Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Basic Banana Care

Bananas are an amazing resource for a tropical homesteader. They grow easily, fruit quickly, and can be used green, like a potato in stirfries, or ripe, for a sweet addition to breakfast, quinoa salads, or desert. Bananas are also very healthy: high in potassium and fiber and good for your heart, eyes, bones, kidneys, and more. They pack a serious nutritional punch. Here in the tropics, we are lucky to have access to so many different types of bananas. If you don't think you like bananas, you may not have tried the right type, yet. I can't eat a banana on the mainland anymore - I yearn for the tart apple bananas of Hawai'i.

The land we purchased here on Hawai'i Island already had two large, one medium, and a few small banana patches (called "mats"). In the 8 months we have lived here, we are so fortunate to have enjoyed an almost constant supply of bananas of various types: apple, Chinese dwarf, Jamaican red, and other types we haven't yet identified.

Since the banana plants had been neglected for years before we bought the property, it took a bit of work to clear out the vines and weeds that were taking over. We heard much conflicting advice about taking care of bananas, some of which may only apply in certain areas (depending on elevation, water, and wind). The following has worked in our location, but your mileage may vary.
After being ignored for about 5 months, our medium banana patch was looking a bit shaggy (left photo). After about 10 hours of work pulling weeds and cutting down old leaves, it is in much better condition (right photo).
To take care of a neglected patch, first pull the weeds under, in, and around the plants, then cut off the old leaves and lay them in between the plants. This will help block sunlight to deter new weed growth and it provides a source of food as the leaves decay back into the ground. Since we live on the rainy, humid side of the island, it is important to encourage good airflow through our plants, and cutting the old leaves does this. Thinning the canopy also allows more sunlight to filter down to the keiki growing underneath. I usually visit the patches about once a week for maintenance.

Bananas like water, and they like food. They don't like weeds sucking up their nutrients or vines inhibiting their growth. Here in Pahoa, rain provides plenty of water. Our kitchen sink also drains into one of the banana patches. Many people swear by fertilizing their bananas, with chemical fertilizers, organic matter, or even rodents caught around their property. Other than feeding our bananas weed-mulch and their old leaves, we haven't provided any extra food. We find that our banana bunches are not as big as those of our friends who fertilize, but we get more than enough bananas for our needs. If that changes, we'll change our plan.
apple bananas and blossom
 When a banana plant puts out a flower, its leaves will all die off. Some people wait to harvest until the bunch starts turning yellow.  Others, including me, harvest when the bananas are light green, full sized, and start to become rounded in their edges. I also usually wait until the whole plant - leaves and blossom - look dead. To harvest, cut down the whole plant, save the bunch, and divide the rest of the plant into logs that stay in the area to feed the new plants.

We rinse and hang the bunch to dry on the front lanai, then bring inside to ripen when still green. We've found that fruit flies are less likely to bother the fruit when it ripens inside the house. We have a rope suspended above our kitchen counter to hang our current banana bunch.

The banana mats renew themselves by constantly putting out new keiki vegetatively from their roots. We have learned that there are two kinds of keiki: the thin ones with big leaves never put out good fruit, while the keiki with fat bases and thin leaves do. I plan to mark the keiki and follow their progress to see if this is true for us. Banana plants usually put out more than just one replacement keiki, so the mats should be thinned to avoid overcrowding. The removed keiki can be moved to a different location or given to a neighbor. I still have (moral) trouble thinning plants, so I have just let the keiki be, and, yes, our mats are a bit crowded! I'll take this next step soon.
On the left: "good" keiki with thin leaves and thick stem. On the right: "bad" keiki with wide leaves and thin stem.

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