Banana Circles

Banana circles can be used in tropical and sub-tropical areas to utilise waste water, run-off or overflow from rainwater tanks, and even urine waste from dry composting toilets.

It is possible to use other plants in a similar system, but bananas are an excellent choice as they are very heavy feeders and also need a lot of water to be productive. The fruit from banana palms is highly nutritious and so in developing countries banana circles are a great way to turn waste into a valuable food source for the whole family.

At Kesho Leo in Tanzania, banana circles are used as a part of our compost toilet and grey water systems.

Step 1

Select an area to use for your banana circle and mark out a circle two metres in diameter. You can mark another bigger circle around this one, as a guide for your mounded garden bed.

Step 2

Using your two metre circle, dig out a basin-shaped hole to a depth of 50 centimetres to one metre. Put the soil from the hole around the edge to create a mounded garden bed. At this point, you can make an opening at ground level for rainwater run-off to enter the banana circle.

Step 3

Line the hole with paper, cardboard, or a few layers of banana leaves to slow down the infiltration of water later. This will make sure that water and nutrients hang around long enough to be taken up by bananas, papayas and other plants that surround the basin.

Step 4

Fill the basin with organic mulch materials, making a large compost pile. This can be mounded quite high initially, as it will sink as the materials break down and turn into compost.

Step 5

Plant banana palms around the rim of the basin in the mounded bed. We use four banana suckers around a two metre banana circle. These can initially be interplanted with papayas and a range of other food-bearing plants — experimentation is always fun! Sweet potatoes make an excellent fast-growing ground cover, which stabilises the soil and provides a living mulch. Pumpkins and gourds will do well too, as long as they are high on the mound and not likely to get wet feet. Planting out thickly is the idea, to maximise food production and to make sure all excess nutrients are being taken up.

Step 6

Heavily mulch your newly planted garden — all soil should be covered to minimise evaporation and to make sure new plants settle in well with minimum transplant shock. Make sure you water everything in, giving the bananas a big soak especially. Continue regular watering until your banana circle starts receiving waste water, run-off or urine waste from your composting toilet.

How banana circles work

Waste water, urine or excess water is sent via a pipe or drain to the ‘basin’ around which the bananas are planted. Because the hole is lined with either paper/cardboard or banana leaves, the water gathers and is absorbed into the sides of the basin, irrigating plants. Nutrients from grey water or urine waste are taken up both by the heavy feeders that are planted around the rim of the banana circle, and also by micro-organisms active in the compost pile in the middle. Using a banana circle, it is possible to deal with soap and detergent residues, and oils found in grey water. It is important, however, to avoid harsh chemicals and to make smart choices about household products — choosing those that have very low levels of salts and phosphates.

Handy hints!

  • Bananas are very easy to dig up and transplant — even suckers up to five or six feet high will transplant well if given lots of water and TLC in the first month or so after re-planting. Don’t worry if you don’t get a huge root ball either — they are tough little buggers, and will quickly adapt to their new site.
  • Did you know that banana palms are actually a grass? Also, each plant only gives fruit once, so after you have cut the bunch of bananas down you can remove the whole plant at ground level. By this time, there should be new suckers coming up — only allow a couple of these to grow, as too many will make your bananas overcrowded and they won’t fruit well.
  • Banana circles can also be used as an outdoor shower/wash area, with the addition of a platform to stand on in the middle of the circle and a simple privacy screen. Fast-growing plants can be incorporated into the design to provide a living fence.

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3 thoughts on “Banana Circles

  1. Good Day,
    This is a good idea for small rural town on the coastal area in the philippines.
    Thanks
    God bless and more power to you.
    Pidrus

  2. a ‘Magic circle’ design….aka the banana circle
    March 1, 2014 at 9:57am
    “The secret is in the garbage”. I’ll hear him say the words again, tens of metresaway and the only phrase I understand in Spanish. He means ‘organic matter’ butthis term doesn’t jingle like ‘garbage’ does. By valuing the organic matter available,farmers will understand the need toreturn these nutrients to the soil and thus,the circle of ‘life and decay’ can continue.“Nature has all the answers and by copying this system, there’ll be less work for me”

    John and his visitors and magic circle.

    Permaculture in Panama: lessons from a lazy farmer (p13 Permaculture Works Summer 2012)

    My friend and I recently reunited inPanama; being the romantic, she had just spent three months volunteering on an orchid conservation farm but now, faced with my nebulous plant philosophy of ‘eatit, heat it or beat it’, we were in search of edible plants.Looking for an organic farm to volunteer at, we came across ‘The Lazy Man’s Farm’. It was only 2 hours away but the name concerned me, is the owner lazy? Will we need to work tirelessly in order to pick up his slack?In reality the owner, John proved tobe an inspirational character despite regularly claiming ignorance and laziness.Whilst there, he hosted tours to a range of people from various countries and backgrounds; including local farmers looking to learn the secret to hi sproductive garden and curiously large vegetables.The farm, set on 25 acres is primarily intended to inspire and educate local people about growing crops organically.Within his first two years of ownership, John had an extensive list of edible,medicinal and beneficial plants growing on his property.This wasn’t achieved without setbacks however, battling unrelenting grass,torrential rainstorms and Houdini trained chickens.The momentum appears unstoppable.The government is now sending coach loads of people to the farm! He willsoon be starting gardens in the local state prison and he often travels offsite to schools, teaching them about permaculture principles and organic gardening. Not bad for one lazy farmer.The Problem in Panama? Panamanian farmers commonly clear theland of debris and weeds, thus leaving soil bare and exposed. The apparent reason for this is to minimise pests and diseases,keep the farm tidy and it follows the neighbouring trend.The waste is then discarded, often burned or thrown away, and the remaining soil is vulnerable to erosion. With wind and rain,soil washes from the land and into the water ways. After one storm, I witnessed the effects – the river had turned a thick brown. The soil was destined for the ocean. Plants looking to cover the modest soil will then need eliminating, probably through use of chemical sprays. The feasting pests will also need destroying. And the naked soil could quite likely be lacking some nutrients. Well, there is a bottled quick fix for that too.The Solution? John has a secret, which he broadcasts to anybody who listens. It has now become a farm slogan and is preached continuously.“The secret is in the garbage”. I’ll hear him say the words again, tens of metres away and the only phrase I understand in Spanish. He means ‘organic matter’ but this term doesn’t jingle like ‘garbage’ does. By valuing the organic matter available,farmers will understand the need to return these nutrients to the soil and thus,the circle of ‘life and decay’ can continue. “Nature has all the answers and by copyingthis system, there’ll be less work for me” he chuckled whilst showing us how to perfect our machete swing. We were apparently working; chopping balo (a nitrogen fixer which grows like willow but quicker) and using it to mulch fruit trees. Zoning out, into a world of machete swings and jungle adventure, I was soonbrought back by his voice. “Don’t bend down to move the cuttings, it is too much effort, just flick them under the tree with the machete. Think lazy”. Another key aspect from the farm, one readily accepted and implemented by Panamanians, is a ‘Magic circle’ design whereby a hole is dug and the soil is placed around this creating a doughnu tshape. Plants are grown in the doughnut and organic matter is thrown in the hole. As this ‘garbage’ decomposes, it feeds the surrounding plants, the waste is contained, the farm is tidy and the Panamanians are happy.Although we originally debated over concerns about the farm, our stay extended to over a month. Any idea foran experiment was welcome and so we consequently found ourselves making raised beds with banana stalks, bamboo canes and balo cuttings, sowing seeds in charcoaled rice husks and testing different compost tea blends. One lazy farm. One lazy farmer.

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