Spring Coming? Might As Well Go For Something(s) Tropical

   Do I smell spring in the air? Must be. And the calendar confirms that it’s just around the corner. These hints finally stir longings for that season — even for a skiier. And what better way to welcome spring in than with attention to some tropical plants.
    My banana plants have weathered winter very well this year, indoors, of course. Last year I was proud that my one plant survived. After all, banana is a truly tropical plant. It shivers at temperatures below 50° F. and enjoys 80° days and nights as its broad, satiny leaves drink in year ‘round bright sunlight, occasional rains, and humid air. Even if my house was warm, which it is not, only a relative paltry amount of sunlight streams through even a south-facing window, and the air is bone-dry. Hence my pride.Indoor banana, this winter
    My philosophy last year was to send my banana tree into a state of suspended animation by withholding water and keeping the plant on the cool side. It did survive winter, barely. Once the weather warmed outdoors, it took a few weeks before the plant fully awakened. Actually the mother plant never did awaken, but two of its pups did. Pups are small plants that arise at the base of the mother plant, and are one of the ways in which new banana plants are propagated. (You no doubt noticed that cultivated bananas do not have seeds).
    Once the pups were growing strongly, I tipped the plant out of the pot and cut off each pup to pot up separately.
    This fall my approach was to keep the banana plants happy. Even if they couldn’t have steamy conditions of the tropics, I would at least provide their roots with plenty of water. And happy they are: New leaves have unfurled all winter, with few of the older ones drying out. By the end of May, the weather outdoors will be ready to receive the plants, which should grow exuberantly, as bananas are wont to do with good conditions.
    Bananas bear quickly so at this rate I may sometime be harvesting fresh fruit. If not, I can always use the leaves to make Indonesian pepes.

Banana (Not) Trees

    Notice, above, that I never referred to a banana “tree.” Banana plants might look tree-like and grow to the proportions of trees, but they are not actually trees. They are giant, perennial herbs. The “trunk” is composed of a sheath of tightly-wrapped leaf stalks. Each vertical stalk successively unfurls into a broad leaf which then splays its blade out horizontally.
 Banana outdoors in summer   All new growth is pushed up from the corm at the base of the leaf stalks.
    Musa basjoo is a banana that’s cold-hardy to about zero degrees F. The top will die to the ground in winter but the corm, if mulched for further protection in the ground, survives winter. Nothing worth eating from this banana plant, although it makes a bold, tropical statement in summer.

Immature Ginger, Mmmmm

    I could never understand the current commercial interest in growing ginger, a tropical plant, in cold winter regions, such as here. Until last year, that is, when I tasted freshly harvested, immature ginger I got from a gardening friend. The roots had a smooth flavor and fiber-free flesh as compared with the mature roots usually sold.
    So this year, of course, I’ll be growing ginger, and the time to begin is now. To that end, I “harvested” some mature rhizomes from the grocer’s shelves, broke them into pieces each with 3 to 4 eyes, and planted them. Not outdoors, but indoors. And not just any place indoors, but somewhere especially warm. Planting ginger rhizome
    The goal is to get just the beginnings of shoots and roots growing. Each rhizome piece went into a bed of potting soil in a 4 inch pot, covered with another half to 3/4 inch of soil, and watered. Best growth is at about 80°F., no problem when the sun beams down on the greenhouse. On cloudy days and at night, though, temperatures can drop into the 30s. So I placed the pots on a large heating mat in the greenhouse that I use to warms seedling flats to get seeds started. (Seeds need warmer temperatures to germinate than seedlings need to grow.)
    Ideally, roots and shoots will have filled those pots by the time the greenhouse has been cleared of lettuce, arugula, and other cool weather greens and the soil temperature is above 55°F. That’s when the ginger can be planted in the ground; I figure on the end of May. Ginger is a heavy feeder, so each plant will go into a mound of pure compost that I’ll add to as the plants grow.
    Come September, I’ll pull the roots. They won’t yet be mature. That’s a good thing.

Corms, Cormels, Rhizomes, and More

    Banana and ginger both grow from underground structures, a corm and a rhizome, respectively, each providing energy storage and buds for new plants. Corms and rhizomes are modified, underground stems.
 Ginger on a windowsill   A corm is an upright, fleshy, thickened stem having a protective tunic of modified leaves. Baby cormels arise near the base of the corm. The cormels sprout leaves and become pups like the two that grew at the base of my mother plant.
    A rhizome is a horizontal-growing, underground stem. New plants can be made by breaking off pieces of rhizome and planting them, as I did with the ginger and as is done with potatoes.
    Sometimes banana corms, like ginger rhizomes, are eaten. I won’t be eating my corms.

And The Winner Is . . .

Wendy, who commented on March 19 about her travails in fruit growing, is the winner, by random drawing, of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Congratulations Wendy.

New Video, Seed Starting . . .

Check out my video page for my timely, new video about seed starting.


Bananas, No, Yes.

Yes, we have no bananas. We do have a banana tree.
Decades ago I was in a similar situation. How could I resist a catalog ad for a dwarf banana tree, one that wouldn’t grow more than 6 to 8 feet high, so could be accommodated within the confines of a standard room? I bought the small pup, which is what small, plantable offshoots from the mother tree are called, and planted it in a large pot. The pup grew. And grew. And grew. The plant topped out at 6 to 8 feet but the developing leaves, rolled up and pointing skyward before unrolling and flopping down, reached a lot higher. Banana isn’t really a tree; it’s a giant herb whose “trunk” is, in fact, made up of concentric layers of rolled up leaves that don’t flop down to a more horizontal position until they unroll.
“A mature tree only gets 6-8 feet tall, but provides up to 90 bananas per year!” states a contemporary web ad for Cavendish dwarf banana. As for the 90 bananas, yes, I had no bananas. Bananas are tropical

plants, thriving best in full sunlight with average annual temperatures around 80°. A sunny room in winter is no home for a banana. The room was cool, not tropical, and, though bright, its light paled against a sunny day in the tropics.

Besides delaying or voiding any possibility of fruiting, indoor conditions left my plant looking forlorn, even if it did perk up each summer outdoors. Upon my return from a winter trip to the tropics where I had seen banana plants reveling in sun, heat, and humidity, I took pity on my Dwarf Cavendish and granted it eternal afterlife in my compost pile.
Last spring, my friend Sara (of last week’s grafted tomato fame) stopped by with a gift: A banana plant, evidently another a Dwarf Cavendish Banana judging from the decorative reddish splotches on the leaves. How could I refuse such a plant, recently removed from a greenhouse, in all its lushness.
In the decades since my old banana’s passing, banana plants have become more popular as ornamentals. The plants grow rapidly, so a non-dwarf variety, once summer heat kicks in, will soar quickly to 10 feet or more to create the focal point of a tropical oasis. You’d need a big pot to fuel such growth. Or you could plant Mekong Giant Banana (Musa itinerans var. xishuangbannaensis) or Golden Lotus Flower (Musella lasiocarpa), both closely related to the edible banana but — and here’s a big difference — very winter cold-hardy (for bananas). Either plant (available from and could remain outdoors, with mulch, through winters with temperatures well below zero degrees . The tops die back but the roots survive to resprout each year. Who wants to see a tropical oasis in the snow anyhow?

Dwarf Cavendish is not a hardy banana and does not reach proportions to create anything more than a mini-oasis. Still, my new one is weathering winter well. My original plan was to bring the potted plant down

to remain semi-comatose in the cold basement. But it started out in autumn near a sunny window in a cool room and never made it down the steps. It looks forlorn but ready to perk up after conditions change. And small, because it’s cramped into an undersized pot. I haven’t watered it for months! I don’t want it to grow — yet.

Come spring, Dwarf Cavendish will get repotted, pups removed and potted, and given good growing conditions. One pup will get planted outdoors to get as big as it can before cold weather, then dug up and put in the basement. Even if “Yes, we have no bananas,” there will be leaves aplenty for cooking, wrapping, serving food, and general tropical lushness.
Not that New York bananas are an impossibility without a old-fashioned, energy-guzzling  hothouse. Given an early start in my barely heated greenhouse, a short-season banana might actually ripen its fruit this far north. A guy in Georgia has found that the variety Veinte Cohol ( will ripen its fruit in October if it’s 2 to 3 feet tall going into summer. My greenhouse is something like Georgia, without the drawl.
All this talk of bananas is admittedly odd with morning temperatures here hovering below zero degrees. This winter has been interesting, seemingly cold but only in comparison with the relatively warm winters of the past decade or so.
The low here, so far, has been minus 14 degrees. The effect is already evident on my bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, whose leaves, though still attached, are dry and muted green. They were

supposed to remain alive, looking shiny and lush green, down to minus 20°. But the cold came on quickly this season, before plants had a chance to acclimate, and there were extended periods of it. Rainfall, snowfall, and humidity also have direct and indirect effects on how well plants face cold. For plants “it’s not how cold it gets, it’s how it gets cold.”