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Gardening: B for banana

March 16, 2014

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There is nothing quite like the delicious taste of organic home-grown bananas. Growing them in the plains and coastal areas of this huge and climatically diverse country is not at all a difficult prospect as long, that is, as you get the all important location, soil conditions and feeding regime right.

Bananas, botanically known as ‘Musa acuminata’ and members of the ‘Musa’ family of plants, are grown over huge areas, on commercial basis, in many parts of Sindh and Southern Punjab. Unfortunately, despite excellent climatic conditions, banana plantations have, in recent years, been plagued by ‘Bunchy top’ disease due, in my humble opinion, to bad maintenance — especially water and drainage related issues. Another reason is the now recognised adverse impact of mono-cropping and over-use of toxic chemicals. As a direct result of this, each year sees an increase in imported bananas as well as an increase in price. As inflation soars, many people no longer purchase what has, in reality, moved up from being everyone’s staple fruit to a luxury item. This, all things considered, makes it more viable than ever to grow them at home.

While young plants are often to be found in nurseries, if you already have one, you can easily increase it by suckers (the secondary shoot produced from the base or roots of a woody plant that gives rise to a new plant). Banana plants are sun loving and need protection from wind — especially from cold winds in regions where winter temperatures can drop below freezing. They need humus rich and fertile soil, good drainage, regular watering and feeding and, this is where many home growers fall down. They should be spaced at 2.5 to three metres apart if they are to produce to their full capacity which is, generally speaking, approximately 15-20kg of fruit per plant per year.

A banana plant comes into production when it is one to two years old and remains viable for three years. After this, production deteriorates and the potential for pest/disease attack increases. Ideally, one should always have new suckers, carefully separated from the main rhizomous ‘mat’, below ground level, from the parent plant and potted up in readiness to replace mature plants when they pass the ‘three-year’ stage.

Banana rhizomes need a planting hole of around three feet across and two feet deep. All soil should be excavated from this and mixed with lots of fully rotted down, organic compost which is rich in potash, before being replaced and heaped up above the level of the surrounding soil. Planting the rhizome in the top of this heap will help prevent it from suffering in excess water during the monsoons or as is so frequently applied by overzealous malis for whom wasting someone else’s water appears to be a pleasurable chore!

This heaped up mix of soil and compost will, naturally, settle down and eventually become level with the surrounding soil but, by then, the plant will be nearing the end of its productive lifespan so can be removed and the process started all over again.After planting, the young banana will need watering — not flooding — every three to four days for the first two weeks to help it settle in after which watering just once a week during dry weather is quite enough. Established plants need water twice a week when flowering, setting and then ripening fruit. The addition of liquid organic fertiliser, potash rich, once a week is recommended for all banana plants if they are to flourish.

The best organic fertiliser for bananas is found in banana plants themselves. Dry banana leaves can be burnt to obtain pure potash; banana skins can be used as wonderful mulch. In fact, all parts of the plants, above and under the ground, are incredibly high in all of the minerals and nutrients the growing banana plant needs; therefore, making compost and then liquid manure from all banana waste — including mature trees that have passed their ‘expiry date’ — is the best and most sensible thing to do.

An important point to remember: Suckers left attached to the parent plant only bear fruit once and should then be cut back, below ground level with the organic material being used as mentioned above. Leaving suckers attached to the main plant also reduces that plant’s cropping capability as they drain it of strength. Mature plants can send up six to 10 suckers per season and, in ideal circumstances, all should be removed and either potted up or composted.

Banana plants are best put in the ground during late spring to early summer but, unless temperatures are very low — as they can be during the winter months — pot grown plants can actually be planted at any time of the year.

Aside from regular watering and feeding, plus, strict management of suckers, banana plants need little care and, when grown on a small scale, in amongst other plant species, tend to be relatively pest and problem free.

Please continue ending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer will not respond directly by e-mail. E-mails with attachments will not be opened.