Permadynamics has the largest banana plantation in New Zealand: over 200 productive clumps, each of which produces between 60 and 70 kilos of fruit per year. Klaus Lotz and his family primarily grow Ladyfinger bananas (aka Misi Luki), but they also grow a smaller tangier Cavendish-like variety known as Goldfinger.
“Banana growth is governed by temperature,” says Klaus. “Twelve degrees is the magic temperature for growth to occur. A banana plant produces 44 leaves before flowering. Dependent on temperature, the flower will produce ripe fruit in two to three months. Cooler temperatures, longer ripening.”
Three years after planting, banana plants begin to bear fruit, but they produce consistently from then on. Once the fruit is harvested, the next shoot begins to grow
Bananas are grown from a rhizome. As the first plant matures, young plants called pups spring from the root system. By transplanting pups, a new clump is started. If left unchecked, banana clumps grow in a circle outwards from the original plant.
In Bolivia, Klaus used bananas as part of a succession dynamic, in contrast to the typical cocoa monoculture. Bananas dried for export provided the first cash crop from this system – and good mulch.
“I love working with bananas because because you can tell exactly how your soil is,” says Klaus. “They are very responsive, so as the leaves come out you can determine the soil fertility by the distance between the leaves on the stem, and their colour. I also really enjoy working with a machete, and bananas are a joy for a machete man.”
In New Zealand bananas thrive in warm micro-climates, doing well between Hawkes Bay and Northland although micro-climates as far south as Golden Bay also produce good bananas. The trick is a sunny, north-facing slope above the frost zone with not too much wind. They need all day sun, and don’t mind clay soils, but don’t like water-logged feet.
Some New Zealand banana growers also sell the leaves in Pacific Island communities where they are used for ceremonies and food preparation.
New Zealanders eat more bananas than any other nation: on average, a whopping 18 kilos each per year. Few are grown here; we import 72 million bananas per annum.
But for how much longer? Sigatoka complex which describes three related fungal diseases, threatens to infest banana plantations worldwide. These fungi shut down the immune system of their host plant and waylay nutrients for their own use. The diseases are already reducing yields by 40 percent and some experts predict bananas could become extinct within five to ten years.
Currently the diseases are controlled on non-organic plantations by 50 applications of fungicides a year. But recent research shows that the fungi are rapidly developing resistance to the chemical sprays.
“Cloning is also an issue with pine plantations globally. They are all one clone,” says Klaus. “If one fungal disease breaks the code, all pines die. But pines still make seeds and new resistance can be bred in a decade – not like bananas, where you only find one seed in a million fruit.”
“We had Sigatoka in Bolivia. It seems to be less of an issue in a diverse orchard, and was never a problem for us.
“In a succession dynamic it has to be accepted that bananas are just one step in developing a mature forest garden from annual crops or grassland. We can’t keep that process on standby just because we favour one crop. We can go back and forward in succession, but not stand still.”
More info – the research paper on Sigatoka complex published in PLOS Genetics can be found at bit.ly/2cvRofk. Klaus’ banana pups are sold on Trademe – search for member name, Permadynamics
Published in Organic NZ magazine – Nov/Dec 2016 – Vol.75 No.6