Make your banana plants smile!

My three banana plants are installed and thriving. At least the heat and I haven’t killed them after 10 days and they are growing fast.

Lay Fingers banana plant pup
New banana plants, called pups, grow out of the corm, which is the rhizome that acts as the mother plant’s root.

Tiny pups (new plants) have appeared at the base of the Lady Finger plants and they both have new leaves. These are great signs! My little Namwah in the pot has grown two inches. Banana plants grow quickly and the two Lady Fingers should be about 8 feet or taller by May. I will transplant the Namwah once it is about 18 inches tall and the temperatures are mild.

I am learning how to grow these bananas alongside you. However, I am researching as many experts I can find and talking to ones locally so you won’t have to. What follows is what I could get most to agree upon.

WATER
I water every two days right now because temperatures hover around 100 degrees. As the temperatures drop, the frequency will lessen. You will know when to water when the top inch of your soil is dry. Until you learn the best watering schedule for your plants, use your finger to monitor that top one inch of the soil.

Don’t let water pool, though. Remember: you want moist but not soggy soil. Banana plants can get root rot if their roots sit in soggy soil or the water won’t drain below the roots. In the summer, they are voracious drinkers but if the water is still pooling an hour after the water shuts off, you will need to slow down the watering speed to allow penetration and/or cut back on the amount of water, but not the frequency. It really depends upon your soil.

I built my soil to match the banana plant needs because I placed them in a large raised bed so I could be in total control, at least as much as Mother Nature would let me do so (see the last blog for the soil mix I used). The soil is porous enough that the water doesn’t pool for more than about 15 minutes as it soaks in. If you are using native soil with some amendments added, you will have to watch how the water pools more carefully at first to see how your soil reacts with the water. Use the 1-inch rule mentioned above.

When nighttime temperatures drop consistently below 50 degrees, the plants enter dormancy. They still need some water but change the frequency to about every two weeks if there is no rain. The plant won’t grow during this period, but just as with any plant or tree, they still need a small amount. Pay attention to the rain, however. If you get a good rain, don’t water.

FERTILIZE
As I mentioned in my previous post, bananas are heavy feeders. You won’t save money growing your bananas, but you will never go back to the store unless you have to once you have tasted a home-grown banana. It’s just like home-grown tomatoes versus store-bought. There’s no comparison.

Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium
A fertilizer bag will list the macro-nutrients in the same order each time. Nitrogen is for foliage growth. Phosphorous helps with flowering and fruiting and Potassium (known as Potash in organic circles) helps with food production. This fertilizer emphasizes fruit growth and food production, as designated with the higher numbers. It would be used when a plant sets flowers and begins to form fruit.

Before you water each time, apply a balanced fertilizer (it will also be called complete or perfect) if you are okay with synthetic fertilizer.  Water deeply immediately after application. Balanced means that the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (NPK) are present in equal amounts, for example, 10-10-10 or 5-5-5 or 2-2-2 (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium). You get the idea. It will be marked on the bag. Don’t place the fertilizer up against the plant. Instead, encircle the plant 18-24 inches from its base, depending upon the size of the plant. Follow directions on the bag. If it refers to monthly feeding and you fertilize every other week, divide the fertilizer suggested by two. Most growers switch to a fertilizer that emphasizes the Phosphorous and Potassium (second and third numbers) once the flower appears on the plant. The bag to the left is an example of that.

If you want organic fertilizer, kelp, seaweed, bat guano, fish emulsion, and plenty of compost work well. Choose what you want from the list and water deeply after application. The compost only needs to be added every few months but the others should be applied one or two times a month. I am going to try a technique I have used for my pineapple guava successfully. I alternate fish emulsion and kelp in the ground when I water then do a monthly foliar spray of seaweed (use a liquid sprayer at the end of your hose and follow the mixing directions on the bottle). Of course, I encircle it with a heavy dose of compost and mulch.

According to the expert growers, potash/potassium should be applied during the fruiting season of banana plants. They say that plants when potash is added, plants grow more and sweeter bananas than without. It’s worth a try and potash won’t hurt anything. Potash is the organic way of adding more potassium. Most organic fertilizers are reasonably harmless as long as you don’t pack them into the soil. Follow instructions that come with any fertilizer, synthetic or organic.

Frost protection
Tropical expert Shamus O’Leary and Jake Mace prepare a banana plant for frost.

PROTECT

It’s very hot outside right now so I have put a shade screen over the new plants to protect them from the west and south sun. It stopped the leaf burn that started at the nursery. It’s nothing fancy. I simply put fence stakes in the ground, laid the shade screen over the top and tied the corners down with bungee cords. I made sure that the screen is not resting on the plants. This is easy while they are short, but once they start to reach 4-5 feet, they will be strong enough to handle the summer sun and heat, so I won’t have to protect them. In fact, they thrive on the sun and controlled watering keeps the plant cool. A banana plant cools itself by sucking up large amounts of water inside its stalks.

If your plant fruits in the summer, cover the fruit with a sheet or heavy-duty shade cloth, especially if the fruit gets west or south sun. If you don’t do this, the fragile skin of the bananas will burn.

Frost is a different story. Banana leaves will burn with the frost but don’t fret over it. Leave them in place because they will help keep the plant warm. If your plant has fruited, cover the fruit and add a heat source. You can use the same techniques you might use for citrus with hard freezes. Shop lights or plant spotlights work well. Just make sure that you use outdoor electrical cords and keep them away from water. Shamus O’Leary, a local tropical plant expert, uses a technique I am going to try this winter. It is both effective and organic. He points out that the stalk and rhizome (root structure) are the most important to protect.

He places chicken wire or netting around three tree stakes (24-30 inches from the base – you don’t want the stakes to go through the root ball!) and fills the fencing circling the plant with leaves, grass clippings, pine needles or straw. What I love about this method is that once the temperatures warm up, I can remove the chicken wire and let the mulch drop around the plants. I will also clip off the dead banana leaves after temperatures warm again, chop them up a bit and throw them down around the plants as further mulch.

If you watch the video, you will hear O’Leary say not to water your plants but Alex, at TropicaMango says the plants need water about every two weeks. This could be through rain or supplemented through irrigation. O’Leary makes a great point about wet mulch, however. If you have to supplement water, do so at ground level. I agree with Alex that every plant or tree still needs a little water through the winter. If I get two weeks without rain, I will water my banana plants once. Both Alex and O’Leary are considered our local tropical experts. In the video, O’Leary does admit that if it doesn’t rain, the plants might need a little water.

A note about leaves: A reader asked where I get all of my leaves. I have deciduous fruit trees in the back and ornamentals in the front, so I stock up as they drop leaves. But I also have compost bins I want to fill with leaves and my yard leaves get used in them. So I become a very popular neighbor in the fall. I offer to rake leaves for some of my neighbors and bag them so I can use them. I know they think I am a “crazy” garden lady. Whatever it takes, right? Since I am an organic gardener, I am more careful about accepting grass clippings. I don’t want clippings where landscapers have used synthetic products. Follow your own philosophy, however.

O’Leary also creates plastic cages around some of his tropicals, but this doesn’t work well with banana plants because of their height and breadth. I also saw a video of a Florida grower as he wrapped the trunks in bubble wrap. I am not so sure of that one. I am concerned that moisture might get trapped in the bubble wrap and cause rot on the trunk.

PRUNE
During the growing season, cut off dead leaves and cut them into large pieces, then place them around the plant. It is the gardener’s “chop and drop” method of composting. If you end up with large brown tips on otherwise green leaves, cut just the brown edges off with a sharp knife and drop the pieces on the ground as compost. Let the tree feed itself. It helps to throw the banana peels on the ground as you eat them also. They put the nutrients back into the soil. Again, during the winter, leave the dead leaves on the plant to help it stay warm.

This blog is getting very long, so I am going to post another one this weekend on harvesting and preparing the plant for the next season. I’ll also provide a list of great tropical plants and trees to grow in the low desert.

Then next Thursday’s post will cover fall vegetable garden transplants because the plants should arrive in your nurseries over the next two weeks. You get two blogs next week!

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Jknapp

I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.