Going Bananas in the Tropics
The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. Thomas Jefferson
Twenty years ago I was substantially more tranquilo in the act of smuggling than I would be today. With nary an afterthought as to the possible consequences, I waltzed unscathed through immigration and customs at Juan Santamaria International Airport with a dozen ‘pups’ of banana plants, artfully ensconced among the colorful clothing in my 7 year-old daughter’s suitcase. Jefferson’s point of view may not have been foremost in my mind, but I was definitely on the road to ‘going bananas.’
Individuals with a firmer grasp of reality might have taken the time to notice that there is probably a reason why the large banana producing areas in Costa Rica are not located in Guanacaste. Six months of “the seasonal equivalent of the Sahara” puts the broad, delicate leaves through the proverbial shredder and the water-filled pseudostem, what we think of as the trunk, takes a severe hit due to evaporative losses in our verano. And that’s part of how I evolved into a smuggler.
If you’ve driven the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California, say, headed for the right-point perfection of Rincon, as you head north of Ventura the coastline veers to the right. Just past the Ventura Overhead, there’s a small town called La Conchita, on the inland side of the highway, nestled up against a formidable wall of south facing cliffs. In the early 90’s, anyone cruising the coast and actually observing the surroundings might have noticed a rather unusual feature punctuating the landscape at La Conchita—a banana plantation.
From its opening until its forced closure due to a massive, and deadly landslide in 1996, the Seaside Banana Gardens operated by Doug Richardson and his partner Paul Turner, became the most famous attraction in La Conchita. Although horticultural authorities maintained that bananas could not be commercially grown in California, Richardson and Turner proved them wrong by cultivating over 50 exotic varieties. The unique microclimate of the community’s location was ideal for this purpose. Many subsequent generations of bananas continue to grow and thrive throughout the home gardens of La Conchita today.
I was fortunate enough to visit Seaside Gardens just before beginning my 20-year agricultural odyssey here in Guanacaste. While I may have been more than a bit naïve about growing bananas on my land in Guanacaste, the information placard on two varieties of bananas blazed brightly through the early morning fog trapped up against the steep cliffs behind La Conchita:
Raja Puri and Mysore, home garden varieties from India, resistant to drought, resistant to wind.
It would be nice to be able to say I experienced an epiphany, a sort of “aha moment.” The truth is, it was more like, “no duh, now that kind of seems to make sense.” And, after 20 years of going bananas in Guanacaste, both literally and figuratively, yeah, they do make sense. But, like everything in life, the devil is in the details. The visit to Seaside Gardens provided some important ‘take home lessons.’
It can be argued that agriculture, just like real estate, is all about ‘location, location, location.’ Called ‘microclimates’ above ground, or “niches’ when you take into account soil and water issues as well, there are plenty of nooks and crannies in coastal Guanacaste where bananas definitely fit into the broader picture of a diversified food producing landscape. If you’re living at a higher elevation to enjoy the spectacular views, you might just have to create a special ‘niche’ in which the bananas can thrive. Tricks of the trade include identifying the lower, more humid areas of your site, windbreaks, contour plantings in trenches that then collect both water and organic matter to help pamper your babies.
As I mentioned above, variety is the spice of life when it comes to choosing plants for our zone. In addition to the ones from India, and another from Indonesia, there are several other, short-statured forms of my favorite fruit that help keep things more compact, less exposed to the wind, and easier to tuck into protected sites as you lay out your plantings, or notice them as your landscape matures. As indicated in last month’s article, “In Grave Danger of Falling Food,” the most obvious “no, duh” approach to growing bananas here is to use sewage effluent, underground, in a ‘constructed wetland’ system to transform yucky into yummy, all thanks to the wondrous workings of natural processes. Please bear with me for another couple of random—but relevant—points.
Home grown bananas afford a taste treat that you simply can’t imagine if you’re used to the commercially produced—and pesticide packed—varieties which are dumped on the local market. The varieties developed and used by the banana companies have thick skins, need to withstand long journeys in gas filled containers to promote ripening and fall far short of the flavors and textures that you can have almost year round a short stroll from your home. Tim Morris, pastry chef extraordinaire and former owner of the bakery in Playa Negra, once told me that the Indonesian “Ice cream” banana, was the best, sweetest variety he had ever used in baking.
The other thing to bear in mind if you’re considering going bananas here is, hey, get real! Get used to seasonal changes. People from areas that are snow covered 3-6 months of the year somehow manage to take it in stride better than those of us from California or other warmer areas. During the dry season, things aren’t going to look nearly as great as they do this time of year. But I can assure you, given bananas’ versatility, fast growth and response to a few basic requirements, in a few years you’ll be pleasantly surprised to step out of your home into a grove of sugary delight, a unique fruit that humans have been enjoying in their home gardens for more than 5000 years.
Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 18 years experience in Guanacaste. 2658-8018. email@example.com
El Centro Verde is dedicated to researching and promoting sustainable land use, permaculture and environmentally sound development. www.elcentroverde.org/