For Bob Hill, Growing Bananas Has Certain A ‘Peel’

May 20th, 2011

Morris Plains gardener does what others say is “impossible.”

Morris-Plains Patch, New Jersey (link no longer available)
By Liz Alterman

When Bob Hill set out to grow bananas in the backyard of his Morris Plains home, fellow gardeners thought he was, well, bananas. Having discovered his green thumb as a kindergartner when he was able to grow a “decent” pumpkin from a seed, the 50-year old has successfully grown his own flowers and vegetables ever since and was looking for a challenge.

“I’ve been told by many prominent people, including a professional botanist specializing in bananas in Hawaii, that it was unlikely to be able to get a banana to flower in this climate and likely couldn’t be done,” said Hill.

The patient gardener gave himself four years to accomplish what others told him was “impossible.”

“I did it in two years,” said Hill, who has converted his glass-enclosed front porch into a makeshift greenhouse to help his plants survive the harsh Northeast winters. “That was pretty satisfying once it happened. It’s pretty wild how fast they grow.”

Hill said it was “really kind of thrilling” to see the plants flower as high as 15 feet on his 50 x 150 foot lot. His neighbors were also “pretty shocked” by the tropical paradise next door, he said.

More than just a vegetation victory, the banana plants have turned Hill into a bit of a local celebrity.

“The mayor, Frank Druetzler and counsel (members) Sue McCluskey and Ray Zabihach came by one day last year on a routine campaign visit and we ended up talking about the bananas for quite a while rather than politics–sometimes it’s good to have a hobby,” Hill joked. “When I saw the Mayor at the community garden opening ceremony, the first thing he said was, ‘Bananas!'”

While many neighbors have stopped in to tour the grounds, Hill has also had visitors from around the country and beyond drop by to check out his agricultural anomaly.

“I’ve had people from as far away as Canada and Wisconsin visit the garden having seen it on the Internet, as well as strangers just come knocking at the door asking for a tour,” said Hill, who has lived in Morris Plains since 1999. “One woman, who is from India, took a few leaves home for cooking as they do in her native country.

“It’s amusing how something as simple as this can make you new friends from all walks of life. I’ve met people through the Internet also involved in banana growing and toured their yards in Los Angeles and San Diego and have standing invitations to visit friends as far as Ecuador and Croatia,” he said.

Hill makes his own compost and has “quite a little library” of books on the subject of gardening—in particular, the writings of Eliot Coleman, a proponent of organic farming. Hill has also written articles which have appeared on-line in an international banana publication.

While it might seem complicated, Hill insists he’s “pretty low-tech” and believes anyone can have the same results. The veteran gardener is pleased to share his knowledge with others in the community garden.

“I prepared the soil best I know how using the organic method and helped planning and planting the display garden there this year with Linda Toscano , another beatification member,” Hill said. “It’s the inaugural season, so we’re learning as we go (and we) tried to show many examples of what could be done, though we crammed a lot in a small space.

“It’s been very satisfying for me to help a lot of gardeners there who just need a little information or a push in the right direction and it’s given me as much or more satisfaction than any of my own accomplishments and we’re just getting started there. It’s really incredibly flattering to be noticed for something I’ve been doing so long and don’t give much thought to,” he said

Hill’s advice to novice gardeners would be to not give up.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Keep trying. It’s a lot of trial and error. If you figure out why you failed, you can fix it, but at least give it a try.”

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