Garden Guide: How to grow bananas
Bananas are consumed more than any other fruit in the United States, and now banana plants are gaining popularity in summer gardens up north too. Although bananas are a popular treat, these tropical plants are still a novelty for northern gardeners and will turn some heads. Their huge leaves bring a pop of drama in our temperate climate.
There is so much that isn’t common knowledge about these special plants. Here are a few of my favorite facts:
- Banana fruits don’t grow on trees; they are technically growing on the "largest herb" in the world. Banana plants have stems that reach 50 feet tall, and yet they don't contain any wood.
- There are hundreds of banana plant varieties that come in different shapes, sizes, and flavors, but only Cavendish bananas are the standard in our grocery stores.
- Prior to the 1960s, the bananas available at the store looked and tasted different. These were not the Cavendish bananas we eat today. A thicker banana fruit called "Gros Michel" was the standard in the United States until a disease wiped out the industry in the 1950s.
Types of Banana Plants
The colorful choice
Red Abyssinian bananas (Ensete maurelli) don’t produce edible fruit, but it’ll win any gardener over with their gigantic colorful leaves. Most banana plants require afternoon temperatures in the 80s to grow their best. The Red Abyssinian banana actively grows even in cooler conditions. It will develop a full crown of leaves much earlier in the spring than other banana plants. My Red Abyssinian Banana spends the winter in my cool garage and often starts producing its first leaves in March or April (around the same time that daffodils bloom).
The most cold-tolerant banana
Musa Basjoo, also known as a Japanese Fiber Banana, is an incredible banana species that can miraculously survive our winters. Like all other tropical plants, Musa Basjoo will burn and collapse when temperatures drop below freezing. However, these plants have a network of cold tolerant roots that allow them to return each spring. Also known as rhizomes, these roots are capable of surviving cold ground temperatures for months at a time.
Musa Basjoo bananas will perform as a dieback perennial in our climate if it’s planted in a warm part of the garden, ideally close to a home or sunny fence. Young Musa Basjoo plants may not return after the winter. This species needs to develop a clump of multiple plants to be mature enough to reliably survive the winter.
The best banana to get fruit
The Dwarf Cavendish banana is the most popular banana to eat, and it is usually the most available banana plant to grow from local nurseries. It matures at 5 to 10 feet tall which makes it technically possible to grow these to maturity in a container. Although a 10-foot-tall container plant may sound huge, it’s relatively small in the world of banana plants, where many reach 20-30 feet tall before fruiting. Cavendish banana plants, like most banana varieties, require 6 to 9 months to go from flower to fruit. Our growing season isn’t long enough for these plants to make high-quality fruit, but it is quite the conversation piece regardless!
Gardeners searching for a short growing banana will have luck trying varieties like Musa "Truly Tiny" and Super Dwarf Cavendish, which can fruit at just 3 to 5 feet tall.
I am trying a variety called Veinte Cohol in my garden, which is advertised as the fastest-ripening banana available. Once the flowers develop, Veinte Cohol fruit should be ripe in just 3 months. If the timing is right, it should be capable of producing ripe fruit during our short, northern growing season.
How to overwinter a banana plant
Banana plants love hot weather and sunny days, so when gardeners bring their beloved patio plant into the house during the wintertime, they often wither away.
Although these plants are tropical, cooler frost-free autumn days can help these plants enter dormancy, which makes them easier to overwinter indoors. I also find fewer bugs hitch a ride inside the house when the weather is cooler. Ideally, banana plants should grow very slowly inside the house during the winter. Plants that actively grow inside the house will produce weak leaves that become susceptible to pests. A cool, sunny window is the best place for banana plants.
Some of my banana plants are in the ground during the summertime. They respond very well to being dug up for a winter inside. I cut the leaves off in the autumn right before our frost and dig them out with as much as the root ball intact as possible. Most of the plant’s energy is stored above ground in their stem so they can sit against a wall in the house and patiently wait for spring with this method.
More cold-tolerant varieties like the Red Abyssinian Banana grow so enthusiastically over the winter that I have to store them in my cool and dark garage to keep them dormant. As soon as these plants come out in the spring, they’re ready for another season of growth where they will get bigger and bigger.