The cold season is closing in. Ben Pratte, an energetic, genial man with wide-ranging interests, busies himself protecting his plants from the approaching winter, just like any other diligent gardener/farmer/plant aficionado
So what’s so noteworthy about these plants?
They are plantains.
The large bananas, normally grown in the tropics and used for cooking, are successfully being grown in a quiet, secluded neighborhood not far from Bradley Creek, a decidedly non-tropical region.
It takes about 18 months from first planting to first harvest. To protect the plants from the coastal Carolina winter climate, they have to be dug up in the fall, stored away, and replanted with the arrival of spring.
“I realized early on that you have to dig the plants up early, before cold weather arrives,” Pratte says. “If they freeze, the stalks turn to mush.”
Pratte, who grew up on a farm in Spencerville, Ohio, and calls himself “an Ohio farm boy who can’t break the habit of growing things,” moved to Wilmington in 1993. His plantain plants surround the perimeter of his home.
With the sun filtering through the leaves, the effect is almost like walking through a green cathedral with colorful buds and blooms adorning the leafy walls. As a bonus, the large leaves provide welcome shade in the summer.
The banana growing effort gets a fair amount of attention. Pratte frequently welcomes neighbors who drop in unannounced. One recent group asked if they could show the plants to their parents. Pratte said yes. And the parents seemed duly impressed.
So what does he do with all those bananas? Private sales? Farmer’s markets?
“I give them away,” he says. “All of them.” He considers briefly before adding, “But the farmers’ markets might be an interesting idea.”
One other unique use for them is banana toss, invented at a backyard get-together. Similar to an old-fashioned bean-bag toss, he and guests took turns tossing the bananas at a target. The aerodynamics of the plantains adds to the challenge of scoring points.
In addition to his job — sales of vitamins, minerals and nutrients to producers of livestock feed — and along with his other activities, Pratte also teaches fitness classes.