Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham
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| Let's Go Bananas
These are worrying times.
It is becoming clear that within our lifetimes or those of our children, we are increasingly likely to experience catastrophic events due to climate change or a disease pandemic.
While both these scenarios have their root cause in the world's unsustainable overpopulation, we in NZ are arguably in the best possible place to ride out the worst effects of such events.
Our low population, physical isolation in a large ocean and our climate are factors on our side.
Yet in NZ, because of our increasingly urban lifestyles there have never been so many people growing up without the basic skills to grow there own food.
A surprising degree of food self-sufficiency is possible in a quarter acre back yard and whether the recent dire predictions are right or not, it seems sensible to be growing some basic food-producing plants at home.
In the warmer parts of NZ, bananas (Musa) are one of the most productive food plants we can grow. There are a great many different types of banana here and some of them are very hardy, prolific and tasty.
One of the most delicious is a new variety from Honduras that has been bred for cool climates, called Goldfinger. (No, forget Austin Powers in his cycling shorts). Goldfinger has small, thin-skinned fruit in medium-sized bunches of about 100 to 140 fingers, whose intense sweetness is slightly acidic, with the tang of lime or pineapple. My favourite. It makes the supermarket types taste very bland. It grows to 3.5m high.
Very similar is the Tongan Ladyfinger, sometimes called the Pineapple Ladyfinger. It grows taller, 5m, but is equally hardy and tastes deliciously tangy while there is still some green on the skin.
Another great performer is the Samoan Misi Luki, whose larger creamy-textured fruit hang in bunches of 200 or more and can weigh over twenty kilos at harvest. How many other crops will produce that much high quality tucker from little more than a square metre of ground?
Hua Moa is a big, chunky, round-ended plantain banana, sometimes sold in supermarkets, which is delicious baked or fried when green, with a flavour like kumara, but ripens yellow to become a sweet, pinkish-fleshed dessert banana.
The double banana, Mahoi from Hawaii, has a flower-head that forks to produce two bunches per stem.
There are lots of others, but an exciting prospect for any part of NZ is the amazing 'Snow Banana', Musa Basjoo, from China and Japan, which can be grown even where Winters are snowy. The fruit is inedible but it is grown for its long silky fibre which is traditionally used to make fabrics and high quality paper. This handsome big banana plant (4m to 5m) would thrive even in Dunedin or Christchurch and could well become the basis for a specialist fibre industry in NZ.
Bananas are gross-feeders. They need lots and lots of animal manure and mulch to produce well. Bananas need a sprinkling of wood ashes every Spring which improves fruit numbers, size and quality. They need lots of moisture through Summer, good wind-shelter and minimal frost. If we feed and thin our clumps we can harvest bunches with thirteen hands, about 200 fruit from Misi Luki and the Tongan ladyfinger.
In warm weather, bananas grow at an astonishing rate; a new two to three metre leaf every week through Summer.
Most bananas fruit in NZ after eighteen to twenty two months. They will survive light frost once established, re-growing rapidly from the base if damaged.
If bananas are not managed properly, they can be a tangled and unsightly mess. After harvesting a bunch, cut the spent stem off at ground-level. Only allow two new suckers to grow each year and remove the rest. If excess suckers are not removed they compete with each other, lose vigour and stop fruiting.
Bananas must be planted in Spring and Summer when soil is warm. They have no particular fruiting season, but flower after 42 leaves regardless of season. If they flower in late Autumn the fruit will not develop properly in the cold months so it pays to cover the bunch with a coloured plastic bag for the Winter, open at the bottom like a raincoat. This keeps the fruit warmer and stops bird and rat damage as they develop.
A few clumps could make a substantial contribution to the family food budget.
If a project like this were set up in schools, imagine the difference it could make to the kids' daily diet, as well as their life skills. Lets go bananas.
This article first appeared in Scene Magazine, December 2006
(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2006)