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Let's Grow Something Weird 

Carrying on Luther Burbank's legacy, the Rare Fruit Growers exist at horticulture's edge of experimentalism

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Banana Love

Another plant that does surprisingly well in the affable North Bay climate is the banana. Vince Scholten, also known as Vince the Bananaman, has about 40 varieties in his greenhouses at NorCal Growers in Sebastopol—and all because he initially thought it'd be cool to have a banana plant in his huge, one-acre greenhouse.

"I was a cut-flower grower at the time, and realized quite quickly that cut-flower growing is wonderful but it's very time-consuming," says Scholten. "My other love was just growing plants and propagating things. And so we opened up the nursery and started selling plants." Bananas quickly became his niche.

Scholten sold only the plants, because selling the fruit was difficult; all the fruit on a given plant ripens at the same time, and to sell that many bananas for just a short period of time each year would not have been feasible. There was money in the banana stand until 2010, when the economy started to go rotten. He had 70 varieties—4,500 plants in all—in one greenhouse at the business' peak, but then Scholten injured his back, and, he says, "I couldn't keep up with the gophers." (Banana plants, which are the world's largest herb—the fruit is also an herb—are soft and full of water, which burrowing animals love.)

click to enlarge WHY NOT TRY IT? Some rare fruits must be grown in greenhouses, but many thrive outdoors in Sonoma County's climate. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • WHY NOT TRY IT? Some rare fruits must be grown in greenhouses, but many thrive outdoors in Sonoma County's climate.

Scholten's biggest seller was a banana called "ice cream." Its blue fruit, as it turns out, tastes just like vanilla-banana ice cream. Though not commercially available, it's relatively simple to just grow in this area, even without a greenhouse. "There are pockets around every person's house that you can plant a banana," says Scholten, "and because it's hot, you can get fruit."

Though the banana business is busted for now, Scholten still utilizes his three enormous greenhouses to grow food crops like tomatoes, herbs and lettuce. He also specializes in trellised trees, taking years to train them to grow along a fence, allowing for greater fruit production in a smaller space. Scholten has over 250 varieties of fruit on his property, and not all are grown for commercial reasons. His Indian blood peach, for example, growing on the side of the dirt road leading to a greenhouse, "makes the best jam you've ever tasted."

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