Debbie Arrington

Banana man challenges nature with his home-grown fruit

Although they need frost protection, bananas can grow in the Sacramento area. This large bunch grew in Folsom.
Although they need frost protection, bananas can grow in the Sacramento area. This large bunch grew in Folsom. Sacramento Bee file photo

Can’t grow bananas in Sacramento? Eric George has the plants – and gigantic bunches of fruit – to prove the contrary.

This weekend, George will be among the folks at Sacramento’s Shasta Park admittedly going bananas. It’s only appropriate at the seventh annual Sacramento Banana Festival.

This community party started by celebrating bananas and banana-loving cultures, not growing this tropical fruit. But in our green-thumbed farm-to-fork capital, someone had to take the banana fest to the next level with some home-grown local produce.

Enter George, who has been growing bananas in West Sacramento for several years.

The plant itself is a beautiful thing. I’ve learned how to care for it, really nurturing it to be its best. In return, they’ve rewarded me with so much good fruit.

Gardener Eric George, on banana plants

“I’ve got banana plants that are 12 to 16 feet tall and a foot around at the base,” he said. “I love the tropical look. So many people don’t even think about (growing bananas), it’s kind of educational, too.”

George plans to bring at least 40 plants to sell at the Banana Festival.

“I hope I have some bananas, too,” he said last week. “I usually have ripe bananas by this time (of summer), but not quite yet this year. I hope they hurry up. Every year, I’ve had beautiful bananas for the festival.”

George is not the first gardener to successfully grow bananas in the greater Sacramento area, but he has concentrated on mastering this tropical fruit. An urban farmer, he grows crops on two empty lots, former home sites that now produce a large assortment of fresh food. He specializes in hard-to-find vegetables such as Afghani pumpkins for ethnic markets and buyers. But he loves his bananas best.

“I grow lots of different vegetables and fruit, but I thought if I could grow one thing and really concentrate on it, it would be this,” he said. “The plant itself is a beautiful thing. I’ve learned how to care for it, really nurturing it to be its best. In return, they’ve rewarded me with so much good fruit.”

George got hooked on bananas while living in Florida. Native to the tropics, banana trees are extremely frost-tender, an obstacle to growing these plants in the greater Sacramento area. Winter temperatures here regularly dip below freezing for extended periods.

“Absolutely, you’ve got to protect them from frost,” George said. “I use big sheets of burlap. Banana plants are almost all water; they will freeze and die.”

When frost is in the forecast, George wraps his plants.

“I cut the leaves off and cover the rest of the plant with burlap,” he explained. “I don’t keep them covered during the day; they need to breathe. Even if they do get frost damage, the root stays alive. They’ll grow back.”

That’s part of banana’s adaptability.

“That’s one of the things I really like about this plant – how they’ve adapted,” George said. “For instance, their leaves are perforated, so in the wind, the leaves tear apart and the whole tree won’t be blown over. That’s pretty cool.”

In his garden, George grows two kinds of bananas: a short Mexican plantain variety and a longer dessert banana similar to the Cavendish variety sold in supermarkets. One bunch can go a long way.

“I get racks of 100 bananas, six feet long,” he said. “They’re totally edible and sweet. All my neighbors love them.”

Once established, banana trees are relatively easy care – except in winter.

“I water my trees twice a month,” George said. “They don’t require much attention. When they’re young, you’ve got to baby them a little. They need moist soil when they start out.”

Banana plants produce offshoots or pups, similar to succulents, he said. Each banana plant will produce six to 15 offshoots a year. That allows George to spread banana love to other local gardeners.

“At first, I was trying to get anybody to buy a plant and try it,” he said. “Now, I typically sell 50 to 75 plants a year.”

George sells his banana plants, starting at $25, with a guarantee they’ll grow. So far, no one has returned one. (He can be reached at 916-627-8477 or egrant46@hotmail.com.)

Besides the fruit and plants, George also sells the leaves. “They’re very popular for cooking,” he said. “They’re great for wrapping tamales.”

Seventh annual Sacramento Banana Festival

Where: Shasta Park, 7407 Shasta Ave. (at Bruceville Road), Sacramento

When: 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21

Admission: $10; children age 5 and younger admitted free.

Details: www.sacbananafestival.com

Highlights: Banana parade, 11 a.m. Saturday; banana pancake breakfast, 9-11 a.m. both days.

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