ST. JOSEPH — As the fall season brings cool weather and the first freeze, most of us have little to do in the garden other than raking leaves and cleaning up the gardening tools for winter storage.
But for Brian Rosenthal of St. Joseph, it means digging up his 14-, 16- and 17-foot banana "trees," wrapping them up with a plastic sheet and dragging them to the basement.
"One time I was out at 10 at night dragging things," Rosenthal says. "It was starting to rain, and I'm out there digging with shovels. I'm sure the neighbors were thinking I was up to no good."
Although they are as big as trees, they are actually banana plants, he says, because there is no wood involved. The trunk is filled with water, something like a cactus; Except unlike a cactus, they need to be watered every day. That's also why they don't usually do well in this area because the water inside will freeze.
"Sometimes if you are not careful and gouge them, they will leak water," Rosenthal says. "I came down (to the basement) and found like a gallon of water on the floor."
The tropical-looking plants towering over his house are so atypical for this area that people passing by will often ask what they are, he says. Technically they are plantains, he says. Bananas are a sub-species of plantains. Bananas are eaten raw, while plantains require cooking. And even if they have seen a banana plant before, it usually doesn't have bananas.
"I was amazed when I saw the little bananas on it and the blossoms," says neighbor Lois Heimsoth. "The thought occurred to me that this might be the first bananas growing in St. Joseph that we know of."
Although Rosenthal clearly has a green thumb, judging from the impressive bed of Love and Peace English hybrid roses in his front yard and some other extremely healthy exotic plants, it was a chance trip to Mississippi that got him growing banana plants. He went there with a friend a couple of years before Hurricane Katrina, and they were asked if they wanted to take home some small plants. His friend's plant died after a month, but Rosenthal's thrived.
"The first three years I kept it in a pot, But it got so big it was almost busting the fiberglass pot out," he says. "So when I bought this house, I put it in the ground and it kept growing."
He learned banana plants take a few adjustments to live in the Midwest. For one, they don't like a heavy clay soil, so he added 50 percent sand to the mix. He also ordered fertilizer from Florida that is more suitable for banana plants. Then he waters them daily, sometimes twice a day if the weather warrants it. Bugs have not been a problem, though, except for a grasshopper or two.
"The biggest thing is the wind," he says. "These were all solid leaves, but a month or two ago when we had that high wind it shredded them. It's a defense mechanism that lets the wind go through them."
The leaves shred evenly, leaving them looking like palm leaves. Then if he should leave the plant outside during the winter, they will turn brown and fall off.
So far, the cooler temperatures have not been a problem, even with one night getting down to 32 degrees. His 17-footer still has several bunches of green bananas growing on it. But as insurance for next year, he already dug up two of the plants and put them in the basement.
"Some people say, 'Why don't you cut it off?'" he says. "But it won't grow back. So if you want a big plant, you have to dig up the whole thing. That's why nobody has them this size. Nobody is crazy enough."