Growing and Fruiting Bananas
By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin
Banana 'Dwarf Red'
Banana 'Double Mahoi'
Flowers beginning to emerge
Young bananas are forming
|Banana 'Dwarf Lady Finger'|
Whether the banana is a dwarf banana, a tall banana, a red banana or a variegated banana, in the genus Musa the basic cultural needs are the same and growing your own bananas is an exciting and rewarding process, especially when you harvest your first delicious homegrown fruit.
Bananas are really bulbs much like a daffodil. The vegetative part is made up of leaf petioles tightly stacked together to form a trunk or pseudostem. Like all flowering bulbs, the bud itself is under the soil and as the cycle of flowering approaches the bud emerges from the bulb or the base of the plant and rises up through the trunk or pseudostem to emerge at the top and create a flower or inflorescence and in time bananas.
The Secret to Flowering or Fruiting a Banana
When you grow bananas for fruit, the environment has to be ideal many months before the bud is visible, therefore, a young plant must have optimum conditions for successful flowering and fruiting. Also, pay attention to the variety of banana for some bananas are more tolerant of less than optimal conditions.
Optimal Conditions- Four Important Ingredients
- Full Sun
In the optimum environment, when all four of the above ingredients are given in abundance, the banana plant will thrive and reward the gardener with lush growth and fruit. However, if any of these ingredients are missing, the banana will still grow just at a slower rate. Most bananas can take lower light and cooler temperatures as well as reduced fertilizer without stopping the flowering process; it just slows it down and can reduce the amount of bananas produced.
Container Grown Bananas
Container grown bananas can be wintered over in a sunroom, an above freezing garage or cellar. Banana plants grown in a garden can be dug and lifted out of the ground before winter and stored in an above freezing area. The plant will have yellow leaves but the trunk and some of the roots will be alive waiting for the next growing season. This is one way to grow bananas in the north. This method also helps to contain their size so they are manageable.
Two Groups of Bananas
Bananas can be classified into two groups: the ornamental variety is grown for its foliage and flowers, and the fruiting variety is grown for its edible fruit as well as its tropical foliage.
Factors for Flowering and Fruiting
Getting bananas to flower and fruit does take time depending on location. In tropical areas, it often takes a year or more for the young shoot to develop into a tree and produce fruit. In the north that same plant could take 2-3 years due to the disruption of winter with shorter day length and cooler temperatures. Once the flower and fruiting stalk appears, allow the green bananas to fully develop and fill out. This usually takes 3-4 months. Then the entire fruiting stalk is cut off the plant and may be hung upside down in a cool, shady location to fully ripen and turn yellow. Bananas ripen quickly usually within a week or two at the most.
Variety Matters for Production
Varieties range from a few feet to up to 20' tall and the flowering cycle is also variety dependent. The variety 'Viente Cohol' is one of the fastest fruiting varieties or short cycle bananas that can fruit within a year, even in the north. In contrast, the 'Dwarf Red' can take three or more years to fruit under the same conditions in northern growing conditions.
Offshoots- Remove or Keep?
Another characteristic is the production of offshoots from the main bulb. This is one way that bananas reproduce and the gardener can take advantage of this for propagation. When a banana goes through the flowering and fruiting cycle, the main plant will die and it's the offshoots that take over, starting another new plant.
Generally, the old trunk is cut off and the plants can be divided if more are desired. As a rule of thumb for bananas grown in the ground, three offshoots are allowed to grow once the main trunk is removed. Remember it is important to give the young plants plenty of light, water and fertilizer so the flowering and fruiting potential will be maximized. Developing offshoots that are growing in low light and are given little fertilizer, generally won't reach their full yielding potential when in fruit or flower. For bananas grown in pots, this is often seen with fewer bananas on the flower stem.
Temperatures and Fertilizer
When temperatures are warm and bananas are in their active growth stages, they are heavy feeders requiring a nutrient rich soil. This can be accomplished in pots by adding small amounts of a soluble fertilizer to the water or topdressing with a slow release or granular fertilizer. Any balanced fertilizer, where the NPK numbers are close to even, will work, but banana plants can be supplemented with additional potassium and magnesium for best growth and fruiting. When grown in the garden, the same is true with a feeding routine using a granular organic fertilizer sprinkled around the base of the plant several times during the summer. As with all plants, feeding can be over done so it's better to apply smaller amounts more often.
Water is also necessary in copious amounts as long as the soil or potting mix is well drained. In the garden with heavy clay soil or in high rainfall areas, less is needed but it is much like the watering done in any food-producing garden. Drought slows down the growth. When grown in pots in the summer, attention needs to be given daily to the plant's water needs. Many varieties are large growers and once they have filled out the largest container that the gardener can handle, then the fertilizer and watering requirements must be done with greater accuracy.
Bananas come in many sizes from 3' to 20' tall and the size of the container needs to be proportioned to the final size of the banana. Depending on how big a pot you want to handle, bananas can be grown anywhere from a 5-gallon container to a 25-gallon container or even bigger. With regards to pot size, a smaller pot will restrict growth and this also means that the final fruit count will be smaller.
How to Measure Height
The height of a banana is measured from the soil up to where the leaves are emerging from the pseudostem. So for example a 5' banana would have a 5' trunk plus the height of the leaves which could be another 4' so for height purposes that 5' banana will grow to 9' tall at maturity.
How to Manage Height
When grown outside of their gardening zone, bananas can get very large during the summer and when brought inside there is often a problem of fitting them into their winter space. One option is to cut the pseudostem back to a manageable height. This removes the leaves as well as part of the trunk. As all the leaves are coming from the bulb in the soil, the plant will, in no time, replace the leaves and continue to grow, providing there is light and warmth. It also can shorten the height of the plant to some degree. The only down side to this procedure is that if the plant was in the midst of flowering and the flower stem was rising up through the center of the trunk, the fruit and flower would be lost. Generally, it best to do this on a plant that's a year old or less.