A Guide to Growing Palms
Photo courtesy of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Give your landscape a touch of the tropics by growing palms. These ubiquitous trees are go-to greenery for Southern yards. They’re not especially difficult to grow once you understand what they need to succeed. Start with water. Most palms prefer moist, well-drained soil. That type of soil is usually amended with compost or other organic matter, although in some places, adding sand to soil improves drainage.
If soil doesn’t drain and becomes waterlogged, palm trees will slowly die. When palm roots are too wet, leaves turn yellow or brown and fall off without drying up first. When palm trees don’t have enough moisture available to roots, leaf tips turn brown. Palms typically need water two to three times a week during the active growing season and once-a-week watering during winter.
Fertilize using a complete granular type food designed for palm trees. Palms suffer from several common nutrient deficiencies—manganese, magnesium, potassium and iron. Palm tree fertilizer supplies these nutrients so your trees don’t have deficiencies, which can require six months or longer to overcome.
Follow an annual fertilizer program for landscape palms. If you’re using slow release fertilizer, apply it approximately twice yearly (follow label instructions). Apply other types of fertilizer three to four times during a palm’s active growing season. When you feed palms, place the fertilizer at least two feet away from the trunk. Palms are quite susceptible to fertilizer burn on the trunk.
Allow palm leaves to die completely before cutting them away from the trunk. Palm trees harvest nutrients from dying leaves to help fuel new growth. If you cut brown, dying leaves prematurely, before the nutrients have been moved to the growing tip, you’re slowing your tree’s growth. The time when it’s safe to cut brown, dying palm fronds is when stems form an angle with the trunk less than 45 degrees.
Avoid pruning palms prior to hurricanes. While it’s a good idea to remove dead, loose limbs from other trees before hurricane season kicks into gear, you don’t want to do that with palms. Allow the dying leaves to remain in place, along with other green leaves in the canopy. All of these leaves can actually help protect the growing tip and trunk of a palm during a hurricane.
Make sure you know what kind of cold temperatures your palms can safely withstand. If the growing tip of a palm tree gets damaged by cold, it cannot regenerate. The tree will die. If a cold snap threatens, protect your palm tree by wrapping the trunk and growing tip with strings of lights and/or blankets and frost blankets. Use a small heater to warm the air around a tree, and apply mulch over roots to keep them from freezing. Freeze Pruf, developed by Florida Extension, is a product you spray on palms to raise cold tolerance by 2 to 9 degrees F.