There are few gardening experiences that beat tasting home-grown fruit. The flavors are so much richer and sweeter than grocery store produce, made even more delicious by the effort you put in to grow them.
Of all the fruits I’ve grown over the years, from lemons to litchis, one of the most rewarding has been bananas. This common fruit doesn’t excite many gardeners, but the boost in flavor and the amount you get to harvest each year makes growing them worthwhile.
If you live in a tropical climate, banana plants are the perfect first fruit to try growing on your own. The tropical leaves also make attractive houseplants if you’re happy to sacrifice the harvesting aspect of growth.
Successful banana growing isn’t difficult, but does require some essential knowledge of the plant and its structure. Follow this guide to find out everything you need to know.
Banana Plant Overview
What Is It?
Bananas are best in warm climates but thrive in diverse conditions.
The banana plant, part of the Musa genus, is an often misunderstood member of the plant kingdom. Despite its tree-like appearance, it’s actually classified as an herbaceous plant (and the biggest herb you can grow) with a pseudostem rather than a trunk.
What’s even more fascinating is the fruit itself. The banana fruit is technically a berry and grows in clusters called hands, while individual bananas are referred to as fingers.
Banana plants are an essential agricultural commodity in tropical and subtropical regions. But it’s not just the fruit that’s valuable. Other parts of the plant (particularly the leaves) are utilized in various dishes, making the banana plant a wonderfully versatile plant to grow in your garden.
Their ability to thrive in a range of conditions and adaptability make bananas a great choice for gardeners in warmer climates.
Bananas became a common global fruit in the late 19th century.
Originally domesticated in Southeast Asia, banana plants are believed to have been cultivated as early as 8,000 BCE. Banana cultivation spread via trade routes early on, when Arab traders played a crucial role in introducing bananas to the Middle East. From there, the fruit found its way to Europe.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that bananas became a common fruit on the market. Modern transportation and refrigeration created space for the export of bananas from tropical regions to colder climates, turning what was once a unique luxury into an everyday staple.
Historically, different banana varieties have been cultivated for different purposes. The bananas we commonly consume today come from cultivars and hybrids of Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana species, or Musa × paradisiaca – a cross between the two.
Their fruit develops in clusters known as hands, with individual bananas changing color as they ripen.
Banana plants have a rather unique botanical structure and provide plenty of aesthetic value in tropical gardens.
The stems, technically called pseudostems, are not woody as you would expect from its tree-like shape. Instead, they are made of a soft core surrounded by leaf sheaths, giving them the appearance of a tree without the same technical structure.
These pseudostems can reach up to 20 feet in height, sporting long, glossy green leaves that also reach several feet in length. The leaves have stunning tropical flair, with an arching shape that instantly turns your backyard (or home) into a holiday paradise.
Now to the important part – the fruits. Bananas develop in clusters known as hands that are larger than you might expect. Charmingly referred to as fingers, individual bananas grow without seeds in most commercial varieties.
The fruit’s skin color varies throughout the season, changing from green when unripe to classic yellow when ready to eat. The fruits also vary in texture, depending on the variety you’re growing.
Growing your own bananas offers unique choices like visually appealing red bananas, known for their rich color and sweet taste.
While most people are familiar with the standard yellow Cavendish banana – the type most often sold in grocery stores – growing your own opens a new world of opportunities. There are so many types to choose from, allowing you to grow something more unique you wouldn’t be able to find in a standard store.
These are just a few of the common options:
- Cavendish: The most common commercial variety, known for its sweet taste and creamy texture – the classic yellow banana found in most supermarkets.
- Lady Finger: Smaller and sweeter than the Cavendish, Lady Finger bananas are grown for their delicate flavor and thin skin.
- Red: Rich in both color and flavor, red bananas are a unique and visually appealing choice with soft and sweet fruit.
- Plantain: Unlike sweet bananas, plantains are often cooked before eating. They are a staple in many Caribbean dishes, enjoyed both green and ripe.
- Dwarf Varieties: Ideal for small gardens or growing indoors, dwarf banana varieties like Dwarf Cavendish offer impressive flavor on much shorter plants.
Even if you’re not a massive banana fan, exploring these different varieties is sure to boost your appreciation of these useful plants.
Choose a sunny, well-draining location away from waterlogged areas and wind.
The best time to plant is late spring or early summer once the soil has warmed sufficiently, creating the ideal conditions for fast root growth. Replicating the native environments of the banana plant is key to growing success, starting with the right location.
Choose a spot in full sun if you want as many fruits as possible. The soil should also be well-draining and away from areas where rain collects, as waterlogged conditions can quickly lead to root rot in rainy seasons.
Banana plants are also sensitive to high winds, which can tear their leaves, especially soon after planting, while they try to establish strong roots. Plant near a windbreak or provide some protection to preserve the plant’s appearance and health later on.
When selecting a plant at the nursery, look for ones with small, spear-shaped leaves that indicate healthy young growth. Look at the roots if you can, and choose plants with plump, healthy growth rather than long and stringy roots.
Plants should be spaced approximately 8 feet apart to allow room for growth without overcrowding. Dwarf varieties can be planted slightly closer together if needed, but it’s far better to give your bananas more room to grow than less. After planting, water thoroughly to settle the roots.
How to Grow
With the correct planting technique and the right spot, bananas largely care for themselves. A few extra tasks throughout the season will give you the best possible harvest later on.
Bananas thrive in full tropical sun.
Bananas are tropical by nature, thriving in bright and direct sunlight. Full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight daily) is ideal, giving the plants the energy they need to produce plenty of fruits. Some afternoon shade can help prevent leaf scorching in locations with harsh sunlight. But generally, the more sun you give these plants, the better.
If you’re growing banana plants indoors, direct sun or grow lights are essential to boost growth and increase your potential for fruiting. However, since the quality of light and the environment indoors is different, the plant may not produce fruits. Houseplant lovers typically grow them for their tropical leaves instead.
Bananas need ample moisture and well-drained soil.
Bananas require plenty of moisture, especially during their peak growing season. But they are also sensitive to rot and need well-draining soil to prevent waterlogging. Giving them a consistent and deep water supply without overwatering is the key to a thriving banana plant free of disease and other growth issues.
Regular deep watering that reaches the lower roots will encourage strong growth and healthy fruit development. Monitor the soil’s moisture levels, especially when growing in containers, to stop the soil from remaining completely dry for too long.
During the winter months, when temperatures drop, banana’s watering needs decrease. You can leave the soil to dry a bit more between additional waterings or stop watering altogether if you live in a region with winter rainfall.
Factors like soil type, climate, and the plant’s growth stage all affect your watering routine. Pay attention to the plant’s appearance to look for signs of concern, such as drooping leaves or compacted soil, to provide the perfect amount of moisture.
This tropical plant thrives in well-draining, nutrient-rich soil with a slightly acidic pH.
Banana plants thrive in rich, well-draining soil that provides a balance of essential nutrients. A mix of loamy soil enriched with organic matter (such as compost or manure) creates the perfect environment for strong root development.
Although they aren’t too fussy about pH, a slightly acidic soil between 5.5 and just under 7 is preferred for optimal nutrient absorption. Although it is an extra effort to test and amend the soil, doing this before you start can help you rectify any issues that will be tough to fix in the future.
Drainage is the most crucial aspect of soil texture for banana plants. While they love moisture, stagnant water can quickly lead to root rot that ruins any chance of a harvest later on. For potted banana plants, choose pots with plenty of drainage holes and use a quality potting mix to create the ideal conditions for growth.
Temperature and Humidity
Banana plants prefer warm temperatures between 60F and 80F.
Native to tropical regions, banana plants thrive in warm temperatures and can’t stand the cold. Ideal temperatures for quick growth range between 60F and 80F throughout the year. Anything below 50F will lead to slowed growth. Frost can be particularly damaging.
These temperature ranges limit growth to USDA zones 9-11. In these zones, outdoor cultivation is possible year-round. High humidity levels, mimicking the tropical environments where bananas naturally grow, also contribute to lush growth and healthy leaves.
With careful planning and protection, it’s also possible to grow bananas in cooler zones. Extend their growing range with greenhouses, frost cloths, or indoor containers. Gardeners in USDA zones 7-8 can also experiment with cold-hardy varieties that won’t require as much maintenance.
Bananas are heavy feeders, needing balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer monthly during the growing season.
Banana plants are usually considered heavy feeders, requiring a rich supply of nutrients to thrive. A balanced fertilizer with an equal nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) ratio, such as a 10-10-10 mix, is recommended for banana plants.
Monthly applications are usually sufficient during the growing season. Adjust as needed based on the plant’s appearance and growth rate. It’s essential to avoid overfertilizing, as this can lead to nutrient imbalances and potential root damage. Never apply more than recommended on your fertilizer packaging.
Provide winter care for non-tropical banana cultivation.
Occasional pruning is an important part of maintenance to remove dead or yellowing leaves and spent fruit stems. This enhances the plant’s appearance and directs energy toward new growth and fruit production. In some cases, selective thinning of suckers is also vital to allow the main plant to thrive.
A thick layer of organic mulch around the base of the plant can also help retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and provide slow-release nutrients over time. Mulching is particularly beneficial in hot and dry climates, keeping the soil cool and the plant well-fed.
Winter care is also something to consider for those growing bananas outside their natural tropical habitat. Providing frost protection, reducing watering, and possibly moving container-grown plants indoors can help them survive the colder months without harm.
Harvest when ripe, use bags for ripening, and prune stalks after harvest.
Depending on conditions, your bananas will be ready to harvest around 10 to 14 months after planting. Unlike some fruits, bananas continue to ripen after being picked. Keep an eye out for when the ridges have smoothed and a slight yellowing pops up at the tips. The bananas should still be firm, with the tiny flowers at the tips dry and easily brushed off.
If you want to help with the ripening process, you can cover the stalks in a bag to trap some of the ethylene, but this can lead to mold growth in wet conditions. I also like to cover them to shield them from local wildlife. Make sure you closely watch them to harvest at the right time.
Use clean, sharp pruning shears or a knife to harvest. Cutting the entire stalk is easiest, especially if you’re harvesting many bananas at once. Individual hands or single bananas can be harvested as needed by cutting them from the main stalk, but you’ll need to do so carefully to avoid damage. Be careful with the remaining plant after harvesting. If the main stalk has fruited, it won’t produce again. Cut it back to allow new suckers to grow.
How to Store
Once harvested, let bananas ripen indoors at room temperature. To slow down the ripening process, if you have more bananas than you know what to do with, keeping them in a cool and dark area can help. On the other hand (excuse the pun), placing them in a paper bag with an apple or tomato can speed up ripening by boosting ethylene – the gas involved in the ripening process.
Propagate banana plants from suckers for consistent variety and successful growth.
Unfortunately, popular banana plant varieties don’t usually produce viable seeds for propagation. Instead, banana plants are propagated from suckers. These young plants emerge from the base of the parent plant.
Carefully separating a healthy sucker from the mother plant and replanting it, either nearby or somewhere else in your garden, is one of the simplest and most common propagation methods. As long as the sucker has roots and at least three leaves, chances of success when transplanting are high.
Propagating from suckers also replicates the specific variety you are growing, ensuring the fruits you receive from the new plant are the same as the ones you know and love.
Simply dig up the sucker, separate it from the main plant, and move it to a pot or new section of your garden. This is best done in spring for the quickest root development.
After growing bananas for a few years, I haven’t encountered many problems with these plants in my tropical climate. However, that doesn’t mean problems aren’t possible. Look out for some of these issues on your plants to resolve the problem before they ruin your harvest.
Prevent root rot and fungal infections by ensuring proper drainage and avoiding overwatering.
Overwatering or poor drainage can eventually lead to root rot or other fungal infections that will kill the entire plant if not controlled. The issue is difficult to rectify, especially in large plants, so prevention is best to protect your harvest.
Plant in well-draining soil and avoid overwatering, monitoring rain carefully before applying any additional moisture. Infected plants may need to be removed and the soil treated with fungicides to stop new plants from encountering the same issues.
Leaf spot diseases caused by fungi or bacteria lead to discoloration and health problems.
Caused by various fungi and bacteria, leaf spot diseases create unsightly spots or patches on the leaves (hence the name), affecting the plant’s overall health. These issues can often spread to other plants in your garden, so it’s essential to tackle the issue as soon as possible.
First, seek the aid of your local extension website to identify the type of leaf spot pathogen you’re dealing with. Remove any affected leaves with sharp shears and apply appropriate fungicides or bactericides if needed to stop the spread of the issue. Avoid overhead watering to prevent future infections.
Aphids, spider mites, and scale insects can harm plants and hinder fruiting.
Aphids, spider mites, and a few other pesky insects like scale can infest banana plants, sucking the sap and weakening the plant to prevent fruiting.
Regular inspection and early treatment with insecticidal soap or neem oil can help control the problem. Encouraging natural predators like ladybugs can also help your bananas and the rest of your garden.
Deficiencies in potassium and magnesium can cause leaf deformation and poor fruit.
Lack of essential nutrients like potassium and magnesium leads to discolored or malformed leaves and poor fruit development. But you’ll only be able to pinpoint a nutrient problem once you’ve conducted a soil test.
After identifying any deficiencies in the soil, use a targeted fertilizer to rebalance the nutrients. Give the plant some time to adjust before it gets back to normal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Banana plants can be grown indoors with the right care and conditions. Providing sufficient light through a sunny window or with grow lights, maintaining proper humidity, and choosing a dwarf variety suitable for containers are ways to improve indoor growing conditions. Regular pruning and care will ensure the plant stays healthy and attractive, even if it doesn’t produce any fruits.
Banana plants typically begin to fruit after 9 to 12 months of growth, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Once the fruit appears, it may take another 2 to 4 months to ripen.
Generally, banana plants are considered non-toxic to pets such as dogs and cats. However, it’s always wise to monitor how your pets interact with plants and consult with a veterinarian if you notice any unusual behavior or symptoms.
While banana plants prefer full sun, they can tolerate some afternoon shade in hot climates. However, growing in full shade will lead to weak growth, reduced fruiting, and increased susceptibility to diseases. Aim for full sun if you want to get the best possible fruits out of your banana plants.
Nothing beats the taste of a home-grown banana; you’ll have plenty to enjoy each year when following these growing tips.