It may be icy outside, but in the new year, a gardener's thoughts turn to propagation. It's too early to start lots of things, because, although I could easily get them to germinate in a heated propagator, I haven't got enough windowsills to stop all the young seedlings going bendy through lack of light.
The urge to nurture and poke about in compost is growing daily, though, and I have been casting about for something which I can germinate so early in the year. I know I could get chillies or aubergines going, or any of the other things which take an age to mature, before they begin to produce something edible, but I can't get very excited about them. I want to try something exciting.
For some reason which I am now quite unable to remember, we decided to open our garden for the NGS (Yellow Book) scheme again, in June this year. I am already filled with a growing sense of terror, and in my head, the clock has already started counting down to 11am, 21st June, when we open the gates. I feel an urgent need to grow something large, impressive and easy to fill all the big gaps in one fell swoop.
Initially, growing banana plants from seeds seemed to tick all the boxes. My thinking was that they would benefit from being started early, and, once germinated, they would all fit comfortably on the window sill. Once the cold weather is behind us, they could move out to the greenhouse, before being planted out in the garden at the beginning of June. I was hoping that by that time, the banana plants would be a fair size and make an impact in the garden. That was the theory, but things may prove very different in reality .
We already have some largish banana plants which we are overwintering in the conservatory, and so far, they are coping well with the conditions. We give them some heat when temperatures drop outside, and we keep them almost dry. They are wonderful plants in the sub tropical garden and add to the lush feel of the foliage, due to their massive leaves. Everyone says that banana plants grow extremely rapidly, but, to be honest, ours have shown quite steady growth so far. We have Musa Basjoo, which is, I believe, the banana of choice for most uk gardens. It is relatively hardy, as the stem is hardy down to minus 6 degrees, whilst the root can survive to minus fifteen (with a heavy mulch) so that even if all top growth is killed off by frost, the root will survive and put out new growth in the spring. We also have Ensete Maurelii, which has gorgeous red leaves, but is not very hardy so needs a little coddling through the colder months.
I have attempted to grow banana seeds before, but with little success. I do have a dim memory of one seed germinating, but it died off quite quickly and never really got established. So, although growing banana plants from seed is not exactly a new experience, it is a challenge, which, in truth , is more exacting than I first thought.
Blogs are a fantastic source of shared knowledge and expertise, and I am constantly learning as I hop around the globe from blog to blog but Facebook is just as useful, and it is far too easy to dismiss it as just a social media site. I have been a member of the 'Hardy Tropicals uk' Facebook page for quite a while now, but have been as quiet as a little mouse, just reading and learning from the posts. I decided, however, to enlist the advice of its members about the best bananas to grow from seed, and they did not disappoint!
My initial thought was to grow Musa Basjoo from seed, but the lovely people on 'Hardy Tropicals' told me that this is not possible, as propagation is from the pups which the mother plant puts out. Someone advised me to get Basjoo as small/ plug plants instead, as germination of banana seeds can be difficult, slow and erratic. The wisdom is that pups are cheap and will grow on quickly and strongly, whilst seeds may still be sitting, ungerminated, in the seed tray for several months.
I took this sensible advice on board and began to look around for some pups. So, where do you go when you want something cheap and fast - why ebay of course! There were several sellers selling Musa Basjoo, and I chose one who had excellent feedback and low prices.Three plants for £13.50. What could be better ? Actually, four plants for the same price is even better. The button next to 'Buy it now' was entitled 'make me an offer' so I did, and the seller kindly agreed to pop in an extra plant for free. Below is a selection of the seller's plants.
(Apologies for quality of photo as it is a photo of an online photo!)
Other good advice from the members of 'Hardy Tropicals' was to fluctuate the temperature of banana seeds to encourage germination, which is something I know I omitted when I attempted to grow them before, and I will follow the advice to try 30 degrees daytime, and room temperature at night time. It can take anything from a couple of weeks to several months for germination to occur.
Members also recommended Musa Sikkimensis, which apparently is almost as hardy as Basjoo and with tougher leaves, and also Musa Helen's Hybrid. Ensete ventricosum is said to grow very fast from seed, but can be difficult to germinate.
'Jungle seeds' was recommended as a site with a good variety of banana seeds for sale, and as I have already used them before, in the past, I headed over there and eventually bought a mixed pack of banana seeds for £5.95 containing :
Ensete ventriculum - Abyssinian Banana
Musa velutina - Pink Banana
Musa sikkimensis - Himalayan Banana
Musa Zebrina - Blood Banana
Ensete Glaucum - Snow Banana
I like the idea of growing mixed varieties, and, if I do get any to germinate, it will be interesting to compare rates of growth, leaf size etc.
Above is a photo from 2013, showing one of my previous attempts to grow banana plants from seed. The detailed , precise instructions should have tipped me the wink that germination was never going to be easy! For some reason, I decided not to follow any of this good advice and did things my own way, and guess what ... nothing happened!
From my own experience, and from the experience of knowledgeable others, it seems that banana from seed can be difficult. Not impossible but, well, let's say challenging. I like a challenge, and this time I'll do it properly and follow all instructions to the letter. If they fail to germinate, or, take a long time to germinate, then I will have those four little plants to lavish with tlc, so that they quickly turn into large plants. Hopefully, one way or another, I will have some new, high impact plants filling those naughty gaps for the open garden day.
So, now I am poised - waiting for my seeds and my plants to arrive. Waiting to switch that propagator on, which, like the official switching on of the Christmas lights, will signify the official start of a brand new growing season.