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By Norman Winter
McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
There is nothing that can add a touch of the tropics to the backyard, porch patio or pool than the coarse textured foliage offered by bananas, and the Japanese fiber banana is one that almost anyone can grow. I recently returned from a speaking engagement at Callaway Gardens and had the opportunity to see a wonderful presentation shot mostly in Northeastern locations like New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York.
Though many of these wonderful homes feature cottage gardens and were at houses dating back to the early 1800s, I could not help but notice the use of bananas either in the landscape or in containers. This is certainly appropriate because our ancestors of the Victorian period placed importance in rthe ole of tropical foliage like bananas, elephant ears and castor beans.
The plant is known botanically as Musa basjoo and gets about 10 feet tall, adding great interest to the landscape. Its cold-hardiness makes it possible to grow bananas throughout a wide range of the country, allowing gardens to look like the West Indies. Though it may be hard to believe, well-mulched Japanese fiber bananas have been known to return from minus 20 degrees.
The flowers are among the most beautiful and exotic, but don't look for a harvest--these bananas aren't edible.
Gardeners and garden centers are just now really starting to catch on to this wonderful tropical plant. You might, however, want to be among the first to shop your garden centers in the warm spring to make sure you get some. If they don't stock them, don't fret--they are easily found in mail order and grow at such a rapid pace you may be tempted to invite the neighbors over to watch.
Plant the Japanese fiber banana in the spring, after the soil has warmed and the threat of freezing weather has passed. Full sun and fertile, well-drained, organic-rich soil is needed for both vigor and cold-hardiness. Amend the soil if needed with 3 to 4 inches of compost or humus and till to a depth of 8 to 10 inches.