilizers available, if you’d rather not use a chemical fertilizer.
Pruning Banana Plants
Pruning is the best way to ensure that you will get high quality fruit. The best option is to allow only one pseudostem from each rhizome to flower and bear fruit, so remove all other shoots as soon as they appear. If other pseudostems are allowed to grow from a single mat, it takes longer for the plant to go from flowering to harvest, fruit tends to be smaller and of inferior quality, and the plant may be more susceptible to disease.
Banana Plant Flowers and Fruit
Note – The most common banana and the one we are most familiar with is the Cavendish banana. But there are other varieties which are referred to as plantains or cooking bananas. If you are able to successfully grow fruit on your banana plants, you would likely want to grow a variety like the Cavendish.
If you’ve done as suggested, you have only a single stalk growing from each mat. But when the main stalk of your banana plant is between 6 to 8 months old, allow one new sucker to develop. This will become the pseudostem the following year.
A banana stalk (pseudostem) only produces fruit once. Once the bananas are harvested, the pseudostem should be cut off at the base, then chopped up and left to be used as mulch.
It can take anywhere from six months to as much as fifteen months before flowers will appear, depending upon many different factors such as temperature, weather, and the type of cultivar planted. Once the flower petals drop off they are replaced by a hand or bunch of bananas. It can take an additional three to six months before the fruit is ready to pick.
If you do manage to get fruit from your banana plants, you’ll want to support the plant as the fruit develops. Banana plants have a shallow root base and can be easily uprooted and toppled over, especially as the bunches of bananas add extra weight.
The lengthy time period with specific temperature and weather conditions required is the reason why it’s difficult for most areas in the country to actually get fruit from their banana plants. But even so, it’s worth the effort required to grow banana plants for the beauty of the plant alone.
Winter Care for Banana Plants
In most regions of the United States where these tropical plants can even be grown, the leaves and pseudostems rarely survive the cold temperatures. But it is possible to leave the rhizomes in the ground by protecting them with a thick layer of mulch.
However, some gardeners choose to dig up the entire plant including the rhizomes, remove the leaves and store the plant in a warm area over the winter. But it may be more practical to dig and pot smaller suckers for overwintering indoors.
Pests and Diseases That May Affect Your Banana Plants
This varies widely depending upon the region you live in as well as the type of banana cultivar you are planting.
There are a couple of common fungal diseases which can affect the banana plant in many areas.
Panama disease attacks the root system and moves up into the pseudostem weakening the plant and causing it to collapse. Try planting a different variety to combat this disease.
Sigatoka disease attacks and kills the leaves of the banana plant, weakening the plant and reducing or even eliminating fruit production. This disease may be more prevalent during extremely rainy seasons.
Corm rot or soft rot is caused by damage to the corm or rhizome and will eventually destroy the entire plant. Avoid excessive moisture when storing rhizomes before planting and be sure that roots are not sitting in wet soil when planted.
Several common pests that can cause serious damage to banana plants include the banana weevil, melon aphids and nematodes.
Weevils tunnel and burrow into the root system and stems, causing the roots to rot and die and the plant to weaken. Mulch placed at the base of the plant can prevent weevils from finding a place for the female to lay her eggs.
Melon aphids damage the plants by sucking the liquid from leaves and buds which creates a perfect environment for the growth of sooty mold. Aphids can also transmit disease from one plant to another. You can try removing aphids by hand. Spray with a chemical only if the plants become heavily infested
Nematodes are minute worms which burrow into a banana plant’s root system, eating the roots and keeping nutrients and water from moving through to the rest of the plant. If your banana plant is infested with nematodes, the leaves turn brown and then wilt. You can cut down on the number of nematodes by turning the soil over several times thoroughly, before planting your rhizomes.
Some Final Words
Whether you’re growing banana plants for the fruit or simply to enjoy the beauty of the foliage and flowers, it’s like having a touch of the tropics in your yard. And with the availability of cold hardy banana plants, virtually anyone can grow a banana “tree”. Just add a cold beverage and a hammock and you’ll feel like you’re in your own tropical paradise.
If you’re looking for the best place to buy banana plants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, call Mike Stokes at Sowing Seeds Gardens. Phone (two-two-five) 366-073one.