What to do with a beautiful banana over winter

Erin Schanen

There’s one plant in my garden that’s been stealing the show all summer. A red abyssinian banana, purchased in a two-gallon container in April, has grown larger and more beautiful faster than anything I’ve ever grown.

It was only about 30 inches tall when I planted it outside in a large 36-inch cube planter. It is now more than 8 feet tall, and adding in the height of the planter, it towers more than 11 feet in the air, now reaching beyond the eaves of the house. Its leaves, some of which measure longer than 6 feet, look lit from within in the golden hour light.

And the question I’m asked most about this statement plant isn’t how I grew it, which would require a rather boring answer anyway since I didn’t do anything special beyond planting it in a good container mix in full sun and watering it regularly. What people really want to know is what will I do with it for winter.

I’ve left the answer hanging out there because truth be told, as a first-time banana grower I had to do some research. I turned to Marianne Willburn’s book “Tropical Plants and How to Love Them,” which is one of those gardening books that I keep close at hand for moments like these.

I have three options for this gargantuan tropical plant that has no business being so happy in Wisconsin. The first is to bring it inside intact. Unless my house sprouted a magical conservatory with very high glass ceilings, this is not an option. I could also just let it die, which is a perfectly reasonable option. Purchased for $40, I got more than my money’s worth out of it, and I’d happily spend that money again for a repeat look.

The third option, and the one I’ve decided to go with, is to bring it in and store it in dormancy. This requires digging it up, which probably won’t be too difficult since it’s a shallow-rooted plant, then cutting back all of those beautiful leaves and cutting the tip back to the point where the leaves emerge, a process Willburn outlines in her book.

I’ll do this soon, although a touch of frost before digging would help nudge the plant into dormancy.

After that, I’ll wrap the root ball in an old towel and put that in a plastic drawstring bag, a method that Willburn says helps meet the rather fussy requirements of a plant that can’t be too wet or too dry. The whole package must be kept vertical, so I’ll probably prop it up in a pot and then store it in as close to ideal coditions as I can find — between 35 to 45 degrees (and never freezing) and in the dark, which mean a very specific corner of my basement.

In April, I’ll pull it out of its slumber, pot it up and bring it into the light to produce stabilizing roots before it heads back outside after there’s no chance of frost.

Overwintering any plant brings with it a certain amount of risk, so I’m keeping my expectations low. But if it does work, I’ll have an even bigger banana to plant next year. Perhaps I’ll plunk it directly in the garden where this showstopper will look even more the oddball.


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