(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 31, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that writers may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)

You don’t need a greenhouse or a conservatory to grow bananas and other tropicals north of zone 8. You do need a strong back and a willing shovel! I’ve been growing bananas in my Maryland garden for the past two years. It’s an adventure that’s worth a try.

Growing Banana Plants

Bananas are technically plants, not trees, despite their size. Two years ago, I ordered cute 6 inch plants and grew them inside over the winter [2]. After that, the much larger plants were overwintered in the basement. They get planted out when the soil warms up, after Memorial Day.
The first banana I planted out this spring promptly blew over. So we devised a system of stakes and ropes for support. My neighbor referred to the result as “bananas in bondage,” but there were no more toppled plants, and they soon outgrew this tattered look.
The bananas made a wonderful tropical canopy for a bed that has also included cannas, amaryllis, tropical milkweed, red castor beans, and heliotrope, with spearmint as a ground cover. My “tropicals” bed by the deck draws more exclamations than any other plantings in our yard: “Oh! I didn’t know you could grow bananas here!” When I explain about dragging them to the basement every winter, the usual reaction is that I am bananas.

In terms of landscaping, I think it’s important to choose a location for your bananas that is visually separate from the less tropical looking areas of your garden. A banana tree poking up from a bed of daisies looks odd. Pick an architectural focal point such as a patio, deck, bench, or bird bath, and create your own little tropical oasis. Add other tropical or tropical-looking plants with big, interesting foliage and “hot” colors. The collective impact will knock your socks off!

ImageOverwintering Banana Plants

Bananas must be dug before the first fall frost and overwintered inside, either fully dormant or semi dormant. For full dormancy, cut the stem to remove all but the smallest leaves, and allow the plant to dry for a week before wrapping in burlap and storing at 40 to 50 degrees F [3]. For semi-dormancy, give the plant a little light and very limited water, enough to keep it green but not enough for growth. Last winter, my semi-dormant bananas were potted upright. This winter, they are lying along a basement wall. Some leaves have yellowed, but the plants still look mostly green.

With an uninterrupted growth cycle, bananas should fruit after about 18 months of active growth. I’ve never heard reports of fruit from winter dormant plants, although the plants put up luxurious growth year after year when planted out. I had a notion that perhaps semi-dormant winter storage would put the fruiting cycle on “pause” rather than resetting it. My faint hope is that if the plant keeps its leaves over the winter, even if it doesn’t continue to grow, it might produce fruit after several years. Time will tell.
Accordingly, last fall I dug up the bananas, and we dragged them down to the basement. I set them upright in giant tubs of potting mix, near a bright window. They were watered every couple of weeks, stayed green, and did not grow for several months. But in late winter, they got delusional. They put up new leaves. I cut back their water. They grew up between the rafters and wrapped their long leaves around the ductwork. Halfway through extricating the first plant in spring, I decided we would not ever do this again.

This winter, there will be no leaves trying to grow up through the rafters. The roots and corms have been loosely bagged in plastic, and the plants are lying on their sides in a bright corner of the basement. I did this with one banana last year, misting the roots with a tiny bit of water occasionally to keep them from drying out completely, and that seemed to work fine.


Dividing Banana Plants

As banana plants mature, they
produce small offshoots, known as “pups,” around the base of the stem. Digging the plant for winter storage gives you a good opportunity to separate the pups. Brush away or hose off as much dirt as possible so you can see what you’re doing. A pup must have several roots attached to survive, so plan the division carefully. The directions I’ve read say to use a sharp knife to separate the pup by cutting into the main corm at an angle. I’ve found it easier to get a good grip on the base of the pup and bend it away from the mother plant until I can break it away. This takes a little nerve, as you want to be sure you are snapping the corm to make the separation and not the tender stem of the pup.

ImageI separated several pups again this fall and potted them up to continue growing over the winter in my dining room window. I think of this as “insurance” in case my semi-dormant storage methods don’t work out. If they all survive, I’ll have extra banana plants to give away in spring.

When they fruit, I’ll feel my efforts have been repaid a thousand times over.

Until then, I’d better con
tinue enjoying them just as fun foliage plants.

Go, Bananas!

Image[1] Many thanks to Tropicman for sharing his expertise. He has inspired me and others to grow bananas where no bananas have grown before! Check out the Tropical Fruits Forum (subscribers only) for more information on growing bananas in all parts of the country.

[2] I ordered my plants from Wellspring and got excellent advice from them, too. You'll find more information in the Garden Watchdog entry for Wellspring Gardens.

[3] You'll find specific advice from Tropicman on the thread that first inspired me, "Banana tree harvest."
More good tips on overwintering bananas and more can be found at bananas.org