Considering their popularity as a store-bought fruit, it’s surprising that bananas aren’t more common as a backyard food crop. They grow faster than pretty much any fruit tree (bananas are actually giant herbs, not trees), and if properly maintained produce massive crops year after year. Although not as hardy as apples or even feijoa, bananas can be grown in many parts of the country. Roughly speaking, if you can grow limes, you can probably grow bananas too.
Most of the bananas available to the home gardener in New Zealand are of the lady finger type. These produce weighty bunches of stubby, sweet and richly flavoured fruit. Lady fingers can be white, yellow or orange fleshed, but all taste considerably better (somehow more banana-like) than their imported, store-bought counterparts.
Being an avid urban forager, I nose about in other peoples gardens at every opportunity. I actually see a lot of banana plants around Auckland, but very few that have been properly managed, and thus very few that bear much in the way of fruit. Although bananas are very easy to grow, there is one very important and rather counterintuitive secret to their success: you don’t cut down the fruit, you cut down the whole ‘tree’.
What looks like a tree is actually merely a stem, and it can only fruit once. If allowed to linger, it will suck energy from the underground rhizome and cause crowding as more shoots reach for the sky. Within a year or so the plant will become a tangled, tatty mess, producing only the occasional small flower spike, most of which will shrivel or form hard, perma-green fruitlets. If you’re in possession of such a thicket, get out there now and start slashing. Leave only two to three young shoots. Sounds brutal I know, but come next autumn you’ll thank me. Almost forgot- banana sap stains like blood, so throw on something old and scruffy before the carnage begins.
Anyway, I raised this topic with an ulterior motive. You see well-managed bananas really are astonishingly productive, and therein lies the problem. This week I harvested my first bananas of the season: a single bunch weighing around 20 kilos, which in typically irksome banana fashion, is ripening en mass. More dauntingly still, a second (even larger) bunch is only about a week away, so I’m racing against the clock. I’ve been using them in curries, in cakes, fried and will try drying some this weekend too. But I’m running short on inspiration. They’re a wonderful fruit and I don’t want any to end up as chicken feed. So I’m keen, nay desperate, for some knockout suggestions. Help me. Please.