Balmy weather arrives soon, and winter will seem a world away. I plan to celebrate—big time. I’m going to have bananas. Maybe even the pink banana I saw in Buffalo last summer.
I may as well throw in a few gigantic but tender leafy things such as elephant ear (alocasia) and enjoy my big-leaved and hardy hostas. Plus, last year I got very excited about a citrus relative called Australian Finger Lime, or Caviar Lime. It bears a long fruit that can be cut open to reveal caviar-like fruit cells you can use as an exciting citrus garnish. Just squeeze them out. I wasn’t able to find any in stores, so I bought two small plants from Logee’s on the internet. Right now, they’re bright green, leafy and thorny bushes about two feet tall, growing indoors. Maybe in five years, I’ll have some fruit.
I’ll arrange my little half-acre with a more exciting, experimental feeling this year. There’s less shade on the south side, and that’s where my tropical treats will be placed. When winter returns, I suppose it must all be grown inside again.
First, the bananas. I have no experience directly, but I’ve seen them nearby at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa., where they’re grown outdoors by horticulturist Dan Benarcik. He’s the guru of Pennsylvania banana growing, and he even distributes them around in large window boxes. So I gave him a call.
First, he talked about the bananas in the window boxes. They’re called Dwarf Cavendish and grow 24 to 30 inches wide. Planted after summer weather begins, they
need plenty of watering during the hotter part of summer—as much as three times a day when it’s very hot and dry. If they were in the ground, they would have a larger root system and get along with less frequent irrigation. At Chanticleer, they’re planted in super-strong window boxes that can hold all that wet weight every day. At the end of summer, they need indoor protection until the next summer begins.
To mimic that wonderful effect, it would take quite a bit of doing on my part. Benarcik says that If I were going to try it, perhaps I might choose a banana cousin like Ensete ventricosum “Maurelii,” also known as the Abyssinian ornamental red banana. It grows in full sun or bright partial shade, making wonderful banana leaves up to ten feet tall and wide in this temperate climate. Each leaf is flushed with wine-red axils and undersides. The more sun it has, the more colorful it becomes. It grows rapidly, and each leaf is a beauty—like burgundy silk. A great centerpiece in a tropical display, it tends to grow as a single plant and doesn’t make suckers, and it’s wind resistant. If it were to bloom, that would be the end of its life. But it would go out in a blaze of glory.
When it comes to the beautiful pink banana known as Musa velutina “Pink Velvet,” Benarcik offers little encouragement. Seeds are available, but he doesn’t have the climate for it. It might take two to four months just to germinate the seeds. It seems to be a likely candidate for tropical growing, though.
If you’re interested in growing bananas for foliage, most types are similar in appearance. Benarcik says the differences are more in the fruit. He recommends Musa basjoo, the Japanese banana and the hardiest type. Benarcik planted his first at Chanticleer 22 years ago, and it’s still growing where he planted it, in a protected corner of the teacup garden. Back then, it was hard to acquire. Now, it can be bought at local dealers.
It strikes me that I may have the secret to banana growing. Musa basjoo can actually grow in Boston, with winter protection. It even grows in Canada. The fruits are inedible. But if you’re going to leave it outside in zone 6 or 7, you won’t be seeing the fruit anyway. The plants are herbaceous perennials with hardy rhizomes; they grow every summer and die back every winter. Or you can grow one indoors in a pot for the frosty part of the year. It would take 12-24 months of warmth to bloom.
The Musa basjoo is easy because it’s so very hardy. Forget about making it bloom and you can grow it like any other northern perennial. It’s as easy as hosta, disappearing through the cold months and reappearing for the warm ones with large, tropical foliage that reaches a stunning six to eight feet tall.
Buy the bulb or bulbs in very late spring or at the start of summer. Dig lots of compost and a little fertilizer into a generously sized planting hole several feet wide and deep. Water it well for the next few weeks while it gets firmly established, and do the same through dry periods. Then let it go.
In fall, cut it down and mulch it if it’s not well protected by a building. After it gets through the first year, just clean it up and water it. It will grow. This is not a finicky plant. For me, it will be a special note for my next garden. And I won’t have to bring it in for the winter, after all.