Here’s what we learned from our first semi-successful attempt at growing organic bananas in Greenville, SC (Ag Zone 7b).
First off, the question you might be asking is “why bother growing bananas when I can get them from the store?” Well, have you ever had a homegrown heirloom tomato grown in healthy, living soil versus a generic store bought tomato? The same principle applies.
The standard Cavendish banana variety is what we’re all accustomed to here in the US. It’s rather uninteresting and bland. The reality is that there are hundreds or possibly thousands of edible bananas out there, offering a wide range of colors, sizes, and tastes. Despite this diversity, nearly all commercial production is done using monocultures of cloned Cavendishes, which may be wiped out by disease within a decade if current trends continue. Short of traveling throughout southeast Asia to try some of these other banana varieties, a relatively easy way to engage in a culinary banana exploration is by growing some at home.
At least that’s why we decided we were going to grow organic bananas. That initiative wouldn’t be a cause for concern if we lived in south Florida or southern California. However, we live in Greenville, SC at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, e.g. definitely not the tropics.
We successfully grow other oddities that don’t typically perform well here, such as a dozen varieties of organic citrus, so we figured why not bananas, too?
Thus, in April of 2016, The Tyrant’s order of “dwarf” bananas from Baker Creek arrived. Unfortunately, the tiny suckers/pups came unlabeled so we had no idea which variety was which. Regardless, we put organic potting mix and compost in pots, stuck the pups in, and put our new banana plants outside.
Bananas are technically an herb, not a tree, and the “trees” (which are basically leaves wrapped inside other leaves) grow from large underground rhizomes/corms which produce new suckers every year after the fruiting part of the plant dies. If that has you confused, you’ll also enjoy knowing that bananas (the part you eat) aren’t truly a fruit, they’re actually berries. If you want to really geek out on banana morphology, here’s a good source of information.
Conditions Bananas Need to Produce Fruit
After doing some reading, we learned that to get fruit from our banana plants, we’d need to provide them with nine months of optimal temperatures of about 70°F or higher. Also, being in sustained temps over 90°F in full sunlight would stress them. Likewise, if temps stay below 60°F for a sustained period of time, banana plants basically stop growing. Hmm.
Outdoor conditions in our area would, at best, only provide about 6 months of temperatures consistently over 70°F, and our hottest months regularly feature temps over 90°F. That meant we’d need to have our potted banana trees indoors in a sunny location for at least three months, outdoors in full sun for the mild-warm months, then move them into a spot that would get afternoon shade for the hottest summer months.
Given the weight of our potted banana plants, I was a little nervous about having to move the plants throughout the year, but The Tyrant expressed confidence that I’d figure out how to get the job done.
How to Fertilize Organic Bananas
Bananas are heavy feeders that like well-draining, moist (but not wet) soil. Given that we grow all of our produce organically, that means no synthetic fertilizers and only OMRI listed pesticides are used IF all other pest management practices have failed (which means virtually never).
Since we grew our bananas in pots (rather than in the ground), their roots were only be able to source nutrition from a confined area, which meant we had to give them more frequent feedings. At least once per week during the warm months, we fed them liquid organic fertilizer, liquid gold, or homemade compost tea. We also gave the plants a light watering daily from our duck pond and kept a 2″ layer of mulch on the soil surface of the pots to help moderate evaporation and soil temperature fluctuations, while keeping the earthworms in the pots a bit happier as well (the worms came aboard with the compost and help aerate the soil around the roots).
We were amazed at how quickly the plants grew despite the fact that they were confined to large 20″x20″ pots. It soon became apparent that two of our “dwarf” bananas were not actually dwarf varieties. As each new “cigar leaf” unfurls, the plants grew taller, eventually topping the second story railing on our back porch even though the pots were situated 15′ below on the ground.
Since we got our plants started later in the year of 2016, they didn’t produce fruit before cool temps hit in the late summer/fall. The plants were so big, that I initially left them outside through a couple of light frosts, rather than bringing them indoors. The plants were not happy: the leaves died and the outer layers of the stalks turned to mush. Feeling pity, I then lugged them indoors and placed them in front of a sunny, south-facing window where they very slowly recovered.
Growing Organic Bananas: From Inflorescence to Ripe Fruit
By spring of 2017, the plants had largely recovered from frost damage and we were as eager to have them outside as they likely were to be in unfiltered sunlight.
Once summer arrived, we formed a new ritual. Each day, we’d inspect the top of our banana plants from our second story back porch looking for any sign of an emerging “inflorescence,” the structure that houses the banana fruit/berry. Despite the frost damage, we hoped that they were approaching the critical 9 month timespan of ideal conditions required for fruit production by the time September arrived.
One morning in late August, The Tyrant excitedly called me to the back porch. Below us, an inflorescence was starting to emerge from the center of one of our large plants. Bananas were on their way! Woohoo!
How long does it take from inflorescence emergence to fully developed fruit? Anywhere from 60-80 days depending on the banana variety and the growing conditions (temps, water, food, soil conditions). This was going to be tricky since cold temps under 50°F start hitting here in early October and that could easily kill, damage, or stunt the fruit.
Banana flowers are some of the most beautiful flowers we’ve ever seen. Our native pollinators swarmed on the nectar-covered flowers as a new cluster of flowers and fruit emerged. Each day, the older rows of fruit developed a little more as the next row of flowers opened below, and a large protective petal broke off from the inflorescence.
Hurricane Irma Versus Banana Plants
One day in late September our family in Charleston, SC phoned us. Hurricane Irma was barreling towards land and they wanted to come stay with us in the relative safety of the mountains, three hours inland. Shortly after they arrived the trajectory of the storm changed, and the projected path showed it tracking right over us with near-hurricane force winds. Gulp.
Now, imagine 15′ tall trees with leaves like large sails in above ground pots. What do you think would happen to said trees during strong winds? Yep. As the storm bore down on us, we did our best to tie each banana plant to support pillars on our back porch.
The storm started tracking to the west of us, but as the first bands hit with 50+mph winds and torrential rain, we knew it was going to be bad. Sure enough, within an hour we heard a loud crash and crunching sounds. Our largest banana tree (the one with the fruit) had toppled over on the other large one, causing a domino effect all the way down the line to the small tree. All three banana trees were on the ground with a potted tangerine tree crushed underneath them. Ugh!
We left the trees down for the duration of the storm, knowing they’d just blow right back over if we uprighted them. After the storm passed, we went outside for an inspection. The bottom of the banana inflorescence had broken off, meaning only a few rows of fruit remained on the stalk. Heartbreak.
The good news? You can eat banana flowers (see how here). Plus, we still had some fruit on the tree, not to mention a lot of knowledge about growing organic bananas to carry forward to future years.
How and when do you harvest bananas?
As mentioned earlier, it takes about 2-3 months for the fruit to reach maturity once it starts to flower. As cold weather grew closer, another big storm hit, knocking our banana plant over again. Frustrated, I decided to go ahead and cut the entire plant back to the base of the pot and remove the banana stalk as well, allowing the fruit to continue ripening indoors. Since temperatures below 53°F can degrade the quality of bananas, they wouldn’t have had much more time outdoors anyway.
Ideally, you end up with a better situation than us, wherein you don’t have to be rushed to harvest your bananas either due to temperatures or storms. If so, you still don’t want to let your fruit fully ripen on the plant as this can make them more starchy and less sweet than you might like. Instead, cut the stalk off of the plant once the fruit is fully filled out/plump and just starting to turn light green-yellow in color.
We stuck our relatively immature banana stalk in a bucket of water indoors out of sunlight and waited. Within a couple of weeks, the larger fruits began to ripen (the really small ones turned black and didn’t make it), starting on the base of the stalk and moving up. Don’t put your bananas in a bag unless you want them to ripen all at once, a process that is triggered by the ethylene gas they produce.
The small orange finger bananas that ripened on our stalk were the most flavorful bananas we’ve ever eaten: creamy and rich; sweet with subtle notes of tang on the finish. In total, we ended up with about 20 ripe bananas, not a great showing compared to what one would expect under ideal conditions, but we’ll take it!
Yes, this was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a calorie of food, but we’ve learned a ton about growing bananas, and will do things a bit differently next year. Two final tips (that we’re also taking to heart):
- When you’re getting started, make CERTAIN that you are getting true dwarf banana varieties if you’re growing them in pots. Otherwise, you’ll have huge plants that are almost impossible to move and will easily be blown over in high winds/storms. This Dwarf Musa banana from Hirt’s Gardens is a good one.
- When it’s time to put the banana plants outdoors, consider putting them in the ground for the warm months and digging the corm(s) back up after fruiting to be re-potted and placed indoors for the cold months.
Growing organic bananas was a completely new experience for us, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves to be banana growing experts at this point. If you have tips and insights to add that will be helpful for us and other readers, please leave a comment to let us know!