Oe all have our own annual milestones that snap us out of horticultural hibernation, kicking off a whole host of projects for the year ahead. For me, it’s picking up the Chinese New Year decorations in early February. Partly because it’s, of course, a spring festival about new beginnings, and partly because, like Christmas, it’s so much about nostalgia, which I think is part of integral to the way we all garden.
This week, I thought of the warm evenings filled with laughter spent in my grandparents’ colorful garden in Borneo. At this time of year, we always used to get together to watch the festive fireworks explode in the dark sky as my huge extended family gathered around dozens of plastic tables for dinner. It also made me think of all the amazing tropical effect garden plants that can be started from seed now – even in these less warm, idyllic climates.
In the UK there is a common misconception that exotic style gardening is both incredibly high maintenance and prohibitively expensive. When you consider the exorbitant price of tree ferns and some of the hardiest palms, this conclusion is quite understandable. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t beautiful tropical species that are very affordable and easy to grow from seed. I’m talking about bananas.
At the top of such a list must come the Japanese fiber banana, Musa basjoo. The plant has huge paddle-like, apple-green leaves and is capable of creating 6-foot monsters of jungly foliage in just a few months. One of the northernmost banana species, it will thrive even in surprisingly cold temperatures. Root resistant (if given a good mulch) it will survive temperatures as low as -15°C. It won’t give you edible fruit, but it’s an absolute sight for its architectural appearance.
Soak the hard, black seeds for 24 hours in a glass of water to stimulate them before sowing them in a seed compost propagator on a warm windowsill anytime from March onwards. Despite their hardiness, I would always plant them in a sheltered location to prevent their sail-like foliage from being blown around by the wind. An urban courtyard or near a high boundary wall is ideal.
Besides costing a fraction of the price of buying small, ready-made plants, bananas grown from seed also give you the opportunity to try all sorts of more niche varieties that can prove just as hardy. The classics are Musa sikkimensis from the highlands of India, with its beautiful wine-colored undersides and tiger stripes on the upper surface; and if you have a very sheltered location in one of the milder parts of the country, such as Cornwall or central London, Musa balbisiana is sometimes recommended. I currently have Enset glaucumor snow banana, on the go like a small bet, and I’m very curious to try Moussa ‘Helen’s Hybrid’, which some claim is the hardiest edible species. I can’t wait to see what they do in the year to come. Here are new horticultural beginnings.
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