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Bananas in Sunnyvale? And in other Bay Area "banana belts".

Bananas in Sunnyvale? And in other Bay Area "banana belts'

Fruiting banana plants in northern California? Yes, you can grow them if you live in the mildest areas. In July 1984, we asked Sunset readers in northern California to let us know if they were growing bananas successfully. Soon we heard of bananas in Santa Rosa, Davis, Oakland, Burlingame, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, San Jose, Los Gatos, and other cities in and near the Bay Area.

True jungle plants, bananas (Musa) are actually large herbs that produce fleshy stalks from underground corms (enlarged underground stems). Each stalk grows vigorously for at least eight months, bears fruit, and then dies. New stalks, often referred to as pups or suckers, grow from the corm to replace stalks that have already fruited.

Which varieties to grow

Some varieties grow well over 25 feet high, others remain under 10. Size of fruit bunches and individual bananas also varies. Some large varieties produce bunches that can weigh over 100 pounds, but most home-garden varieties bear bunches that weigh less than 50 pounds, with individual fruit from 4 to 8 inches long.

Because lower-growing varieties usually bear more quickly than tall ones, they are generally best for northern California. The fruit is also easier to harvest.

Choices include "Dwarf Cavendish' (7 to 10 feet high with 6- to 8-inch creamy yellow fruit); "Ice Cream' (10 to 15 feet high with 5- to 6-inch pale yellow fruit); and "Valery' (10 to 15 feet high with 7- to 10-inch fruit). "Grand Nain' and "Enano Gigante' remain near 10 feet but produce very large fruit clusters, upwards of 100 pounds. "Dwarf Jamaican Red' bears redskinned fruit with pink flesh on 6- to 8-foot plants.

Where to find plants

Some northern California nurseries and garden centers sell bananas in 1- and 5-gallon containers, but the choice of varieties is usually limited.

If you want a specific variety (there are over 300), you may have to mail-order.

Pacific Tree Farms, 4301 Lynnwood Dr., Chula Vista, Calif. 92010, (619) 422-2400, ships bare-root, 5-gallon-size plants by first-class mail; $26.85 each. Catalog $1.50.

Garden World, 2503 Garfield St., Laredo, Texas 78043, (512) 724-3951, ships corms with a short section of stem attached or potted pups ($12.50). Catalog $1.

A new supplier, Richardson's Seaside Banana Garden, 6823 Santa Barbara Ave., Ventura, Calif. 93001, promises a catalog ($1) will be ready in May. Richardson's will ship corms for $15 to $25 each.

If you buy corms, pot them right away in 1-gallon or larger containers. Plant in sterile potting soil, with the corms half-way above soil level. Water once after planting and not again until soil is almost completely dry. Until then, store the pots in a warm, dry area with plenty of light.

Corms should sprout within three to four weeks; any kept cold and moist are likely to rot. Once corms begin growing, transplant to the garden or a larger container.

If you buy bare-root plants, set them out in the garden right away.

Plant in a warm, sunny location

Bananas need lots of heat and full sun. If possible, place them up against a south-facing wall with good reflected heat. Some protection from wind will keep plants looking their best, since the large leaves tear and become tattered-looking in windy spots.

Plant in well-drained soil. Add lots of organic matter, such as compost or rotted manure, to the planting hole.

Watering, feeding, care

Banana plants grow fast. In warm weather, a healthy plant can put out a new leaf every five to seven days. To support this growth, the plant needs consistent moisture and frequent applications of fertilizer. Start by feeding about every 10 days with a liquid food high in nitrogen and potassium. If the plant is not growing vigorously, feed more frequently. Keep soil moist but not soggy.

Allow each corm to develop just one fruiting stalk. As pups appear, remove all but one or two, using a sharp spade or trowel; you'll want one to replace the main stalk once it has fruited. If you want to transplant a pup, leave as many of its roots intact as possible.

Leaves of most bananas will suffer damage below 28|. However, the stalks will withstand colder weather and, if the growing tip is not damaged, continue to grow even if all the foliage is dead.

After last winter, which saw prolonged temperatures in the mid-20s in northern California, many banana plants we visited were putting out new leaves within a few weeks of having their old leaves killed. Even if the stalk is killed by cold temperatures, the corm may survive and produce new stalks the following spring.

Mobility for winter warmth

Shorter-growing varieties of bananas do very well in large containers (15-gallon and up). A container adds valuable mobility, especially if it's on wheels: plants can bask in the warmest area of the garden during the day, then be moved to a sheltered location on cold nights.

Several gardeners we interviewed move plants into a greenhouse in winter.

Harvesting the fruit

Under ideal conditions, a banana stalk can produce a bunch of bananas within 8 to 18 months after planting, depending on variety. In northern California, some tall varieties may need as long as three years. The flower stalk usually emerges from the top of the stalk in summer, arches towards the ground, and produces rows of female flowers that set fruit from top to bottom. The female flowers don't need pollination to produce bananas, but, before the flower stalk stops growing, it produces a colorful male flower at its tip. Many gardeners prefer to cut off the male flower to channel energy into the ripening fruit.

Bananas ripen one hand (cluster) at a time, from the top of the bunch to the bottom. Once formed, a cluster needs at least three to four months of warm weather to ripen fully. Unfortunately, in many parts of northern California cool fall days often arrive before the fruit can reach full maturity. Immature fruit held on the plant through the winter months may ripen when warm weather returns, but it will be easily damaged by frost.

If the fruit is close to mature size (ridges have filled out and are rounded, not angular), cut off the entire stalk and hang it in a warm, dry, mostly shady spot to ripen. Many people prefer bananas that are picked green and ripened this way.

You can also hasten ripening on the plant by wrapping a bunch in a dark-colored plastic or paper. Leave the sleeve partially open at the bottom to provide some air circulation. Otherwise, fruit may spoil.

Fruits are ready to eat when they have turned yellow and started to soften.

After harvest

Use a pruning saw to cut down the main stalk--but don't damage the replacement sucker at its base. Avoid contact with plant sap; it permanently stains clothes.

Photo: Brushing the eaves of this two-story house, miniature plantation yields fruit every year. Pavement reflects valuable heat

Photo: Tall variety calls for a ladder at harvest time. Fruit is mature when angular ridges have filled out and become rounded

Photo: Home-grown banana is tasty reward for Herbert Marshall of Sunnyvale

Photo: Plastic sleeve placed over cut stalk hung under eaves traps natural ethylene gas and hastens ripening

Photo: Bare-root bananas (left) and dried banana corms (in box at right) are available from mail-order firms
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1986
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