Growing Banana Trees in a Drought-Tolerant Garden

by Elle Meager
(Pioneer Valley, Australia)

My banana tree's first fruits

My banana tree's first fruits

Banana Trees are tropical plants. They love rich, deep soils. They love water, both in the soil and the air (humidity). They don’t like hot sun, they don’t like being dry, and they don’t like being exposed.

So, you may ask, how could you possibly grow a banana tree in a drought-tolerant garden? My first garden was in an incredibly dry, hot place (guess why I moved!) but I desperately wanted to grow bananas. Homegrown bananas are incredible, you’ve never tasted banana unless you’ve tasted one grown in someone’s garden.

I failed miserably. They looked sad, desperate, and there was no fruit in sight. I had to change conditions. That’s where groves come in. Using groves, you’ll find that you can grow plants you’d otherwise never grow.

Here’s how to grow bananas on a water-budget

1: Plant them close together
Don’t punish your bananas by planting them out in the yard, all by themselves. Create a grove with a tiered plant system, meaning you have a top story (tall trees, like avocadoes), a middle story (smaller trees and shrubs, like bananas), and a bottom story (ground covers and climbing plants, like strawberries and grapes).

Your top story trees provide cover for the smaller, more fragile plants below. Most gardens already have a top story; use it to provide cover for your bananas. I know it’s been mentioned that ‘plants need full sun to fruit’ but actually, this is not the case. My banana didn’t start fruiting until it had shade for most of the day, provided by a huge bamboo. The same applied to my grapes - the most sun-loving fruit of all!

Not only do the bigger trees provide protection, having them growing close together creates a microclimate. I’ve grown deeply-tropical plants in a coldish, barely subtropical climate successfully, simply by cramming them in. You may notice, when you sit in a thick garden or forest, that the temperature is always nicer than ‘outside’. It’s never quite as hot as ‘out in the open’ and never quite as cold. That’s the power of a microclimate.

2: Mulch
Bananas do love water, there’s no doubt about that. But, there are things you can do to help it become much more drought hardy. Mulch, for starters. For me, gardens are made with mulch. You can’t garden without mulch. It increases microbe activity, resulting in better quality soil. Any soil is improved with mulch, from sand to clay.

Mulching will help keep the water where the water is needed. It keeps the sun, heat, and cold away from root systems. Bananas have shallow roots, so any weather event impacts the root system directly. Mulch deeply and you’ll reduce that impact greatly.

Don’t be frugal with the mulch. I use bales of sugar cane mulch, and each banana gets a whole bale. Yes, it’s deep, but the soil underneath is beautiful and moist, even on the hottest of days. Even today, when our last rain was at least two months ago. I’ve only watered them once in those two months and they are looking gorgeous. Why? Because they have cover from a big Weeping Lilly Pilly and they’re covered thickly in mulch.

3: Use Used Water
Bananas don’t mind dirty or greywater. In fact, they thrive on it. We have the shower outlet going straight onto the bananas. When we were on water restrictions, at our old place, we had a bucket in the sink and any time anyone washed their hands or rinsed a cup, the bucket would catch the water.

That bucket would go straight to the bananas. Later on, I started peeling potatoes straight into the bucket, as well as carrots and other veggies. All of that would go straight on, they thrived on it.

4: Use Their Own Foliage
Banana trunks are all water. If you’ve ever cut down a banana, which is surprisingly easy for such a heavy-duty trunk, you would have seen the water pouring out of the cut pieces. They’re incredibly good at storing water, which is a big plus in a drought-tolerant garden.

When your banana clump gets too big, or some of the older plants start to not look their best, cut them down and use them for mulch. Banana leaves and trunks make incredible mulch, and the water from the trunks and foliage is released back to the remaining trees. It’s also full of Nitrogen, helping your remaining trees to grow stronger with deep, dark green foliage.

5: Seaweed Extract and Chicken Manure
After mulch, seaweed extract is my favorite garden tool (and a mattock, but that’s beside the point at the moment). Seaweed extract reduces plant stress, it’s a plant’s best friend.

Quote from this source):

“Seaweed extract benefits included enhanced crop yield, improved root structures, improved plant development like flowering, leaf development, and fruit set, and enhanced ability to tolerate plant disease and climatic stresses such as cold or drought.”

Simply put, plants are better at dealing with drought, they grow better, and they’re more disease resistant. In our former organic plant nursery, we used seaweed extract extensively and noticed a big decrease in disease and insect damage.

And chicken manure, well, this is not so much for drought-hardiness, but beneficial nonetheless, for its potassium content. Potassium helps with fruit set. Manures, in general, are beneficial, acting similarly to mulch; providing a layer between the root system and the elements, as well as providing the plant with nutrient, and beneficial bugs with sustenance.

One last point…

Make sure your bananas are protected from livestock; they love the foliage and will leave nothing at all. Just the other day, our neighbor’s cows came over for a visit and I spent two hours guarding the banana trees. I’d learned from experience that cows and banana plants don’t go together.

I’d purchased two, very special, tissue-culture grown banana trees. One was a Dwarf Ducasse and the other a Goldfinger. They came as tube stock, and I had grown them up, beautifully, up to 7” pots. One morning, to my dismay, I went to check up them and found two empty pots. The horror! The cows had obliterated them overnight. That said, the same applies to rabbits, and in Australia, kangaroos and wallabies.

Written by Elle Meager. Elle loves edible and rare plants, the more obscure the better. She has a diploma in Naturopathy, with a focus on Herbal Medicine, and enjoys growing her own herbs for tinctures and natural medicine. Elle is a former plant nursery owner, selling her nursery last year to move to the tropics in Australia. She has over 15 years of drought-wise gardening experience, a result of her pursuit of growing a food forest in an extremely dry, hot area of Australia. She now runs Outdoor Happens, a blog passionate about creating amazing backyards and gardens.

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