The Back Yard
Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Gardening: Going bananas

By Justin Newcombe

Supermarket varieties don't have a patch on home-grown yellow beauties, writes Justin Newcombe.

Banana plants enjoy warm, moist conditions. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Banana plants enjoy warm, moist conditions. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

Over the years I've had several attempts at establishing a banana plantation. For one reason or another all of these attempts have resulted in somewhat limited success. I admit it has usually been because I've had to move house or because I hadn't been thoughtful enough in positioning my banana palm, gardening, as I often do, on a whim. All of which has been to my misfortune because bananas are in fact rather easy to grow especially if you live in one of our more subtropical zones. They are so easy in fact that here in our cosy Auckland suburb, people abandon unwanted "hands" of bananas on the side of the road (in much the same way that people discard the poor underrated grapefruit in plastic shopping bags).

It was after scavenging one of these unwanted treasures that I realised what I'd been missing. Although the bananas were green when I found them, after hanging them in the back porch they soon began to ripen. The fruit, once ready to eat was so superior to anything bought from a shop that I am now determined to give bananas another go.

Culinary reasons aside there are a raft of other worthy reasons to invest in banana cultivation.

Bananas as we know them today are thought to have originated from seed-bearing relatives from the Pacific and Southeast Asia in about 2000 BC. These wild bananas were not edible, but, by crossing two inedible wild species, one could grow a sterile plant that produced edible fruit. The trade-off was that banana cultivation became dependent on one set of genetic material that was transferred by offshoots from the base of the plant; edible bananas do not produce viable seeds, they are (wait for it, another one of those words you can throw into casual conversation) parthenocarpic. In times past (i.e. before mass commercialisation) this little anomaly could be accommodated, but in today's greedy world such a lack of genetic diversity makes global banana stocks susceptible to diseases that periodically decimate cultivars, until they are no longer commercially viable. This happened back in the 1950s when Panama Disease wiped out virtually all of the commercial cultivar, "Gros Michel" which was part of the Cavendish banana cultivar group.

Since Gros Michel was rendered a write-off, the cultivars "Dwarf Cavendish" and "Grand Nain" (also part of the Cavendish group) have become popular , but these cultivars are also susceptible to Panama disease. It is unclear if any existing cultivar can replace Cavendish bananas, so various hybridisation and genetic engineering programmes are attempting to create a disease-resistant mass market banana. All of this (and much more! the banana makes very interesting reading indeed) points to a convincing case for the backyard banana grove.

Bananas do best in a tropical or subtropical environment, so moisture and warmth are helpful, however there are several cool tolerant varieties such as "Goldfinger" and "Tongan Ladyfinger"; "Misi Luki" is another variety recommended for Auckland conditions.

Variety selection is vital so do a bit of research prior to purchasing. Bananas are gross feeders and benefit from animal manure and an application of wood ash in spring.

They take on average 18 to 22 months to start cropping but they are definitely worth the wait.

- NZ Herald

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