Bananas in the Basement

– Posted in: Garden Design

 

OK, so I’m a world-class procrastinator. That meant that the dwindling light of the other day found me outside, desperately preparing tender plants for their winter hibernation. Frost was coming, and a lot of my favorite plants do NOT like frost. That meant they had to come in. I’ve grown bananas in the ground and in pots for years, and if I’ve heard this question once, I’ve heard it 1,527 times: “What do you do with those in the winter?” Well, this is what I do.

I begin in early September, backing off on watering (the only plants that get watered in my garden are those in pots and newbies). No more fertilizer. The idea is to slow their rampant growth. Then on the eve of a frost I’m out there with saw and shears in hand, lopping off the outer leaves. I cut them all the way down to the base. Since these plants are mostly water, cutting off a single leaf removes maybe 5 or more pounds from the plant’s weight. My goal is to reduce the plant’s huge bulk, but not its height. I know some folks slice off their bananas just above soil level, but my aim is to preserve the plant’s height, so it becomes more treelike with age. Bananas that get beheaded come back, but they are more shrubby. Anyway, I cut, cut cut, until I’ve removed maybe half the leaves–cutting too many will weaken the banana’s trunk enough for all those big leaves still up on top to make the too-spindly trunk fold over in transit or in storage.

With the plant trimmed back hard, I remove any companion plants and loosen the rootball at pot’s edge by sawing through the outermost roots with my garden knife, or hori-hori. Then I gently turn the pot on its side, and wrassle rootball and plant from the pot. Doing this operation while the pots on its side entails less lifting, so it saves my back. This is when its really handy to have the soil dry–much easier to move. Sometimes you really have to get up close and personal with the banana-you can see my feet pushing against the rim of the pot in this picture. It’s nice to have a helper for this, especially with larger plants-they can provide extra support to help keep the trunk from bending.

With the plant unearthed or debouched from its pot, I manhandle it down to the basement. (No I do not have  dirty lip in this photo–that’s an old picture and I used to have a moustache).

Once there, I drag it across the floor and stuff it unceremoniously into a corner of our root cellar (that’s it in the very back of the corner)–a space 10 feet by about 12 that hosts most of my tropicals during winter. Temperatures range form about mid 40s to upper 50s, and they stay there with no light and no water. I give them virtually no attention whatsoever until May. I’ve learned my storage space is quite humid and provides the plants with enough moisture to get by. In a very dry space you might have to sprinkle a little water now and then. But basically I try to store these things very, very dry–too much moisture will cause rot or fungus. Remember, the plants are not growing, they are just clinging to life. And that’s just what they do until May when after the last frost I bring them, up cut them back hard up top–they look look just godawful at this point–repot, and start providing them water, fertilizer, heat, and sunlight and before long, they’re putting on a show.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Nancy Bond October 22, 2008, 10:30 am

Thanks for the very comprehensive look at some of your winter prep! Bananas in the basement would be quite the treat. 🙂

Well there’s not a whole lot of treat having them in the basement, or in getting them there. The treat comes in spring when they go back out, and in summer when they unfurl their awesome leaves and carry me off to the tropics. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.–Steve

Kim Taylor October 22, 2008, 10:49 am

Great post, Steve! I’m sure this will answer a lot of questions for those folks who like to grow tender plants in colder climates. I’m thankful that all I have to do is throw a blanket over my bananas when cold temperatures threaten. We get a few freezes each winter in North Florida, but the plants nearly always come back.

Sure wish I could just toss a blanket over my tenders, but when you’re bitten by the tropical bug it doesnt matter where you live, you just gotta go troppo! I am surprised how tough some of this stuff is and, truth be told, thanks to my efforts at procrastinating, I don’t always get my plants in before a frost, but they usually still make it. Cannas-of which I have many, many-are a piece of cake, I let them die back to the ground, lop pff th emushy dead leaves, and bring in the rhizomes. Easy, peasy!–Steve

Josh October 22, 2008, 11:24 am

Thanks for the “Basement Banana Tutorial!” I’ll be trying it this winter. If it works, I see more bananas in my future.

What else do you store in the basement over winter?

It’s easy, but don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time. Took me a couplke troies to develop a workable system. Now I bring tons of plants in. In the dark basement, dormant, I have all kinds of stuff–bananas, brugmasias, mexican firebush, clerodendrum, abutilon, cannas, dahlias, elephant ears of all sorts, calla lillies, some kinds of salvias that make bulbs (S. guaranitica and S. patens, for example), all kinds of stuff. What amazes me is how many shrubs take to that treatment, then I remember that in most of the tropics they have not winter, but a dry season during which plants are to some degree dormant. I’m just taking advantage of it.–Steve

Nicole October 22, 2008, 11:31 am

Wow, that’s quite impressive an effort. A beautiful banana tree. To think here in the tropics people don’t even have to think about lifting plants-perhaps that’s why I see more of an interest in and appreciation of plants and gardening in colder climes. Its easy for people to take for granted things they don’t even have to think about.

I would love to have an actual tropical garden. Instead, I have to pretend. But I do like the temperate clime too, what’s fun for me is having elements of both.–Steve

Kitt October 22, 2008, 12:34 pm

Wow, that looks brutal. Both for you and the plants. But worth it! I’ve been thinking of doing that with brugmansia. But for now, I’m sticking with the more easily transported amaryllis.

There is definitely something to be said for limiting yourself to amaryllis. It is worth it for brugs though, after 2-3 years you have a fine sized plant , tons of blooms and a super garden presence.–Steve

David in VT October 22, 2008, 3:26 pm

I just moved mine into the basement, too. I usually remove all the foliage, so I’m curious as to the benefit of leaving some of the leaves. Don’t you find that they die over the winter anyway?

I lost one of my Abyssinian bananas last year, and, after reading your post, I suspect I kept it a little too wet. Seems like it’s better to err on the dry side.

I always leave some of the foliage on because, quite frankly, I never thought about taking it all off. Hmm… They’re basically dead by spring and I cut them back hard then. Guess I always figured they had some energy/nutrients to share with the rest of the plant. Dry is good–since the plants aren’t growing they cannot metabolize the water, so they just rot.–Steve

Pam/Digging October 22, 2008, 3:50 pm

I was going to say, wouldn’t it just be easier to move south? 😉 But hey, I just wrassled an enormous, spiny agave out of the ground from one garden to another, so who am I to talk? Enjoy your bananas, and show us the other end of the regimen next spring.

Hi Pam–Sure I could move south, but where’s the challenge in that?;-) My garden is all about creating the fantasy landscape in my mind’s eye, and the fact that it is at times labor intensive doesn’t really bother me. Besides, it’s much easier to move a nice smooth-leafed banana than a humungous fanged agave–I saw the pictures of that thing!–but then you only had to move yours once. Not much to enjoy of the banana over the winter, that’s when the tropicals rest and I recharge my psychic garden batteries.–Steve

Heirloom Gardener October 22, 2008, 5:53 pm

Great post. I just moved my tropicals in, not to my basement, but actually keep them in my great room. The kids think it’s like a jungle now.

HG–Thanks for the link! My basement looks like a jungle at the moment-overgrown and impenetrable. Bringing stuff in is just phase one, now I need to organize it. I’ll write about some more of my strategies in future posts.–Steve

themanicgardener October 22, 2008, 7:16 pm

I had no idea it was possible to grow bananas in Connecticut or Vermont, nor that one could wrastle the things in and out of pots. Wow.
–Kate

It’s all a matter of how severe the Horticultural OCD is. And I’ve got it bad.–Steve

Tina October 23, 2008, 9:01 am

Cool!
That is an awesome idea for people who can use (cram full) a basement. Unfortunately, all my tropicals have to be shoved into my house somewhere for the winter as my basement is just way too damp = rot. Ugh! We sit right atop a water table…not fun to have all that unusable space, but I DO get to look at and enjoy my inside jungle all year. Not so sure how much the kids and hubs enjoy it though. lol, the complaining started much earlier this year…

Hi Tina-Wet certainly is an unfriendly condition for overwintering dormant plants, in or out of the ground. Must be nice to be able to appreciate them, but aren’t some plagued by pests?–Steve

franniesorin October 23, 2008, 9:34 am

Steve-
What a timely article! Actually, I too am a procrastinator and had not yet brought my bananas in before getting a frost. All leaves were killed except the center one that was left intact.
I have brought them in, cut off dead leaves but have not yet taken into the basement. Did not know they could survive under those conditions. Usually try to keep them going in a sunny place upstairs. So thanks for that info. Do you use this technique for any other plants??? Fran

Thanks Fran–They should survive happily, despite being nipped by frost. I have a host of overwintering technique, which is a necessity for my tropicalesque garden. Since you asked, as did another commenter, I think I’ll post a list of what plants have weathered winter in my cool dark basement.–Steve

Neil October 25, 2008, 12:20 am

Hi Steve,

Do you cover the roots or are they bare naked in your basement? Is it sitting right on the concrete floor? Also, can I ask a favor? Can you take a pic of the roots so we can have an idea how the roots should look like when we overwinter them. I would like to know how much dirt you leave or remove.

Phenomenal information! You are awesome!!! 😉

Thanks Neil–The answer to your quesion is…it depends. But yes, many canna rhizomes are just stored with whatever dirt clings to them and heaped into plastic crates. Some bare rootballs–bananas, brugmansias, for example–do sit on the floor.–Steve

Barbarapc October 27, 2008, 1:34 pm

Thanks for this great post. I’ve always whacked my banana leaves off – no cold cellar just a Costco brown bag in the basement. Now I’m going to add my brugmansia to the sad plant corner in the basement – much better than living with a molting tropical all winter!

You’re welcome. Yes, much better-and much easier too. The sad plant corner may get larger, but the gardener will be happier. –Steve

jon pollard March 1, 2009, 7:00 pm

I normally cover our bananas with fleece in the Autumn but this year I didn’t get around to it and we got hit by the worst winter in 25 years. Frosts of -11 centigrade seem to have killed them all off, is there any chance that they will grow back from the root ball or am I being over optimistic?

Hi Jon–There’s definitely a chance something will come up from whatever might remain of the root ball. Depends how deeply the cold penetrated the ground. I have a Musa basjoo, a hardy banana, that dies to the ground and comes back gangbusters, and many other folks store their bananas indoors after whacking the plant down to the ground. So, there’s hope. Be patient and keep an eye on the spot. Once the ground warms up, I get impatient and scratch around gently with my finger to see if I can find any emerging shoots. Good luck.

Neil April 14, 2009, 12:07 am

It’s me again. Question again about over wintering banana. You mentioned that your banana’s rootball are bare and are sitting on the floor. Do you mist the rootball the entire winter?

Thanks!

Sorry I missed you Neil!–No, I don’t do a thing for the bananas. That said, my basement is a bit humid, so there’s some mositure available. If I had a bone dry basement, I would water the rootball a little now and then. Maybe moisten it once a month or so, but again, it all depends how humid the area is to begin with. Did yours survive this year? –Steve

jon pollard June 12, 2009, 6:05 am

Well, summer is here and I’m glad to say, so are the bananas! One trunk made it through the winter ok, the rest have fallen to the ground but there is lots of new growth from the base and they look better than ever – if a bit smaller!

Chad April 28, 2016, 5:03 pm

i was wandering how long it will take far the the leaves to start coming out after sitting in basement far the winter an is there a way to tell different varietys?

Sara Baird September 28, 2016, 10:22 am

When your trees come out of the basement in MAy, is that when you cut everything down? Do you take the entire stem/all the leaves off at that time? If so, how far down do you cut? Do you leave something like a 12″ stub?

Carol Ann September 19, 2017, 8:56 am

My basement stays in the upper 60° range, but my garage can get alot colder, near freeing, would I be better off removing all the soil from the rootball and placing it in peat? Like I do with my Canna lilies?

Carol ann February 19, 2018, 2:41 pm

Mine has gone unwatered in my basement in Cincinnati, and topmost leaves are still green- could I bring the pot up and put it by a sunny window now that the days are getting a bit longer or is it too soon and risking rot?

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