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GARDENING : Bananas' Appeal Grows in Bunches


For Frank Burkard of San Clemente, a banana was just a banana until he starting growing his own plants and harvesting the fruit as it ripened on the stalk.

"The fruit is much sweeter than commercial bananas in the markets, and each variety has a different flavor," he said.

Burkard is so impressed with these plants that he now grows 10 varieties. He predicts that banana plants will be the next plant trend, especially for gardeners along the coastal areas of Orange County.

And he should know, because he has more than 46 years of experience in the nursery and landscape industry.

His father, Hans, founded Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena in 1938. From an early age, Frank worked in the family business and, when he retired, turned the thriving nursery over to his son, Frank Jr., who continues the family tradition.

The nursery is famous for perennials and bulbs, and the Burkard family enjoys experimenting with new plants, with Burkard's San Clemente garden used as a testing site.

Three years ago, Burkard began experimenting with banana plants and says he is delighted with their success.

"They're so easy to grow, take very little care, and they're gorgeous plants in a landscape," he said. "Their broad, green leaves complement other leaf shapes, and the plants give definition in the garden."

Although some people refer to banana plants as trees, and some varieties soar up to 30 feet, the plants are, in fact, herbaceous perennials that grow from corms or rhizomes. Each stalk grows rapidly and, within a year or two, depending on the variety, sets a flower, fruits and dies back to the ground. The mother plant produces "pups" that spread from rhizomes to form a large clump.

Native to Southeast Asia, bananas now grow in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Until fairly recently, it wasn't known that bananas could flourish in Southern California.

Doug Richardson, owner of Seaside Banana Gardens in La Conchita, between Ventura and Santa Barbara, began growing bananas in his own garden 10 years ago. A landscape designer specializing in edible landscapes, he wanted to introduce more types of edible plants into his designs. He kept detailed records of his cultivation methods and determined that bananas thrive in his area of La Conchita. He got more varieties and now grows 50 of the world's 300 fruiting varieties. As news of his success has spread, so has the cultivation of back-yard bananas. Now he supplies many nurseries throughout California and the West.

The enemies of banana plants in Southern California are freezes and strong winds, so they must be planted in sheltered locations, such as against a wall or structure. Wind easily shreds the large leaves and can topple tall plants, especially when they're bearing fruit that can weigh up to 100 pounds. They do best in sunny locations but will bear fruit in a partial shade exposure. There are no insects in North America known to attack bananas, and the plants are also resistant to plant diseases.

Richardson reports that an established plant can withstand freezes. "Although the plant will die back to the ground, after the temperature warms up the plant will usually regenerate."

As a professional landscape designer, he also sees the value of the plants in a garden. "They can screen out an unwanted view, create privacy and shade a wall, window or patio more quickly than any other landscape plant."

The versatility of bananas carries through to their use in the kitchen. In addition to producing edible fruit, the young shoots are edible, as is the heart or core of the stem obtained after the bunch is harvested. (Bunches of fruit are commonly known as "hands," and each fruit is a "finger.")

In many cultures, the leaves are used for wrapping foods such as tamales or fish and rice dishes and are used for steaming, baking or grilling. In many areas, the leaves are also used as plates.

Spring is ideal to plant bananas, and they're usually available bare-root, as corms, at a lower price than containerized plants.

How to Grow Bananas

Plants range from dwarf varieties growing to five or six feet to soaring plants that tower 30 feet. Select the size that suits your landscape. Dwarf varieties also grow well in containers.

For a landscape setting, select a site that's protected from wind. Dig a hole 24 to 36 inches wide and 18 inches deep. Add an organic fertilizer and a supplemental potassium source such as green sand or kelp meal (available at nurseries or garden centers) to the soil that's been removed from the hole.

Place most of the amended soil back into the hole, and place the corm three to four inches below soil level. Leave about two inches of the top of the corm exposed and fill with soil gradually, as leaves appear, usually in four to six weeks.

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