Plantain is a staple crop grown throughout the tropics. In Africa, plantain and Banana are also an important source of carbohydrate in the diet of more than 70 million people. Plantain is also an important source of revenue for farmers who produce the crop in small-scale field plantations and Backyards. Backyard soil is very rich in organic matter and nutrients from household refuse which is dumped there. Such gardens are permanently in use for plantains which grow there luxuriantly, become very large and produce heavy bunches. They grow in groups or clusters as each bearing plant produces many suckers which are not pruned out. Human activity is limited to manuring, propping and harvesting.
Since the demand and thus the price for this crop are continuously increasing, many farmers want to grow more plantains in order to raise their income. However, backyards cannot be readily extended since they are enclosed by houses or fences. The only way, therefore, to expand production is to grow plantains in fields at some distance from the village. In most cases such field-grown plantains are very poorly maintained. The result is a very modest yield from the first year onwards. Different methods of cultivation should accompany the change in site to achieve and sustain high-level yields for several years.
- Selecting The Site
The site should be easily accessible, especially if the establishment of a large field is being planned. It should be well drained but not too steeply sloped. Plantain cultivation is impossible if the land becomes flooded from time to time, or has a water table at a depth of only 50 cm or less. The soil should be rich in organic matter (black soil). Hence fields in a long natural fallow, under an improved established fallow or with a lot of mulch are recommended.
- Preparing The Field
Fields are to be prepared with minimum disturbance to the soil (no-tillage farming). In consequence, manual clearing should be preferred to mechanical deforestation because bulldozers always remove topsoil with the important organic matter and compact the remaining soil. When an old natural fallow is cleared, the debris from the forest should be burned if plantain cultivation is planned for 1 or 2 cycles only. If perennial cultivation is being considered, planting should be done through the mulch .Young fallows of about 3 to 5 years or improved legume fallows should be simply slashed and left without being burned. Trees must be cut but the stumps are not to be removed, and the trees should be left to grow again. They can be pruned only when they start to obstruct field activities or shade the plantains. Once the fallow crop is slashed, the field is ready for pegging. Drains should be dug if some spots in the field tend to waterlog after heavy rains.
The recommended spacing is 3 m between the plantain rows and 2 m within the row (in other words. 3 m x 2 m). An alternative is 2.5 m x 2.5 m. If spaced 3 m x 2 m, 1 hectare should contain 1667 plants, but with a spacing of 2.5 m x 2.5 m, it should contain 1600 plants. Rows should be straight in flat fields to give plants the maximum amount of sunlight. However, on sloping land, rows should follow the contour lines in order to decrease soil erosion.
- Selecting Cultivars
For field cultivation, medium plantains should be preferred to giant ones even though giant plantains produce heavier bunches. Giant plantains take longer to produce and are more likely to be damaged by strong winds because of their size. The decision whether to grow a French or a False Horn plantain cultivar should depend on which type the consumers prefer. Horn plantains should never be cultivated as their yield is very low.
- Preparing Suckers
Suckers are separated from their mother plant with a spade or machete. The sucker corm must not be damaged or chipped. Consequently the corm should be carefully peeled with a machete. The pseudo stem of the suckers should be cut off a few centimeters above the corm. Peeling of the corm delays the development of nematode infestation, while cutting of the pseudo stem reduces bulkiness and improves early growth of the newly planted sucker.
The peeling process is just like that for cassava. A freshly peeled healthy corm ought to look white, but corms infected by stem borers and nematodes show brown and black spots which have to be removed until only white tissue remains. If the infestation is severe, with many brown and black spots, the sucker should be destroyed. Sucker preparation (peeling) is carried out in the field where the planting material is collected. This is to avoid contamination of the new field with roots infested with nematodes or corms with stem borers. Prepared corms are transported to their destination where they are left to dry for a few days (not in the sun). Suckers have to be planted within two weeks. Storage of suckers for more than 2 weeks will adversely affect future yields.
Suckers are planted immediately after field preparation. Plant holes are prepared with a minimum size of about 30 cm x 30 cm x 30 cm. Care should be taken to separate the topsoil from bottom soil. The sucker is placed in the hole and its corm is covered, first with the topsoil and then with the bottom soil. In the plant hole, the side of the sucker corm which was formerly attached to the corm of its mother plant is placed against the wall of the hole. The opposite side of the sucker’ corm is placed towards the middle of the plant hole, where the soil is loose. The best sucker (the future ratoon) will emerge at the side opposite to where the planted sucker was previously attached to the mother plant. If the land is sloping, the sucker should be so oriented that its follower will emerge against the slope. That will delay the development of the so-called high mat when the ratoon crop grows out of the soil and exposes the corm.
- Choosing The Time to Plant
Plantains can be planted throughout the rainy season. How- ever, they should grow vigorously and without stress during the first 3 to 4 months after planting, and therefore they should not be planted during the last months of the rainy season. Planting with the first rains seems agronomically sound but not financially advantageous. Most farmers will plant at the onset of the rains, causing the market to be flooded with bunches 9 to 12 months after planting, when prices will be very low. Planting in the middle of the rainy season is a better proposition as plantains will then be produced off-season and get high prices.
Organic matter is essential for plantain cultivation if the field is to be very productive for a long time. A high level of organic matter in the soil is beneficial because it stimulates root development, improves soil drainage, de- creases soil temperature fluctuations, and increases soil porosity and biological life. Organic matter decays under the influence of microorganisms in the soil, heavy rainfall and high soil temperature. The amount of organic matter will gradually decrease once the field has been cleared and cause a decrease in yield. Therefore newly established plantains which receive only fertilizer will produce a high yield only in the first year. In the second year the yield will drop because the organic matter will have decomposed. To compensate for this continuous decrease in the amount of organic matter, the field needs mulch from plants and/or manure from animals. There are many sources of mulch. It can be either carried into the field or produced between the plants; but to be effective, it should cover the soil completely. Once the field is mulched, weeds are controlled and the topsoil is protected against heavy rainfall and intense sun- shine. Poultry, pigs and cows produce suitable manure which is applied only at the base of the mat.
To produce a heavy bunch, plantains always need some extra nutrients. These can be applied in the form either of inorganic fertilizers or organic fertilizers (mulch, manure or ash from wood fires). Inorganic fertilizers have the advantages of easy handling and concentrated nutrients. Organic fertilizers are very bulky, yet they manifest many important characteristics. They improve soil moisture retention, weed and erosion control, soil porosity and biological activity.
The application of fertilizer should start 1 month after planting of plantains or with the first rains in an already existing field. The fertilizer is applied around the main plant in a circle about 50 cm in diameter. Fertilizer is not worked into the soil as that causes extensive damage to the superficial root system. No fertilizer is applied in the dry season.
- Controlling weeds
Plantains should always be weed-free. Weed control starts during field preparation. Weeds are initially controlled about every 6 to 8 weeks; but when the plantain canopy closes, about 5 to 6 months after planting, weed infestation declines due to shading. Any plant with a superficial root system should be considered a weed and therefore eliminated. Grasses or herbs are the most pernicious weeds because they derive their nutrients from the same level of the soil as the plantains. Tree seedlings are not considered to be weeds. Weeds can be controlled through mulching, chemically or manually. Mulching is the most efficient means, because a mulch layer can impede or prevent weed growth. Chemical control is expensive and in some circumstances also dangerous. Manual weeding is not recommended, although the weeds are thereby effectively controlled, because slashing or hoe weeding inevitably damages the plantain root system. However, sometimes manual weeding is the only possible method.
Plantain fields are arranged in rows spaced 3 m x 2 m. As the canopy closes only some 5 to 6 months after planting, a fair amount of inter-row space remains un exploited during the first months. This space can be used for plants which have a short life cycle and which do not compete with plantains. Groundnut, yam , cocoyam and maize are suitable intercrops although maize effectively delays the plantain harvest by about 2 months. Cassava and cowpea are not suitable, because their yields are reduced under the shade of plantain rows. Plantains can be used as a shade crop for young cocoa and coffee plants.
The heavy weight of the plantain bunch bends all bearing plants and can cause doubling (pseudo stem breaks), snap- off (corm breaks, leaving a part in the ground) or uprooting, also called tip-over (the entire corm with roots comes out of the ground). Plants are generally weak during the dry season and strong winds, nematodes and stem borers also increase the rate of loss. For these reasons, bearing plants always need support from 1 or 2 wooden props, usually made of bam- boo. If a piece of bamboo is used, the support is placed alongside the bearing plant and the top of the plant is tied to the bamboo. A lateral branch at the top of the bamboo prop sometimes forms a natural fork which can be used to support the plantain without being tied to it. When 2 pieces of bamboo are used, the bunch and not the plant is supported in the first place. The bamboo props are crossed and form a fork. This fork is tied together with a rope and placed just underneath the bunch.
The bearing plant is cut and the bunch, 3 to 4 months old, is harvested when 1 or 2 fingertips of the first hand start yellowing. The bunch usually then ripens within a week. Care has to be taken that the bunch does not drop on the ground when the main plant is cut. The whole of the pseudo stem and foliage of the main plant is then chopped and spread over the soil as a mulch for the ratoon crop. If this is not done, weevils may live and multiply on the intact pseudo stem.
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