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Going bananas in Fort Nelson

Grocery store seedlings turn into nine-foot trees in Northern B.C. farm's greenhouse

They started in a tiny little pot at the grocery store, two banana seedlings about the size of a 12-inch ruler.

Now they’re a pair of trees standing nine feet tall and pushing the ceiling of Yukon and Beth Soles’ greenhouse in Fort Nelson.

All in the span of a year and a half after they purchased the tropical plants from the local Save-On Foods.

“Walking around stores, you see these things every now and then. When the opportunity knocks, you take it,” he says. “I had the space and I was looking for something new to try, not really knowing what to do with it.”

The first six months of the plants were fascinating for Soles to watch, replanting them pot by pot and seeing them grow two to three inches per day, one leaf after another sprouting from the stems.

It was Aug. 3 last summer when he finally took them out their 30-gallon pots, already five to six feet high by that point, and planted them in the ground in his greenhouse.

With a heaping of manure this spring and a good daily soaking during the hot days of summer, the plants bore their first crop of fruit this week, a rack of bananas falling to the ground.

“I didn’t even look up how to grow bananas before I bought it. I went and bought it and brought it home, then started looking at what I had gotten myself into,” says Soles, who has run Fine Country Farms with his wife Beth since 2016, where they grow hothouse and market veggies and herbs to sell at the local market.

The bananas are still green and haven’t ripened just yet for them to take a taste. And answers to more of their curiosities about the plants are still to come, like when the next generation of fruit will bloom and how long the plants will live.

“I have no doubt it will taste like a banana, whether it will be a sweeter banana or a blander banana, I have no idea,” Soles says.

“I have some Filipino friends who have been helping me a little bit, they grew up with bananas in the Philippines. But the growing conditions are totally different that, even still for them, they don’t know what to expect either because it’s just not the same climate.”

“I’m hoping they will put out a blossom here before winter but I really have no idea,” he says.

With geothermal power plans being developed in the Northern Rockies, could a full-scale banana plantation one day be growing in a greenhouse in Fort Nelson? In a way, Soles says he never needed to prove the idea was possible for a northern community—it’s been proven many times in similar places. The economics will dictate whether such a concept will come to fruition.

“You can grow basically anything in a greenhouse as long as you look after it and control growing factors like the heat, the humidity, the soil,” he says, and also the energy source.

His greenhouses and farm buildings use an outdoor wood-heated boiler, and he's been starting to grow ginger too.

"That’s been really nice for us, to have a local spice, not just a vegetable but something that really adds flavour to food," he says.

Of buying the banana seedlings, Soles says it was worth it just to see the amazement on people’s faces.

"That’s been the exciting thing over the last year, when I show visitors the plants. They walk through the door and their face lights up with amazement," he says. "It’s been a pleasure for me."

For fellow green thumbs growing food in their summer garden or greenhouse, or even inside the house, Soles encourages them not to give up if they have an experiment they want to try.

“If you try something and it doesn’t work, it’s not because of who you are, you just need to try again,” he says. “That’s been my whole experience with the market garden and gardening in general. There are still things that I’m trying.”

“You know," he adds, "it’s funny that there’s so much amazement over the banana, but I have been trying to grow a good onion for years and I haven’t been able to. Finally, this year we have some decent onion.

“That’s not amazing to anybody else, but that was a lot of work for me, failing year after year. It’s just because I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t give up.”

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