What Are Bananas?
Bananas are one of the most productive and easy to grow crops around. They are the world’s favourite tropical fruit. The fruit taste great either ripe or when cooked and are rich in fibre, potassium, vitamins A, B6 and C. When plants are fed well they are incredibly productive and grow very quickly into an attractive screen or windbreak. Bananas are also the perfect plant for building biomass and providing quick shade in the food forest. Why wouldn’t you grow bananas? Despite being very easy to grow there are still a number of questions and problems new growers often have when first starting out with bananas. This article will provide the information you need to start successfully growing bananas at home.
Bananas (Musa sp.) are perennial herbs and not actually trees as is often thought. The banana trunk consists of the many leaf stalks tightly wrapped around each other. Each new leaf starts life inside the trunk below the ground before pushing up through the middle of the trunk and emerging from the centre of the crown. The flower and resulting bunch of bananas also grow in this way and one of the first signs of fruiting is the trunk thickening near the crown as the flower bell pushes its way up the trunk centre. Once a trunk has flowered and fruited it will die. Thankfully though bananas constantly send up suckers to replace old fruiting trunks and a well managed banana clump will never be far from fruiting.
Where Can I Get Banana Plants?
Banana growing has been very heavily restricted in Australia in the past and still is to a degree despite recent changes for the better. I could give you my deeper thoughts on past and present regulations but that wouldn’t change anything and so I will just give you the rules as they stand today. There are no longer any restrictions on the varieties permitted or number of plants allowed for home cultivation. You do not need a permit to grow bananas at home but you are required to start with tissue cultured plants from a QBAN accredited commercial nursery. You are not allowed to move plants between properties without a permit. In short if you are in Australia you have to buy your plants from Blue Sky Bananas as they are the only accredited nursery. You are not allowed to plant a sucker you got from a friends house.
If you are reading from outside Australia then I am sorry but I do not have specific information for you. In most countries it is unregulated but I do not want to say that about yours and later be wrong. Like Australia, if you country does regulate banana growing it is likely to be on a state by state or area by area basis.
There are two aspects to successfully growing bananas. First you must provide the right growing position and resources for good growth. Second the clump and its suckers must be managed to achieve the result we all want, lots of delicious bananas!
Climate and Soil
Bananas are very hungry and thirsty plants. They like rich fertile soils with a large amount of nitrogen and potassium rich organic matter. It is hard to overfeed bananas and this organic matter can be piled on as a thick layer of mulch that feeds the plant. When fed in this way bananas grow rapidly and reward the grower with large bunches of fruit. The organic matter also helps to keep the soil moist which is necessary with the plants characteristic big fleshy leaves and corresponding transpiration rate. The pH should be around 6.5 but if well composted pH should be fine. Drainage is also important and must be balanced with the moisture required as bananas do not like wet feet. I have found that the best place for bananas on my property is in the wettest part of the yard on a mound of native soil and organic matter.
Bananas like a warm and frost free climate. In Australia they grow best in the country’s north and along the coasts down to Sydney in the east and Perth in the west. At subtropical Boobook Farm bananas grow well year round, though do slow down in winter. Surprisingly they can also suffer in the extreme dry summer heat. Bananas are of course at home in the tropics with its stable temperature and abundant water but they can also be grown in a temperate climate with the right micro-climate. My best friend grows bananas at temperate Warwick in Queensland. His bananas rarely fruit as the plants are knocked back by frost every winter but they do survive. With the tree canopy and micro-climate he is growing there his success will greatly increase over time.
I have saved the most important aspect of banana placement until last. Bananas grow best in the company of other bananas. Grown in this way neighboring plants buffer wind and shade each others trunks and the soil beneath them. This conserves moisture and helps alleviate temperature extremes. Spent leaves and trunks can also be mulched under and between plants creating the environment that they thrive in.
Size and Spacing
Most varieties grow to be within two and four meters in height. This is the height of the stalk and so the plant with leaves will be one to two meters taller than this. Commonly texts recommend a spacing of five meters between clumps. This is because most sources are talking about farming bananas and they need to consider space for machinery. I have found that in the home landscape two meters apart is plenty of space if the clumps are well managed.
ManagementThe commonly grown banana varieties have been cultivated for such a long time that they have lost the ability to produce viable seed. They are suckering plants and it is this that allows growers to keep clumps producing long term and to clone new plants. Each banana clump will produce more suckers than it needs and this can reduce yields so growers must manage their banana clumps. For best results growers should aim to keep one fruiting trunk (the mother) and at most two strong suckers (called followers or daughters). Unwanted suckers can be removed by driving a sharp narrow shovel between the mother and daughter before removing the daughter sucker.
For best results keep suckers with small spear shaped leaves and not those with the normal looking round leaves. These spear leaved suckers are the ones that are still attached to the mother plant. These grow more quickly and give more reliable fruiting. The round leaved suckers are called water suckers and should be removed. Once removed the water suckers can be composted or ideally planted in a new position to start a new clump. When planting suckers (or tissue cultured plants) plant deeply, roughly halfway up the trunk. This discourages the young plants for sending suckers up to quickly.
FruitingDepending on your climate, bananas will usually fruit within the first year to 18 months. Other than providing the plant with the right climate, feeding it well and managing suckers there is not anything special needed to get them to fruit reliably. Assuming the plant is well fed, the flower bell will emerge vertically from the center of the banana crown before growing over the side and down. As it grows towards the ground it unveils the female flowers, the future bananas. Once the bell has produced as many female flowers as it is going to it starts to uncover the male flowers. These are smaller than the female flowers and lack the small banana shape.
Once the bell is producing the male flowers it can be removed if desired. This is often removed (along with the bottom hand of bananas) to ensure good fruit size. I often don’t remove them as the bees love the new flowers and fruit size is not a priority for us here. Many people also remove the flower bell for eating. I have zero experience with this but do hope to try it in the future and will edit this article when I do. Once the female flowers have been produced and you have removed (or not) the extending flower bell it is simply a waiting game. Within a couple of weeks your bananas will be ready for harvest. The sign I look for here is a rounding of the previously cornered fruit. If you leave them on the plant they will eventually ripen but will all do so at the same time, giving you a glut of bananas! Bananas ripen quickly once removed from the plant so to avoid gluts try cutting individual hands off early and then ripening as required. Be careful of the sap when cutting as it stains clothes and will stick to your skin.It is also worth mentioning that if you happen to get a particularly big bunch of bananas, or the mother trunk is damaged, you may need to use a prop or tie the trunk to a nearby structure to keep it upright. This is only a temporary measure while the fruit develops. Once the bananas have been harvested that trunk will die anyway and so at that point can be cut down and mulched.
The mere process of managing a clump of bananas gives the home grower more than enough propagation material. Simply plant removed suckers where you want a new clump. The suckers do not need to have roots and in fact if they do it is good practice to cut them short and let the plant decide where it wants its roots. It is a good idea to also remove any leaves at this time to avoid the plant drying out. It will quickly grow new leaves. Commercially plants are tissue cultured to prevent the spread of disease.
There are hundreds of banana varieties out there, I am not going to list them all. What I am going to do here is go through the most common varieties that people grow at home and only those that I actually have experience with. Please do not think that these are ‘starter’ bananas as in my experience all varieties have been equally as easy to grow. Find a variety that interests you (make sure you taste it too) and work with that variety.
These are the bananas sold at Woolies, Coles or whatever large supermarket chain has the monopoly in your area. I am not going to pretend they are not a great variety just because they are popular, there is a reason they are popular. Cavendish are an extremely productive cultivar that tastes at least ok and being a shorter variety (3-4m stalk) they have good resistance to winds. If you are going to the effort to grow bananas at home though I imagine you have had enough of the humble Cavendish. Why not grow one of the many more interesting varieties.
Plantains are cooking bananas. They are very starchy large fruit and are not good eaten fresh. The plants themselves are very hardy and look very tropical growing in the garden.
Ladyfinger bananas are small with a delicious sweet and creamy flavour. The plants themselves are quite large (up to 5.5m stalk) and are drought resistant. This is another variety that is grown on a commercial scale.
Ducasse are often confused with ladyfinger bananas. They even share the same nickname of sugar banana. Ducasse are a vigorous variety here in the subtropics and fruit well. The fruit also reminds me of that of ladyfinger bananas, delicious!
Do not let the name fool you, the Dwarf Ducasse is a completely different variety than normal Ducasse. This is the very best banana in my opinion for small backyards. The variety is very attractive and the fruit has a lovely creamy texture with a sweet, fragrant flavour. Dwarf Ducasse are very productive and the stalks only grow 2-3m high.
Blue Java (ice cream banana)
Blue Java bananas have a silvery blue look to them when green. They ripen to yellow when ripe and have a beautiful white creamy flesh that is reminiscent of ice cream. One of my favourite bananas and these grow very well at Boobook Farm.
Pests and Diseases
Bananas have a lot of diseases and there are some heavy regulations surrounding them. This topic would be an article by itself and if I ever write one I will link to it here but until that time the best resource I have found is the government hosted industry pests and diseases of banana crops page.