Tips on how to grow palm trees

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By Susan Brown, County Extension

Planting palms in the landscape can create a tropical escape and drastically change the look of a garden. Even though palms do not have a showy flower, their large, evergreen leaves are natural attention getters. A single large palm or a grove of smaller palms can serve as a focal point for any landscape, large or small.

Palms can be shrubs or trees. Most palms form some kind of woody trunk, but a palm trunk is different from the trunk of an ordinary tree. Palms rarely form branches, but keep their leaves clustered at the end of the trunk. Palms also differ from trees and shrubs in the way they grow. Most trees grow from the inside out, laying a fresh layer of new wood under the bark each year. Palms, on the other hand, grow from the end of their trunks. 

There is really only one growth bud contained in every palm trunk and that is the bud. If that bud is killed, the trunk cannot produce new leaves and will eventually die. Very few palms will sprout back from their roots although they have the ability to sprout new roots from the sides of their trunks. Because of this ability, it is better to plant palms a little deep so that the roots have better contact with the soil.

Most palms will grow well when daytime temperatures are between 80-95 degrees. Our long, hot summers mean that palms set out in mid-spring will have five to six months to become established before we experience a frost. Lightly fertilizing them at planting time and keeping them well watered during the hottest part of the summer will help to establish them. 

The ideal soil for growing palms in tends to be well drained and extremely acidic. A soil test will provide recommendations to raise or lower the pH as necessary. Many palms will do just fine in sandy soil but often benefit from additional amendments such as pine bark or composted leaves. 

Sandy soil can lack certain micronutrients, particularly manganese. A lack of these elements can cause leaves to look yellowish in color, and can result in overall lack of vigor. One or two applications of fertilizer should be added each year at a rate of one-quarter pound per two feet of trunk. Special palm fertilizers contain trace elements that are necessary for a healthy plant.

Plant palms in a warm, sunny spot protected from winter winds, especially winds from the north and west. Palms do best when planted on the south and east sides of the home. The house can provide shelter in the winter and protect the roots from freezing temperatures. Palms with a tall, solitary trunk tend to be the most vulnerable to winter cold damage. Larger palms are much more resistant to frost than smaller ones.

Most palms will tolerate some drought; however, it is a good idea to keep your palms well watered during their period of rapid growth. This will help palms put on new, vigorous growth, and will ensure a stronger plant going into winter.