Storing banana plants in winter: Garden Detective

The Japanese hardy banana (Musa basjoo) -- also The Japanese hardy banana (Musa basjoo) -- also called fiber banana -- is the hardiest of all bananas. Photo Credit: BriansBotanicals.net

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

DEAR JESSICA: I have a Japanese hardy banana plant. I got it in spring 2012 as a single- stalk plant that was 3 feet tall. I planted it in a large pot, and it took off, along with numerous babies. It now has five large stalks. Last winter, I brought it indoors, and because I don't have room by a sunny window, I put it in a room with a grow light, and it grew well all winter. This year, it's gotten way too big to bring indoors. I'm wondering if I can cut it back and store it, dry, in a cool dark place (basement) like my canna. Or can I cut it back, water it and put it in the room with the grow light again? How far can I cut the stalks? -- Bill Nass, Rocky Point

DEAR BILL: The Japanese hardy banana (Musa basjoo) -- also called fiber banana -- is the hardiest of all bananas. Fiber from the plant, which hails from the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, has been used for centuries to make fabric. And it's indeed hardy -- all the way up to Zone 4 (the top of New England) -- so if planted in the ground, there's little to worry about leaving it outdoors over the winter in Long Island's Zone 7 climate. Foliage will die back when temperatures dip below freezing, at which point the stalk should be cut back to nearly ground level, and the roots covered with mulch at least 12 inches deep. During the growing season, the plant can grow as much as 2 feet in a week, so mature height is regained quickly.

Hardy banana plants reach 12-18 feet tall with ample water and fertilizer, but its fruit, if produced at all, isn't edible. Still, the plant has considerable value in the landscape as an attention-grabbing specimen.

Because your plant is growing in a pot, you should bring it indoors over the winter, because the limited amount of soil in the container won't provide adequate insulation to protect its rhizomes from freezing. It can be kept as a houseplant in a sunny location or under grow lights, as you've done in the past, with reduced water and fertilizer. Or you can opt to store the potted plant in a cool but frost-free basement, occasionally watering only slightly to prevent the soil from completely drying out. If you lack sufficient space to do that, you can cut the foliage off after the first frost, remove roots from the pot and replant them in a container with moist sand. Don't add additional water, and allow the plant to go dormant at about 50 degrees. Good luck!

DEAR JESSICA: I have a fig tree that is at least 30 years old. It produces a lot of figs, but in the past few years I have found that much of the fruit is being eaten by bees overnight. Generally they attack the riper figs, so I have taken to picking morning and evening (even ones that are not fully ripe), but I am still losing a lot of figs. We don't use pesticides and don't want to. Any suggestions for how to deal with this problem? -- Elizabeth Parrella, Manhasset

DEAR ELIZABETH: I believe your problem is caused by yellow jackets, not bees, as bees don't typically destroy figs. There are three approaches you can take, and you've already taken the first, harvesting in early morning and at night.

My second suggestion is to find the nest and spray it with a pesticide, after dark, when all the yellow jackets have gone home for the night.

Finally, depending on the size of your tree, you might be able to wrap it in shade cloth material, which will allow water and sunlight to reach the plant but will keep birds and larger insects, like yellow jackets, out. Look for a product with no more than 30 percent protection to avoid blocking out too much sunlight.

DEAR JESSICA: I would appreciate any information you can give me on how to turn my hydrangea pink. I know I have to add lime to the soil, but I do not know the best time to do this, how much to apply and how often. -- Cel Sal, Hicksville

DEAR CEL: Some hydrangeas have been bred to remain whatever color they happen to be, regardless of soil conditions. But many hydrangeas change color depending on the soil's pH, much to the dismay of some gardeners who buy pink-blossomed plants at the nursery only to have them turn blue after they've planted them at home, or vice versa.

Acidic soil, indicated by a pH reading lower than 7, will turn hydrangeas blue. Alkaline soil, with a pH above 7, will turn them pink.

It's a lot harder to turn alkaline soil acidic than the other way around, so you're in luck: To make acidic soil more alkaline -- to make blue blooms turn pink -- all you have to do is raise the pH level of the soil by adding lime. It works pretty quickly and may not have to be repeated for a few years.

To make soil more acidic and encourage blue blooms, however, sulfur must be added. The problem is that applications must be repeated regularly to maintain the lower pH level. Those wishing to attempt this should follow package instructions very closely and carefully.

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