Ever since I began to plant a backyard orchard, my grandkids have begged for a banana plant. I always heard that they wouldn’t fruit in the low desert so I told them they would have to be satisfied with the apple trees I had planted (their second choice).
Last year, I decided to plant a tropical pineapple guava. It is strong and has grown sufficiently, but once the gorgeous flowers appeared, I found out I had to hand-pollinate every flower to produce fruit. After doing so painstakingly, I discovered it takes two to four years before you really see fruit. I guess I won’t bother to pollinate next spring!
After seeing that a tropical plant can grow here if you baby it, I decided to attempt the banana plant for my grandkids. Now they each have one: two Lady Fingers and one Namwah. Both varieties are “dessert bananas.” The bananas are hard to find, even in organic stores, and they are sweeter and smaller than the traditional Cavendish that you purchase in stores. They fruit every 10-12 months instead of 18 months for the larger banana varieties. In addition, they only grow 12-18 feet, instead of the traditional 20-25 of larger banana varieties, so they are perfect for the backyard gardener. You can even grow them in pots, which forces them to stay small, but the fruit yield won’t be as much and will require more care.
After shopping around to find out who carries banana trees, I found several local nurseries that carry the little one-foot plants but I wanted a pup at least three feet tall since I am planting in the summer heat. My Namwah is a 10-inch tissue culture plant and in a pot until it grows and my Lady Fingers are three-foot tall traditional pups cut from the parent plants.
I researched planting and maintenance for weeks before selecting and planting them. I found that everyone has a different opinion of the right way to do both and much of the time, it is due to their location so pay attention as you research further.
I talked to a local authority, Alex, the owner of TropicaMango in Apache Junction, then combined his suggestions with a local botanist who grows bananas. Alex didn’t have pups so I bought from a recommended grower in Phoenix.
So, should you buy tissue culture plants or pups? Tissue culture plants can be grown indoors in a window for a time, are propagated to produce high yield and are inexpensive, but if the larger pup is taken from a plant that already produces high yield, you should get the same. Pups should be 3-5 feet tall at planting. Ask the nursery if the larger plant (pup) was cut from the father rhizome or if it is a tissue culture plant. There is more guarantee of high yield with a tissue plant, but they are also more fragile and take two years to fruit because of their size. Opinions differ widely on which to plant for the most success.
Bananas love full sun so choose a sunny location. They prefer to stay out of the wind, so a natural or man-made barrier is helpful. You will have to protect it somewhat from our summer heat and glaring sun and keep it warm during a freeze. However, we can always create shade and warmth but we can’t create sun. Next week, I’ll talk in more detail how to maintain your plant and protect it from both excessive heat and frost. If you want to plant more than one plant, 4-foot spacing is sufficient for these somewhat dwarf plants.
To plant your banana, remove weeds, dig a hole 2-3 times width of the pot or bare root and about 8-12 inches deeper than the soil surface level of a plant. This is to make room for composted steer manure and some Cactus/Palm soil to protect the plant from immediate release of the manure. Fresh steer manure can burn roots if it comes in direct contact with a newly planted plant, but if it is 4-6 inches below other soil, it will release slowly as the plant is watered. Purchase composted manure instead of getting fresh manure from a local farmer. Any nursery should carry composted steer manure and the Cactus/Palm soil.
If you are planting in surrounding clay soil, sprinkle a thin layer of gypsum into the hole before you drop in the manure. Put about four inches of the manure in the hole followed by 4-8 inches of the Cactus/Palm soil. Place the plant in the hole and fill around it with the Cactus/Palm soil. Tamp down the soil lightly around the plant to hold it into place. Mix some B-1 solution according to the label and pour about a gallon of the mix around the plant to ease the transplanting shock.
Bananas love an acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.2. They will tolerate up to 7 (neutral) but higher pH can kill the plant. Depending upon where you live in the low desert, your soil is probably 7.5 or higher, an alkaline soil. My soil tests at about 8, so I have to use a lot of compost to bring it down to a workable range. Our high pH is why we have to replace the soil for tropical and sub-tropical plants and trees. They will not flourish and may die in our native soil.
You can view a good video on pH and balanced fertilizers.
Use a balanced fertilizer in a ring around the plant and water it in immediately. Cover with about 4 inches of compost. If you want to grow organically, instead of applying a balanced synthetic fertilizer, mix up some Kelp solution (you can purchase it in nurseries) to pour around the base of the plant. Follow mixing instructions on the container. Compost, kelp and seaweed solutions are the best organic fertilizers for tropical and sub-tropical plants. Use some of the native soil you removed to create a berm about 3 feet around the base to create a water reservoir. Water the plant thoroughly. Top off the soil inside the berm with about 4 inches of mulch and pull back the mulch from the base of the plant. Mulch moisture can transmit bacteria and disease, so keep it from touching all plants.
Fertilize monthly and water immediately after applying the fertilizer. Continue to water and fertilize until temperatures fall below 50 degrees. At 50 degrees, the plant goes into dormancy and you should stop fertilizing and cut back on watering dramatically. You will just be wasting both at this stage and may hurt the plant. Banana plants love moisture but they don’t want to sit in water below the surface. The roots will rot. How much you water is dependent upon the porosity of your soil. Simply push your finger down into the soil. If it is moist, it isn’t time to water yet. Don’t let the soil dry out completely, however.
If you have planted in the heat of the summer, as I have, hang a shade cloth over the top without touching the plant, protecting it from overhead and western sun until temperatures drop below 100 degrees consistently.
Next week, I’ll tell you how to maintain the banana plants.
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