Monroeville garden proves perfect for growing banana plants
Damian and Gloria Ondo are dwarfed by the huge banana trees in their beautiful garden as they walk through with their dogs Simba and Caesar. Even though the original tree Damian started with was from Florida, all the subsequent trees it’s produced are hardy in his landscape in Monroeville, about 10 miles outside Pittsburgh.
“The first thing people ask is, ‘Do they put on bananas?’” he says with a chuckle.
The funny thing is, sometimes they actually do.
“Every now and then, you’ll get a bunch of bananas,” he says. “They’re beautiful: purple, red, yellow and orange.”
They aren’t edible, though, because the season is too short for them to ripen.
Some years, he likes to have fun when visitors come to marvel at his huge tropical trees.
“I went to Michaels and bought fake bananas and stuck them up on one of the branches,” he says, laughing.
Pay it forward
The first plant was a gift 16 years ago from another gardener, and Damian has paid it forward more times than he can remember, sharing the sprouts with anyone who shows interest.
“I’ve given a lot away, and everybody I’ve given them to, they’ve had really good luck with them,” he says.
They need lots of moisture and mulch and should be well drained in rich, organic soil.
“Then you just let them grow,” he says. “They should get 16, 17, 18 feet. The trunk after three years should get 8 inches across.”
To prepare for wintering over, he says gardeners can cut off the main stem at an angle anywhere from ground level to leaving the trunk 3 feet high.
“Just cover them with leaves or put a fence around them and fill it full of leaves and put a tarp over it,” Ondo says. “You’re going to lose a lot of the main stalks, but you’re going to get babies coming up all over.”
Ondo’s love of gardening goes back to his father’s garden in Homer City, Indiana County. As an adult, Damian raised turkeys, ringneck pheasant and quail; when he was done with that hobby, he started growing in exactly the right place.
“I put my garden over top of that and it just went crazy,” he says smiling. “I really enjoyed that.”
Vast and wonderful
His garden now is vast and wonderful, filled with a multitude of flowers in full bloom, many of them perennials. The vegetable garden is weed-free due to a covering of landscape fabric, and it’s been scaled down from the 110 tomato plants grown in past years.
“I only have 47 now,” he says with a straight face. “I can, and when I finish canning, I will give lots of tomatoes to lots of people. I’m everyone’s best friend when tomatoes are ripe.”
He’s settled on Burpee’s ‘Supersauce’ tomato, which produces fruits as large as 2 pounds for canning.
“If you’re going to make sauce, you’re going to get more tomatoes than you can handle,” he says proudly. “I will just go back there, tie tomatoes, have a beer, just sit and relax.”
Besides the gift plant of the first banana for his garden, which over the years has produced lots of bananas, he’s growing many plants that were given to him by other gardeners. Those plants are always special to him and his wife Gloria.
And that’s part of the reason he shares his beloved banana trees with others.
“It’s nice to remember that person,” Gloria says. “They are always going to be here.”
Her husband agrees: “You remember that person by these plants.”
“When you get older, you start appreciating all these flowers and plants,” Damian says. “You kind of hate to even prune them. I guess that’s why I give them away.”