In the north, growing bananas isn’t about the fruit, we do it for the huge leaves

My Abyssinian banana (Ensete maurelii) gets bigger every year.

When it comes to getting that tropical look in a northern garden, there’s nothing like banana trees. They grow fast and tall. And because it’s fairly easy to bring them through the winter, you can get bigger and bigger plants each year. Just don’t expect any fruit—they need 18 months of warm weather for that. For me, the huge leaves are enough.

When I first started with bananas, I grew them in containers. But now, I put most of them right in the ground and dig them up in the fall, right after hard frost. Although I don’t have data to back this up, it seems like the garden-planted trees grow faster and taller. Plus, it’s pretty impressive when visitors see the bananas growing right up out of the ground with a hefty trunk that’s 6 to 8 inches across.Yeah, I grew that.

One year, I tried overwintering a banana in the ground here in Vermont. A crazy idea, but I wanted to give it a shot. There’s a plant called a Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo) that’s especially hardy, and folks in warmer parts of New England carry them over by cutting them back and protecting the stumps with insulating mulch. Of course, mine was entirely dead come spring. What was I thinking?

Three years ago, this was one of those banana plants offered in 6-inch pots. Now, planted right in the ground, it’s pushing 8 feet.

Bananas are fairly easy to get from mail-order purveyors, such as Plant Delights Nursery, but you can find them at garden centers, too. In the spring, larger specimens are available. What’s more, you can find banana plants all year around in greenhouses, often sold in 6-inch pots. Even these small plants will get big if grown outdoors. In a couple years, you can have a decent-sized tree that reaches several feet. It’s important to note that you won’t get giant plants if you don’t fertilize. During the growing season, feed them regularly (every week) with a water-soluble fertilizer, such as Plant Health Care. For more information on fertilizing, read Don’t Forget to Feed Your Plants

At this time of year, you might even find banana plants on sale as the greenhouses are cleared out for poinsettias. Here are some ornamental bananas to consider:

  • Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo): Gracefully arching green leaves that can grow to 6 feet. Eventually grows into a tree-like form.
  • Sikkim banana (Musa sikkimensis): Looks like a typical banana, but the undersides of the leaves are tinted red.
  • Red Abyssinian banana (Ensete maurelii): My favorite, but it’s not a tree-form. The huge, reddish leaves come from a short, stocky section of trunk.

Overwintering is easy, as long as you have a place to store the plants while they’re dormant. Ideally, they are stored in a place that remains about 35 to 45 degrees F. through the winter. No freezing allowed. The dormant plants will not need light, just occassional watering—about once a month. If you have enough space, you can overwinter a banana like a houseplant. Just remember that it will need plenty of sun and watch out for insect infestations. I’ll write more on overwintering in a future post.