This guide is to let you know how easy it is to grow both tropical and hardy bananas in colder areas. It's so much fun to step outside your door--and right into your own little tropical paradise to unwind and relax, without driving countless hours, or packing a suitcase and getting on a plane... Imagine seeing this scene when you step out on the patio.....
Wouldn't it be nice to relax out here after a hard day at work? How about entertaining friends out in your VERY OWN tropical paradise? This picture was taken in September, 2006 at my display garden at Northern Tropics greenhouse in my backyard!
I live in zone 5 (Indiana) definitely not a tropical area in common thought--and yet have success in growing both tropical bananas and the hardy musa basjoo. With a little care, these plants are as easy to grow as a petunia, but infinitely more rewarding! If you can grow other annual plants, you can definitely at least grow a banana as an annual.
There are two common types of bananas, the tropical bananas, which are not hardy in the ground in colder areas of the country--and the Musa basjoo, which is hardy in many cold areas of the country, including Indiana (zone 5), and maybe colder with proper mulching.
Some of the tropical bananas, such as the Zebrina, Bordelon, Ensete Maurelii, and others have beautiful green leaves with red undersides, and some of the varieties have red blotches on the top sides of the leaves, too. So even though they are not hardy, and have to be dug up for the winter in colder parts of the country, they make a beautiful display contrasting with the green leaved Basjoo hardy bananas. So they are very worthwhile to grow anyway.
The tropical bananas also make a beautiful and fun container or house plant. I've written another guide "How to care for your indoor potted banana plant" that covers that aspect of potted plant care indoors.
To grow a tropical banana in a cold climate, you have several options: you can grow them potted and then move indoors for winter, you can grow them planted directly out in the soil as an annual plant, or you can grow them directly in the ground and dig them in the fall and store them as dormant stalks.
To grow a banana potted outdoors, use a well draining mix such as miracle grow or a professional mix from your local garden center. Plant your banana in the new container at the same level as it was planted before. Water your plant thoroughly, then allow it to dry before watering again. When the soil feels fairly dry an inch below the soil level, water again. You can use a balanced timed release fertilizer such as Osmocote when potting your plant, or use a water soluble fertilizer when watering. They will need more water as the temperature increases, and less water if the temperatures outdoors are cooler. Place your banana plant outdoors after temperatures at night remain above 45 degrees. If frost threatens, cover or bring your plant indoors.
If your plant was just purchased and potted, place the pot in a shady place outdoors for several days to a week to acclimate to its' new pot before placing it in a sunny place. This will eliminate "sunburn" on the leaves which is unsightly. If you're not patient enough and do develop sunburn on your leaves, characterized by browning, cut the browned areas on the leaves or even the entire leaves off. The plant will grow new ones which are acclimated to the light levels.Another thing you can do if you live in a windy area is dig a hole and "plant" your pot, burying it partially into the soil to keep it upright in the wind, then plant an annual plant in front of the pot to disguise it. This will keep your top heavy plant from blowing over in the wind. It will also keep you from having to dig it up again in the fall.
To plant your tropical or hardy banana directly in the ground, wait until after danger of frost is past, then dig a nice hole that will accomodate the root ball in a partly sunny to sunny location. If your soil is not well drained, amend the area with compost so that the water will drain away from the roots. Drainage is essential for a hardy banana, even more important than for a tropical one. If your location isn't well drained, your corm will rot and your plant will not come up in the spring again. If you have clay soil, such is common in Indiana, make sure your plants are in a well drained location, and not where water stands, collects, or pools. You might want to use a raised bed for your bananas if drainage is a particular problem when you live, or put them on top of little hills of soil. Keep a hardy musa basjoo away from downspouts, also!
This is also a good time to amend your planting area with a balanced fertilizer. Plant your banana plant at the same depth which it was planted before in the pot. If your location is very sunny, rig up a little shade for your plant for a few days while it adjusts by putting an old sheer curtain over the plant to filter some of the light. Keep your plant watered and fertilized with a balanced fertilizer (all three numbers roughly equal, like 10-10-10, etc.)or a balanced water soluble one over the growing season. If you use a granulated garden fertilizer, like a 12-12-12 or 10-10-10, sprinkle the fertilizer in a circle around the banana plant at least 6 inches from the trunk. I usually use about 1/2 of a soup can full of fertilizer around a foot tall transplant, about three weeks after planting, and about double that amount again in the middle of summer, around the end of July. Make sure it receives at least an inch of water a week, and more is even better in the hot weather. If you use a water soluble fertilizer such as Miracle grow or Peters professional, use it at the higher outdoor rate of 1 Tablespoon per gallon when watering.
Enjoy your banana plant throughout the growing season. Watch it grow and enjoy the tropical beauty it brings to your home. Other good areas to plant your banana plants are near a pool or pond, as well as around your patio.
If you are growing a potted tropical banana outdoors, don't freak out if it gets to be very tall and large and you want to bring it inside to grow for the winter. It's very easy to top off your plant and make it shorter for bringing in for the winter. First of all, find your first frost date for your area, and subtract one month from that date, if it's October 7th like here, then do this no later than September 7 so it will have time to grow back pretty leaves. Just decide about how large of a plant you can handle indoors, and subtract one or two feet. Cut cleanly across the stem with a sharp knife at that point. It will seem very dramatic to see that clean stump with no leaves sticking up, but don't worry. In just a few days, you will have leaves again, they "telescope" out from the center of the plant and in a few weeks you'll only be able to tell you cut it off by a little stepped looking place on the trunk.
All too soon, that day arrives when it's time to make some decisions about your banana....FALL!The first frost is forecast in a couple of days... Decision time! Are you going to grow it as an annual and get another one in the spring? Then do nothing, and let it freeze, then cut off the stalk at ground level when it starts looking unsightly.
If your plant is potted, before moving it indoors,spray it well with an insecticide listed for garden use, or with a soap based spray such as Safer, to kill any insects that might be lurking on your plant. After it dries, it's time to bring your plant inside. Place it close to a sunny window, watch your plant carefully to make sure it's not gettting any insect pests, and rotate the pot every few weeks to keep it from growing all one-sided towards the window.
During the winter, water your banana sparingly, you don't want the roots to rot. Keep it drier than you did during the summer time, since it's not really growing much now. Also, since it's not actively growing, don't fertilize until it is growing again,usually in the spring when light levels rise, and definitely not as much as it received outdoors.Most of the water soluble fertilizers such as Miracle Gro or Peters provide rates for indoor plants on the labels, use those amounts, not the rates for outdoor plants while your plant is indoors.And only use that once a month or so. I have written another e-bay guide which gives indoor banana care in more detail. It's called "How to care for your indoor potted banana plant".
If that sounds like too much work,or you're just not that into houseplants, you can consider storing your plant dormant IF it is three feet tall or taller. Just place your potted plant in a basement or other cool dry area that stays well above freezing, and check it from time to time to make sure that it isn't totally drying out. If it appears too dry, water it VERY sparingly, a cup or two of water; don't soak it. Then bring your plant outside in the spring into the sunshine and give it some water when night temperatures are around 50 degrees. It will start regrowing new leaves which are acclimated to the light levels of the area that it's growing in. After you see new growth, you can begin your fertilizer program again. It may need repotting, or a larger pot now, too, but wait until you see new growth before repotting. Let your plant "wake up" before asking it to go through any additional stress..
If you planted your tropical banana directly in the ground,and it's 3 feet tall or taller, before the first frosts occur, use a shovel to dig up your plant. Place it in a cardboard box, burlap sack, laundry basket or old flowerpot. Don't worry about getting a large root ball around your plant, it grows from a corm, like a canna bulb. As long as you get all of the corm, it will be just fine. That means that large banana is much easier to dig than you thought it would be! Just pop it out of the ground with a shovel, it will not take long at all. Trim off all the leaves except for the top one for storage. If you have some and want to use it, a fungicide can be sprayed on your plant before storage to help keep it from rotting. Follow the manufacturers directions. Place your plant in a cool dry place like a frost free garage, or a basement. Again, like the potted banana, check it from time to time to see if it's shriveling up. It might need a small spray of water over winter if it looks like it's drying out excessively. Do NOT wrap the root ball in plastic, it will rot, and your plant will die. Keep it so that air can circulate around the roots, to eliminate rot during storage. If your tropical banana did not reach three feet tall, then it's still a really good size to use as a houseplant. Pot it back up in a one gallon size pot with a good potting soil and follow the directions in my other guide "How to care for your indoor potted banana plant" to carry it over winter as a houseplant. Of course you CAN carry over a larger plant as a houseplant, you just need a lot more room!
If you are growing a "hardy" banana,the musa basjoo, you have two choices. You can plant it in the ground the same as the tropical example above and mulch it with leaves as described below. The only changes will be the care of your plant in the fall. Let your banana get frosted a few times. The leaves will then look terrible! If you like, cut off those leaves close to the main stalk after a hard freeze when they look really unsightly. (There are a few Hawaiian type BBQ recipes floating around on the internet that use banana leaves, if you haven't used any insecticides on them.)
Wait until you have several frosts and freezes and the leaves are really falling off the trees thickly. Rake up five large "lawn size" plastic bags of leaves for each hardy banana plant that you planted in the spring, and tie them closed with the ties provided with the bags. Just like you were going to put them out for the trash. If you don't have trees or just don't rake your leaves, go into town and pick some up. People don't really seem to care who takes their leaves they put out, as long as they go! Carry your leaves over to your banana plants and then cut off your banana stalk with a large knife to a height of 12-18 inches tall. Discard the upper portion of the banana stalk in a compost pile, or use it for mulch elsewhere. Don't get the juice of the banana on your clothes because it will stain them permanently with big brown stains!
If desired, spray your stump and ground area around the plant with a fungicide, (this is optional) and allow it to dry. Then take the 5 plastic lawn bags of leaves, tied closed with twist ties, and "winterize" your banana. Place 4 plastic lawn bags of dry leaves, (leave them in the plastic bags), around the stalk that you just trimmed, up against the stalk. Think of placing them to the North, South, East and West sides around the stalk, so that it is completely surrounded. Then place the last bag on top, to help shed off excess water and keep the stump and surrounding area drier. You can flatten it slightly if you want to.
You just made an enclosure for your plant that will protect it from the elements, excess moisture, heat and cold, until spring. Then in spring when it gets warmer and daffodils and spring flowers start blooming, remove the bags of leaves and when the soil warms up--your banana will sprout again. When you see new growth and it's grown to about a foot tall, start your fertilization program. Sometimes your banana will grow right from the stalk you cut off last year, and sometimes it will send up new shoots from the ground where its roots are still alive. Either way, it's exciting to see it start growing again in spring! In our part of the country, Indiana, you will be seeing growth in most areas by the middle of May. I have noticed some plants in my yard in shadier areas took until the first of June to start growing, though, so don't give up on it too soon!
After your sprouts are about a foot tall, you CAN divide your plants if you want to. Dig the entire clump up, rinse it with a hose so you can see what you're doing clearly, and separate the shoots, and their associated roots. Then replant them as you did before. Make sure you get part of the large corm with each sprout so that it will live. A machete or large knife is very handy in this process. Some people spray the cuts with fungicide before replanting, if you have some handy, though I've found it's not really essential. Replant the large corm, too, even if no more sprouts are visible on it, sometimes it will fool you and send up a few more plants anyway.
One thing though, if you don't divide them, they will develop more root mass and become even more hardy and faster growing --and ultimately get even larger the next year. They will grow into a large clump, like the bananas in Florida. Second and subsequent year bananas that haven't been divided grow into a clump, called a mat, and you can expect more height from them than you had in the first year. I have lots of first year bananas this year, that were planted last spring, and they are ranging from 3-7 feet tall, but the one that I planted two years ago is around 9 feet tall right now on August 16th, with several sprouts around the base of it that are over three feet tall. The one mat that is three years old has several stalks that are 10-12 feet tall.
If you got your hardy "musa basjoo" planted late in the season, or it didn't grow very tall because it was in a bad location, or in a place that is too shady, treat it as a tropical banana and bring it inside unless it is 36" (three feet) tall or taller. A hardy banana smaller than three feet (36") usually will not survive overwintering because it is just too small. Also, if you planted your hardy banana in a place that is not well drained, treat it as a tropical banana and bring it indoors for the winter. Replant it in the spring and put it into a better location. Do not plant a hardy banana of any size in a northern area after September first and expect the roots to be well established enough to survive winter.
EXCITING NEWS FLASH!!!!!
i've learned a new way to plant the basjoo to increase the hardiness further and so that you don't have to mulch it heavily with bags of leaves in the fall unless you are trying to save some of the height of the trunk for next year: plant your banana plant 12" deeper below grade so that the root ball is 12" below ground, then in the fall you just let it naturally die down to the ground. See our "mulching a musa basjoo to survive a zone 5 winter" guide for more details on this exciting development!!!!
If you live in an area with japanese beetles, be sure and spray or pick off the beetles, however you like to deal with them--as soon as you see them on the plant. They do seem to enjoy the leaves, especially chewing on the tips. If you don't get them sprayed or picked in time, the leaves will develop a brown skeletonized look to them where the beetles have been chewing. Wait until the infestation in your area slows down, and go out and trim the unsightly areas with scissors to bring back the beauty of your plant. It will not be noticeable after you do this.
If you need more information on how to grow bananas, gardenweb.com has an excellent forum about bananas, where you can post your question and others will help you find a solution.
Some suggestions of hardy or reseeding annual companion plants for bananas I've found are hardy hibiscus, amaranthus, (especially the taller varieties), perilla, coreopsis, cannas, elephant ears, bamboo (try the yellow groove variety in colder climates), datura (the white one will come back from dropped seeds next year), blackeyed susans, and purple coneflowers.
Thanks for reading this guide, and I hope you find it helpful as you start or continue your tropical landscaping adventure! If this guide was helpful to you, take a moment and leave feedback about this guide. Feel free to use it for your personal use.
Sandy Burrell, owner of Northern Tropics greenhouse, Muncie, Indiana, and fellow "zone pusher".
Check out my other guides also by clicking the about me logo by my user name, including my new one on how to mulch and how to plant the hardy Musa Basjoo to survive a zone 5 winter!