HOW TO GROW BANANA TREES
If you live in Central or even North Central Florida (zone 9), it is possible to grow bananas outside. But since we do see a little frost -- or even a lot of frost in the northern parts of zone 9, you'll need to plant where your banana tree has some advantages.
Bananas can be grown outdoors as far north as zone 8. They will take a little work if you want to have a crop in zone 9. You'll need some mega nutrition and a little frost protection techniques.
Bananas can be grown in full sun to even significant shade. If in full sun, be sure to water more often.
Rule of thumb on a banana plant: you need 12 leaves before the plant will flower and fruit. So the trick is to protect from freezing enough that you can start spring with at least 3-4 leaves. Plant on the south side of your house, or where ever green trees or a hedge blocks the cold north winds from hitting your bananas.
And don't plant down in the valley if your place is hilly: even though that's good for retaining moisture, that's where the cold settles on frosty nights. Plant halfway up the hill so you're not in the cold valley, but not on the windy hill either. And then put a deep saucer around the plants to hold rainfall or irrigation.
Also, bananas like a lot of nutrition: they are total nitrogen hogs. While you might only fertilize the rest of the garden quarterly, feed a banana plant every month. We have a lot of success with using soil amendments -- organic composted chicken manure, greensand, ironite, and potash. Ask us about our Magic Soil Formula.
If using liquid organic fertilizers, apply every week for faster growth. The sooner you get those 12 leaves, the more chance of fruit at the end of the year.
It takes approximately four months for the flowers to turn into ripe fruit. You want to see those flowers starting in September to harvest fruit by December. Fruit ripens from the base to the top of the cluster.
Interesting Historical Tidbits
BANANAS are an evergreen perennial in tropical zones, and most die back to the trunk or even the roots in colder sub-tropical regions. It is technically not a tree but an herb plant, belonging to the genus 'Musa'.
The trunk, more properly called a pseudostem, consists of tightly packed layers of leaf sheaths emerging from completely or partially buried corms.
Both male and female flowers are present in a single inflorescence, making the banana plant self fertile. The seeds in the Musa acuminata Cavendish varieties are so small they are mere black specks in the center of the fruit, making them highly desirable for eating.
The genus 'Musa' was named in 1753 for Antonius Musa, physician to the Emperor of Rome, Octavius Augustus 63BC-AD14. Musa acuminata is a species of banana native to Southeast Asia. Most of our modern day dessert bananas belong to this subspecies, although a few are hybrids with Musa balbisiana.
Because cultivated bananas are propagated by vegetative reproduction (i.e. rhizome division) rather than sexual reproduction (e.g. seeds), they are essentially clones of the parent plant, genetically identical and do not evolve disease resistance like a seed propagated species does.
This makes it convenient for commercial growers to produce a consistent product, but leaves the species vulnerable to disease wipeout.
So be environmentally responsible, and keep your Organocide® 3-in-1 Garden Spray handy as an organic fungicide, should problems arise.
MORE ABOUT PEAT MOSS AS A SOIL AMENDMENT
Peat moss is also essential for moisture retention in Florida's sandy soils, unless you find you have a layer of clay under your garden. Peat retains up to 20x's its weight in moisture and mixes well with composted dirt to make a loamy planting medium. Do not use straight: it will create an impervious crusty layer on top of the soil.
Vermiculite also retains water, but it can raise the soil pH slightly, which may not be desired for some plants. And since it never breaks down, we question the wisdom of adding this mix of hydrated laminar minerals (aluminum-iron-magnesium silicates) to our garden top soil everywhere.
[In the late 1990's, there was also some asbestos contaminated vermiculite from a mine in Libby, Montana. It was naturally occurring asbestos in the rocks from which the vermiculite was mined, but concerned scientists enough to close the mining operation.
So what problems might we be setting ourselves up for by introducing concentrations of aluminum for example into our edible gardens? 50 years from now we'll have a better answer, but for now, we choose to use peat moss and not vermiculite.]
VARIETIES OF BANANAS
There are many kinds of interesting bananas to grow for the Florida home gardener. Let's start with a basic few: Grand Nain, Dwarf Cavendish, and Pisang Ceylon 'Lady Fingers'.
Cavendish bananas are a group of cultivars of Musa acuminata that represented 47% of global banana production by 1998 to 2000. They are distinguished from one another simply by height & features of the fruit.
A cultivar of Cavendish, this is Chiquita's favorite. The name refers to its relative height, as distinguished from the Giant Cavendish and the Dwarf Cavendish. The leaves often become torn or tattered from the wind. Its name is French for "Large Dwarf".
Grand Nain grows from 6-8' tall and can produce 40-60lbs of fruit at a time. It likes a somewhat acidic soil pH of 5.8-6.2. Grows in full sun to partial sun in zones 8-11.
At 6-7' average height, this banana is one of the shortest of the Cavendish bananas. Expect up to 8' in a greenhouse, and even 10' outdoors in South Florida. Juvenile leaves will have some reddish-purple markings, but later more mature leaves will be all green. Fast growing. Winters well indoors. Grows in zones 8-11.
'Pisang Ceylon' LADY FINGERS:
Pisang Ceylon 'Lady Fingers' is the most common variety grown by Dole and used for their 'Baby Dole' or mini banana. It is an improved 'Mysore' banana. It is one of the best tasting Lady Fingers in the world, and the most popular variety grown in India.
Also known as 'Sugar Bananas', the fruits are quite sweet and only 4-5" long. They are light yellow in color and thin skinned. Bears large, compact banana bunches weighing up to 50lbs. Pisang Ceylon has a shelf life that out lasts other lady finger varieties by several days.
Plants are green-leafed with red midribs, and can also have a reddish trunk. The Pisang Ceylon cultivar is considered to be more resistant to Black Streak virus. Pisang Ceylon grows to 14-16' tall and has a stout root system, making it one of the more "wind resistant" bananas. Very hardy and drought tolerant.
More Historical Tidbits
CAVENDISH BANANAS were named after the Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, in 1834 England. He had received a shipment as a gift from the chaplain of Alton Towers (also in England), the garden estate of the Earls of Shrewsbury.
Cavendish's gardener, Sir Joseph Paxton cultivated them in greenhouses and botanically named them Musa cavendishii, after the Duke. From there, they were re-distributed around the Pacific in the 1850's. They were also referred to as "Chatsworth bananas" from the name of the Duke's estate, 'Chatsworth House'.
By 1903, Cavendish bananas entered mass commercial production. It wasn't until the 1950's that the Cavendish gained prominence, after the "Gros Michel" aka 'Big Mike' succombed to 'Panama disease'.
Panama disease is a fancy name for Fusarium wilt, caused by the fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum. The fungi enters the plant's roots and spreads throughout. The first symptom is irregular yellowing of older leaves. The fungus disrupts the plants vascular system, so eventually the plant dies from dehydration.
It attacked the commercially popular 'Gros Michel' bananas in the late 1940's, nearly wiping out commercial banana production until growers could re-plant other varieties.
The disease is not a threat to humans, and is not yet present in the Americas or western Africa. It has spread worldwide otherwise, and does effect some of the Cavendish crop in Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, and Indonesia. It is also on the rise in parts of Africa and Australia.
MORE ABOUT BANANA SPECIES
Most cultivated bananas are actually hybrids between two wild species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Wild species of bananas have seeds. Cultivated bananas are almost always seedless, so they have to be propagated vegetatively. The most common propagative method is rhizome division, though tissue culture is also used.
Names can be highly confusing. Within a single country, the same species of banana can have many synonyms. For example, 'Dwarf Cavendish' has 58 different synonyms across 29 different countries or geographical areas. And 'Lady Fingers' is used to refer to many different baby sized bananas.