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Finally built my compost digester and planted out my hardy bananas (Musa Basjoo) -- in Oklahoma!

 
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Last summer I discovered the existence of a hardy banana (Musa Basjoo, sometimes called by the misnomer "Japanese Fiber Banana) that's said to be hardy enough to survive an Oklahoma winter.  It won't make fruit this far north, but the fruit isn't considered worthwhile anyway.  Mostly I want banana trees growing in my front yard as a very subtle thumb in the eye to the climate change deniers in my community.  Anyway, I sourced some ridiculously tiny, thumb-sized starts from Amazon and I took them inside this winter because they were still babies.  One of them grew pretty good under my grow lights and the other one just sat there -- surviving but not increasing.

Another track of this project is my long-term failure to compost our kitchen scraps.  There's no place in our kitchen for a compost can/receptacle that the lady of the house can tolerate, and I'm too lazy to haul scraps out to a garden-located compost pile every time I peel a vegetable.  But as part of a tiny kitchen herb garden that I installed on our carport this spring, I was able to create a place for a compost bucket with a lid, literally one step outside our front door.  

The other problem with composting is the Oklahoma climate -- it's often very hot and dry and windy, and an open compost pile may dry up and blow away before it starts working.  It's also difficult to protect from varmints of several kinds.  All solvable problems, but I haven't messed with it to date.  Bad Permie, no buiscuit.  

So this project was inspired by a two-dollar garage sale purchase of a heavy galvanized wire mesh basket or open-topped cylindar.  It occured to me that I could inset it into the ground and use it for a compost digester, not so dissimilar from my infamous rat digester.  Get the compost under ground to protect it from sun and wind and larger critters, and then simply plant hungry plants nearby to suck up the lovely nutrients.  

If you had to name one thing that everybody thinks of when you say "permaculture project", but you couldn't say "food forest", odds are you'd say either "herb spiral" or banana circle.  So naturally when I found a banana that would grow here, I figured I would see if the compost digester idea could serve as a mini banana "circle".

A few days ago I got down to digging.  I got out my dirt auger to help get the hole started.



I picked a spot for the banana trees and the digester right in the middle of my container garden, with my fishy water barrels on one side and a pallet table on the other.  Digging went OK at first but the dirt auger bottomed out about six inches shallower than I hoped on a slab of green sandstone that matches our bedrock.  I don't know if it's actually a ridge of bedrock rising up in that spot or if it's a loose slab of stone floating in the soil.  But the hard inch of petrified clay on top of it is typical of the bedrock formations around here.



The result was that I could not bury the digester quite as deep as I hoped.  No worries, though; a volcano of wood chips piled around it will make up most of the difference.



As mentioned, one of the banana trees did well over the winter and one did not flourish.  Both of these were thumb sized plugs with three tiny busted-up leaves when I got them last August, though, so I won't complain:



Here the bananas are in the ground with a thick layer of wood chip mulch around plants and digester both.  I've added the first load of compost to the digester.



Done!  And a makeshift lid on the digester.



I wasn't gentle enough about hardening off the banana plants after their resort winter under my grow lights.  In the first 24 hours, about 30% of the foilage got damaged (perhaps sun or wind damage, it was a bright warm blustery day) and shows wilting and discoloration.  But new leaf spikes are already coming out the tops and they look healthy.  I think the plants will be fine.


 
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Awesome setup. Those bananas are going to thrive. They dont resemble the basjoo that I grew, they look more like a cavendish type. But I am no banana expert. I did grow basjoo up north and now only grow edible varieties, and they look a lot like dwarf Cavendish, and super healthy looking.
 
Dan Boone
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Dan Allen wrote:They dont resemble the basjoo that I grew, they look more like a cavendish type. But I am no banana expert. I did grow basjoo up north and now only grow edible varieties, and they look a lot like dwarf Cavendish, and super healthy looking.



You could very well be right.  I bought them from a semi-shady nursery on Amazon that had a lot of negative feedback for advertising "plants in four inch pots" and sending along thumb-sized plugs from seed-starting trays, bunged in four inch pots full of fresh potting soil before shipping.  But I decided I could live with that -- and indeed it's exactly what I got.  But with ethics like that, they could be sending along "any old banana".

Fortunately, I have an equally-shady backup plan -- some basjoo seeds I sourced via eBay from China or Indonesia or some such place.  "Seeds not as described" is a common problem with sources like that, but when the investment is two bucks or whatever, I take a lot of risks like that, and sometimes they pay off handsomely.
 
Dan Allen
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I think you'll have good luck either way, especially if you're in southeast oklahoma. I have read of decent results fruiting bananas there.
 
Dan Boone
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Dan Allen wrote:I think you'll have good luck either way, especially if you're in southeast oklahoma.  I have read of decent results fruiting bananas there.



That swampy little corner of the state is almost tropical, like the part of East Texas it adjoins. I'm told the Oklahoma department of fish and game is terrified that someone will introduce alligators, because they would thrive there but are not present (yet).   But, sadly, no: I'm toward the middle of the state where we get hard freezes reliably every year.   We even get upper-midwest style blizzards (though not as strong) once every seven or eight years.   The last 4 years the low at my house has been 12 degrees F every year.  

I just want a big plant with impressive tropical-looking leaves.  I am not looking for fruit.  However, there is a short-season banana (blue ice cream? -- it's been awhile since I did the research) that puts on fruit in 9-10 months instead of the year-plus frost-free that most bananas seem to need.  We currently have a 9-month growing season, and the thirty year outlook has us shifting from 7b to a solid zone 8 as global warming continues.  So it may be possible.  
 
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I've had really good luck getting bananas from Florida Hill nursery.  They ship well and take right off.  And they're cheap.  Last year I got a pair that were finger sized in diameter and 10" tall.  Planted them in early July and by early September they were 8' tall with a trunk the size of my leg.

I think of them like giant hummingbirds.  They looooove nirtogen.  I urigated each one daily and planted them in a mix of half soil and half chicken run compost that was too hot for normal use.  They loved it.
 
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Mike Haasl wrote:I've had really good luck getting bananas from Florida Hill nursery.  They ship well and take right off.  And they're cheap.  Last year I got a pair that were finger sized in diameter and 10" tall.  Planted them in early July and by early September they were 8' tall with a trunk the size of my leg.

I think of them like giant hummingbirds.  They looooove nirtogen.  I urigated each one daily and planted them in a mix of half soil and half chicken run compost that was too hot for normal use.  They loved it.


Mike you have 8 ft banana trees in Northern Wisconsin?

Are they edible varieties? Other than urigation and hot compost what else do you do for them to keep them alive in your climate?

Dan thats awesome. Are you using half a minnow trap? For the inground digester?  This looks like a great idea. Its like having a door for feeding your soil.
 
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You bet, they don't really like the winter here though...  And I have them in a greenhouse where they still died this winter...  But for $10 with free shipping, I'm doing it again this year.  And hopefully I'll keep it warmer and they'll live.

They were edible varieties, Gran Nain and Double Mahoi.  My soil is sandy so I just dug out a 5 gallon bucket of my soil, mixed it with 5 gallons of chicken run compost and filled the hole back up and made a raised bathtub around the banana.  That way when I watered it would stay near the plant and soak the nitrogen down into the root zone.  I water twice a week, pee on them and tell them they're wonderful plants.  They were putting out two 4' leaves a week during the heat of the summer.

I suspect if I had them outside during that same time they would have still been pretty impressive.  But definitely would have died by Oct 1.  In the greenhouse they survived longer than I thought, down to around 30 degrees.
Gran-Nain-banana-about-7-tall.jpg
Gran Nain banana about 7' tall
Gran Nain banana about 7' tall
 
Clay Bunch
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Thats incredible! Sometimes I can really limit my creativity based on preconceived notions.

I hope you have better luck this year!
Maybe with the heat source you use for the greenhouse you could have some copper tubing and a water barrel to create a thermosyphon pushing warm water around the roots of one of them and allowing the radiant heat and steam to warm the rest of the plant and the air.
 
Dan Allen
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Dan Boone wrote:

Dan Allen wrote:I think you'll have good luck either way, especially if you're in southeast oklahoma.  I have read of decent results fruiting bananas there.



That swampy little corner of the state is almost tropical, like the part of East Texas it adjoins. I'm told the Oklahoma department of fish and game is terrified that someone will introduce alligators, because they would thrive there but are not present (yet).   But, sadly, no: I'm toward the middle of the state where we get hard freezes reliably every year.   We even get upper-midwest style blizzards (though not as strong) once every seven or eight years.   The last 4 years the low at my house has been 12 degrees F every year.  

I just want a big plant with impressive tropical-looking leaves.  I am not looking for fruit.  However, there is a short-season banana (blue ice cream? -- it's been awhile since I did the research) that puts on fruit in 9-10 months instead of the year-plus frost-free that most bananas seem to need.  We currently have a 9-month growing season, and the thirty year outlook has us shifting from 7b to a solid zone 8 as global warming continues.  So it may be possible.  



Ice cream is fairly hardy, but the shortest time to fruit is the veinte cohol, it's the standard in georgia. But as long as you can overwinter the pseudo stem or two thirds of it you can get bananas to fruit the following season. I had musa basjoo survive several fall frosts with only minor damage in Michigan.  -26 is the coldest they saw with only a light leaf mulch. They came back every year. Here in soflo the ice cream is one of the slower growers in winter, the cavendish and orinoco seem to grow faster through the cooler winter months.
 
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Very cool project! Banana circles are one of the projects I haven't really considered, since I can't grow edible bananas here. So, if I understand correctly, the circles are kind of like a boggy keyhole garden, with the goals being to process organic matter, get fruit/food, then use the biomass of the plants to distribute the minerals from the compost to other gardens via mulch?  

I will add hardy banana to my never- ending list of plants to get. Until I get some banana plants, I might still be able to modify the guild in the hyperlinked article for a low spot in the side yard where water pools after a heavy rain. Maybe just taro & cannas for now, which might be good mulch for the part of the forest garden by that spot.

Dan, keep us posted on how the circle works for you!
 
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Clay Bunch wrote:
Dan thats awesome. Are you using half a minnow trap? For the inground digester?  This looks like a great idea. Its like having a door for feeding your soil.



Is that what that thing is?  I've never trapped a minnow, wouldn't have the first idea how.  I honestly thought it was an air filter cage for a huge piece of heavy equipment, but I was just guessing.  It has a four-inch-on-a-side square hole on one side near one end (I buried it below ground and protected it with cardboard so it wouldn't let soil fall in when I backfilled) and that half-inch wide seven-inch-long slit you can see in the third photo.  But it's heavy galvanized stuff, it won't be rusting out for many years.  I don't actually remember buying it, but it's the sort of well-made heavy junk that I can't resist buying at garage sales for one or two dollars.
 
Dan Boone
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Kc Simmons wrote:Very cool project! Banana circles are one of the projects I haven't really considered, since I can't grow edible bananas here.



That was me too!  "Banana circle" was, for me, just one of those "tropical permaculture" memes that I always skimmed past because not relevant in my temperate climate.  Then the day I discovered cold-hardy banana plants I was like "Hey, now..."

Kc Simmons wrote:So, if I understand correctly, the circles are kind of like a boggy keyhole garden, with the goals being to process organic matter, get fruit/food, then use the biomass of the plants to distribute the minerals from the compost to other gardens via mulch?



That's my understanding as well.  Modified in this case by the fact that I don't expect to get food from this one, which means I can put things in the digester that I might not put in a compost pile.  Although we'll have to see about that.  Banana leaves have a lot of uses, and some of them are food-related, like wrapping food in to steam it (similar to corn husks around tamales).
 
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I suppose a bit of an update is in order.

As seen above, I planted two plants -- a robust one and a scrawny one.  The robust one grew steadily all last summer, not putting on a bunch of height but getting up somewhere between my knees and waist, putting up a new leaf about every three days.  The scrawny one didn't flourish, and about July it came right out of the ground while I was pulling adjacent weeds.  Roots were somewhat rotted and possibly rodent-chewed, so I potted it back up and brought it inside in the fall.  It's been flourishing in my little indoor jungle that I maintain for tropical plants and it will get planted next to the digester again this summer.

When frost started to beat up the leaves of the robust one last fall, I cut it off about ten inches above ground, leaving me with a stem about 2.5" thick.  I buried that in a pile of wood chip mulch about 30 inches across and about ten inches taller than the stump.

Then we got the big polar vortex storm last month.  It froze hard for more than week, starting with no snow, so the ground froze some inches deep, which almost never happens here.  We finally got about two inches of snow (not the thick insulating blanket I would have preferred) right before it dropped down to below-zero temps for several days, culminating in a night when it dropped to 13 degrees below zero (a local record by one degree).  It seems to have frozen out all of my winter greens and root vegetables (kale, chard, parsnips, carrots) that usually overwinter easily here.  So I am not optimistic at all that my Musa Basjoo will pop back up through my pile of mulch this spring.  But we have Dan Allen's report in this thread of one surviving -26 in Michigan, so I can't rule it entirely out, either!  Still, a first year plant with shallow roots, and no protective snow cover... it's concerning.  Luckily I have a backup plant waiting inside to try again with!

 
Dan Boone
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I also wanted to update this thread with an article about people who are thinking a lot like me, only further south:  After the Flood, the Forest: On planting bananas in the warming Gulf Coast

A couple of short excerpts:


There is a narrow band along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in which banana cultivation is possible. And it’s growing, moving northward with climate change, despite occasional havoc by arctic vortices. The Gulf South region of the US is becoming subtropical. At some point in our lifetimes, large parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia will experience freezing temperatures for the last time.

...

Now is probably a good time to mention that banana trees are not trees, botanically speaking. They’re the world’s largest non-woody plant, basically a big perennial grass. This is one reason why bananas are useful in this transition. Since they sprout from the root even if they’re mowed over or the aerial parts die from frost, and because each stalk dies after fruiting anyway, an arctic vortex or hurricane-force winds doesn't represent a major setback. They grow fast, able to either shade out grasses or reach tree canopy height to access sun in a forest. Ecologically speaking, we hope they will act as a mid-successional species in the transition from either temperate forest or grassland to subtropical forest.

Each stalk produces fruit after 10-15 months without a hard freeze. In other words, the narrow band on the map where it’s easy to grow bananas is accompanied by a much larger area in which they grow well but don’t fruit. This is another reason why bananas are an ideal messenger species for the coming subtropical forest; in the hills of Georgia or the Piney Woods of east Texas and western Louisiana, banana plants can thrive and multiply but don’t fruit due to freezing weather. Increasingly popular as ornamentals, their eventual fruits will bear undeniable truths about climate change.

...


Our goal is ... to produce as many human-banana-plant interactions as possible and decentralize production so that it's within everyone's reach and cannot be controlled.

As such, many of the fruit trees grown at the rural project are being sent to New Orleans to be planted along sidewalks, in lawns, churchyards, and empty lots. This effort is coordinated by Lobelia Commons, an open collective of gardeners which formed early in the pandemic. They deliver free vegetable seedlings, build micro-nursery stands to distribute free plants, help people grow edible mushrooms, and generally try to build a living food commons in the city.


Part of the joy of planting a fruit tree is knowing that the tree may outlive you, providing fruit for many generations. In New Orleans, we content ourselves with the other joy of planting a fruit tree—the part about eating and sharing the fruit during your lifetime.  ... [W]e are leaving the planting of trees that only fruit after 10-15 years to our friends at higher elevations, and we are propagating banana plants, which fruit in a year or two.

 
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Thanks for keeping us updated.
I'm considering planting hardy banana trees so I can  supply my neighbors with leaves, and your example is encouraging.
 
Dan Boone
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Last night we got storms and five inches of warm rain.  The forecast is for warm wet weather going forward. I became concerned that my banana tree mulch pile might become a hot compost pile, and anyway it was time to face the music. So I started hoeing away the mulch.

On about the third hoe stroke, I struck and pulled out the entire above ground stem remnant, as a single black soggy mass.

I kept hoing.

My fear and expectation was that the entire plant froze in the ground, and that I’d find a hole filled with more black muck at ground level. Instead, right at ground level, I struck color! I’m not sure this tissue is alive, but it’s at least proof that the black rot hasn’t penetrated to the roots yet. This gives me hope that there’s a living root system down there ready to resprout now that spring warmth is here.

Updates as events warrant!
3A9D71B5-9A38-439A-A754-23C069ACE664.jpeg
Base of hardy banana after a hard winter
Base of hardy banana after a hard winter
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