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By Whitney Miller, Advanced Extension Master Gardener
My husband and I had the pleasure of vacationing in Saint Lucia this October and were excited to experience the southern Caribbean and its lush foliage. What surprised me most was that nearly everything on the island is edible: cocoa, coconut, nutmeg, bananas, mango, papaya, ginger, breadnut, vanilla, and more. While most of these are not native, the variation of topography includes a volcano, rainforest, and beaches, which creates several soil types and ideal growing areas for the abundance of plants brought to the island via ship over the centuries. Imagine being a hungry sailor shipwrecked in Saint Lucia, and having success growing food!
According to www.plants.usda.gov, bananas fall under the genus Musa. There are several varieties, including “plantain bananas” and “dessert bananas”, among others, which are believed to have originated in the Southeast Asia. In the United States, we are mostly familiar with the Cavendish variety (dessert bananas). Some sites list bananas botanically as a berry, but https://www.bananalink.org.uk/all-about-bananas/ classifies them as an herb. This site clarifies things further:
“Banana plants are often mistaken for trees or palms – they are actually herbs. The banana is a perennial plant that replaces itself. Bananas do not grow from a seed but from a bulb or rhizome, and it takes 9 to 12 months from sowing a banana bulb to harvesting the fruit. The banana flower appears in the sixth or seventh month. Unlike other fruit like apples which have a growing season, bananas are available all year round.
Banana plants thrive in tropical regions where the average temperature is 80° F (27° C) and the yearly rainfall is between 78 and 98 inches. Most bananas exported are grown within 30 degrees either side of the equator. The plants need rich, dark and fertile soils with steady moisture in the air and ground and good drainage.”
In Saint Lucia, bananas grow very quickly thanks to the fertile soil and near perfect rainfall amounts. It takes exactly nine months for an immature plant to produce ripened fruit. The fruit grows in an upward direction, not downward like many may think. The main trunk is then cut to about 6 inches above the ground. The plant will then create a sucker which is allowed to grow and will produce again. Thus, the pattern is repeated for every plant every 9 months. After about 10 years, or when the space becomes full, the entire plant will be dug up and made into hog feed, and a new one planted (from a cutting). Some of the banana plants in the gardens are believed to be direct descendants of the first bananas on the island.
Once harvested, they are exported to several areas of the world via ship. Primarily, Saint Lucia provides bananas to England. According to https://www.bananalink.org.uk/all-about-bananas/, “The fruit is then transported to ports to be packed in refrigerated ships called reefers (bananas take between six and twelve days to get to the UK/Europe). In order to increase shelf life, they are transported at a temperature of 13.3°C, and require careful handling in order to prevent damage. Humidity, ventilation and temperature conditions are also carefully monitored in order to maintain quality.” Thus the bananas make it to grocery stores and into homes.
While vacationing is often a time of rest and relaxation, trips to new locations can introduce gardeners to new plants and growing cultures. Be sure to “go bananas” and discover new foods when you next travel.
By Tamara Premo, EMG Trainee
Yesterday I received two seed catalogs and today my garden planning begins for next spring. Looking at all the new vegetables and perennials makes me antsy to start gardening again, but spring is months away. Not to worry….five years ago I learned how to start my gardening during the winter. It’s called Winter Sowing and gives me a head start on my planting by 3 or 4 weeks.
Winter Sowing is a cost-effective and low-maintenance way of starting plants for the garden. Creator of the winter-sowing method, Trudi Davidoff puts it in simple terms: starting plants outdoors, in winter. “Winter-sowing works with nature to prepare seeds for growth by providing the proper conditions to begin germination. While this may sound complicated, the only supplies needed are a recycled container that allows light through, soil, and seeds,” says Nicole Flowers-Kimmerle, horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension.
To begin, create your miniature greenhouse from recycled plastic containers. Milk jugs that allow light to penetrate work well. Experiment with the recyclable containers you have on hand.
Because the containers will collect snow and rain, add drainage holes in your mini-greenhouse. With a drill or utility knife, cut several holes into the bottom of the container. Cut around the milk jug below the bottom of the handle, without cutting the top of the container all the way off. Leave about a half an inch intact just below the handle. This section acts as a hinge to hold the container together.
Next, fill the bottom of the miniature greenhouse with potting soil. Moisten the soil and allow it to drain. The soil should have a moisture level like a damp sponge. Light and fluffy soil that drains well works best.
The container is now ready for seeds. Small seeds can be left on top of the soil, however larger seeds require more attention. Follow the instructions on the seed packet for planting depths of larger seeds. Make sure there is good contact between the seed and the soil. Replace the lid and secure with duct tape. Label the container with the date and the type of seed planted. Your small greenhouse container is ready to go outdoors. While the mini-greenhouses should receive sunlight and have exposure to rain and snow, they should be placed in an area that is safe from strong winds.
The temperature variation prepares the seeds for germination at the proper time. When the days begin to warm, seedlings will emerge. After emergence, open the container on sunny days, but close it at dusk to protect the seedlings from cold night temperatures. The seedlings naturally harden off and can be transplanted when soil temperatures reach proper levels. Cut flaps along the side of the miniature greenhouse to slide seedlings out. Divide the clump into pieces and plant as you would a store variety.
Wait to begin winter-sowing until January or February. If there is a warm spell, the seeds can germinate, but won’t be hardy enough to survive when temperatures fall. “Do your homework when choosing seeds,” Flowers-Kimmerle says. “Frost-tolerant flowers and vegetables such as petunias, cosmos, kale, broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts successfully withstand the cold temperatures of early winter. Frost-sensitive species such as zinnias, tomatoes, and squash need to wait until the warmer temperatures of March or April before sowing using this method.” Winter sown seedlings grow into healthy, sturdy plants. Plants will be ready to thrive in the garden when spring arrives.
For more information about this topic, there is a very active Facebook group called “Winter Sowers” and a website at wintersown.org. Both have lists of annuals, perennials, native plants, and vegetables that are good candidates for this process.
I encourage you to give this method a try, it’s inexpensive and you’ll get a jump start on planting next season.