• Otter Views: Bananas in Bunches

    My old Maui friends Bill and Sally surprised me at work the other day, and we had some laughs while they pretended to shop. At one point, Sally mentioned she had recently harvested her first bunch of bananas.

    That was Bill’s cue to produce a cell phone and flick through the photo files. At length he handed the phone to me. The screen showed a beautiful five-foot long bunch of plump green bananas framed by a tropic blue sky.

    “Congratulations,” I told Sally. “You’re in the banana business now. You have my sympathy.”

    This far north, I forget what bananas look like hanging from the plant. I usually see them at the market, laid out in hands as bright and yellow as cartoon gloves.

    Sally’s happiness in growing and harvesting her own bananas mirrored my experience of many years earlier, but she was more prudent than I. So far, she just has a one-tree plantation. I got a little carried away and planted 25.

    In the tropics, overdoing bananas is easy as cream pie. Although they can attain immense size and leaf volume, bananas start out small. Because the baby plants sprout in a ring from the base or “corm” of mature plants, a few well-aimed pick swings can cleave several “mini-me’s” from a single parent. This ease of acquisition can fool the eager novice gardener, and I was nothing if not eager.

    After many years dwelling in the cinderblock apartments favored by colleges and the military, I celebrated my Navy discharge by returning to Hawaii and renting an actual house. That was in 1974, when such a thing was still possible.

    The house sat on a small but scenic flag lot at the end of a steep driveway. Out the back door, a mile of mountains soared into the mist. The front overlooked a vine-laced cliff and the dancing drumbeat of a jungle stream. As a bonus, a border of rocky soil skirted the fence line.

    “Dirt,” I thought. “I’ll put in a garden!”

    My garden-to-be was a belt of rocky red dirt that probably hadn’t been tilled since Kamehameha’s time. But that didn’t deter me. I was young. I was strong. I was ignorant. And I was ready to plant.

    Hewing my pick and shovel manfully, I “double-dug” several beds to the prescribed French intensive planting depth. To keep the pick swinging, the living room stereo blasted Gabby Pahinui and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

    We are staaaaarrr dust; we are goooollldden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the gaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrden!

    After several months in the garden, I was not feeling too golden. My full-grown carrots were the size of baby toes. My beets were as skinny and wrinkled as walnuts. Squadrons of moths, fruit flies, aphids, and leaf-hoppers had reduced my other crops to spittle.

    In desperation, I sought out my friend Archie, a veteran island gardener. “Where you are?” he mused. “Bananas for sure. I’ve got some keiki (babies) you can have. Pull your truck around back.”

    A few days later, 25 deep holes ringed my rented house. After filling the holes with compost and horse manure, I dug the stumpy banana corms in, watered them deeply, and stepped back.

    Boom!

    Almost overnight, thick, brawny banana plants thrust from the earth. The moist tropic air rustled and murmured with the sound of their broad, ever-unfolding leaves. Soon sticky purple flowers appeared. At length the thick petals fell away to reveal hand after hand of plump green bananas. I had succeeded!

    As the fruit plumped and the bunches lengthened, I proudly propped up the sagging trunks. I pruned and watered and weeded. I plucked off fat caterpillars that cut and rolled the leaves into tattered cigars. What I didn’t do was think ahead. All 25 of my robust plants were fruiting at the same time. Who was going to eat all that?

    I also forgot the principal rule of banana harvesting: cut from the bottom! When my first bunch was ready, I proudly stretched up to my full height and sawed the stalk through from the top. The entire bunch ripped free, and 90 pounds of falling bananas flattened me like a linebacker.

    After I could walk again, I cut the remaining bunches hand-by-hand. But even in segments, they still represented a ton of fruit. A friend’s health food market took some of the hands, but the rest rode around in the back of my truck while I accosted startled pedestrians.

    “Bananas!” I cried. “Please!! Help yourselves!”

    I eventually disbursed them all, but I had to twist a lot arms. After that, if someone asked me for advice about starting a garden, I’d reply: “Hey! I’ve got some banana keiki you can have. Pull your truck around back.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 12, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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