Palm Tree Care Guide

Learn to pick and care for a palm tree with our easy guide to ensure success after planting.

Cabbage palm

Caring For Your Palm Tree

Palm trees are perfect for adding a tropical touch to your garden, but it's important to nail their care to keep them looking their best. When it comes to successfully growing palm trees, there's not a one-size-fits-all answer—it all depends on the type of palm you grow and where you live. First things first? Determine where you plan on placing your palm, then use this guide to help determine what palm will thrive in that spot. The better you can make your plot, the happier your palm will be.

Light Requirements

Palm trees can be picky when it comes to light, so knowing your palm's preferences is key. If your chosen type of palm tree prefers the sun, planting it in the shade will result in a weak plant that has a thick trunk and stretched-out fronds from reaching toward the sun. Likewise, if your palm loves shade and you plant it in direct sunlight, its leaves will burn and brown until they die.

Temperature Requirements

Palms come from many different climate zones. Some species originate in places that are hot year-round where highs hit 95°F by day, while lows seldom dip below 78°F at night. In mountainous regions, palms may see daytime highs between 70°F and 80°F and nighttime lows around 40°F. Even still, some species can occasionally see snow, while others brave temperatures exceeding 100°F.

Simply put, choosing the right palm for your environment comes down to knowing what your palm can tolerate—especially at night. Taking into account the temperatures your area experiences year-round will help determine which species of palms will grow best for you.

Soil Requirements

The soil beneath your palm tree is just as important to its health as the sun above. Many palm species do well in either acid or alkaline ground; others are a bit fussy when it comes to their soil. There is one piece of general advice for palms: Make sure the soil has good drainage. Any excessive moisture in their soil can lead to rot and browning of the fronds.

Water Requirements

Moisture is key for any plant, including palms. Some palms prefer moisture once a week (palms from desert areas may need even less), while others may prefer five times a week. If mixing species of palms in your garden or landscape, make sure you group them together by their water habits—otherwise, you could jeopardize one plant while another thrives.

Planting Your Palm Tree

Finding the right palm tree is only half the battle. Once you've found a palm that fits your location, it's time to plant it. This is a crucial stage in your palm's life, and knowing the correct preparations is key. In colder areas, it's best to plant palms in spring, when the threat of freezing temperatures has passed. Avoid planting palm trees during dry seasons—young palms are more susceptible to damage from weather changes. When you're ready to plant your palm, dig a hole at least twice as wide as the diameter of the root ball, and make the hole no deeper than the root ball.

Be sure to exercise caution when handling your new palm tree, especially toward the heart, which is the delicate part from which the leaves grow. If the heart cracks or shatters, your palm could experience stunted growth or even die. You should also handle the root ball with care when removing it from the container—it may be easier to cut the container away from the palm to prevent root damage. Once the palm is out of the pot, level the hole so the bottom of its trunk is flush with the soil level of the yard, then backfill it with loose soil to help promote root growth.

Bracing Your Palm Tree

Senegal date palm,

Bracing a palm typically works better than staking, because palm trunks are often smooth, causing ties to slip down the trunk. Because a field-grown palm often has a smaller root ball than a container-grown plant, it's more top-heavy and therefore susceptible to toppling over in heavy winds. To prevent this, brace your palm in place for at least a year, or until it has reestablished sufficient roots to stay anchored.

To start bracing your palm, take three or four braces of 2x4 lumber and equally space them around the palm. Make them long enough and place their bottom ends far enough from the palm tree to allow support in strong winds. Fasten these braces to the palm by wrapping burlap around the trunk at the appropriate height to protect the trunk from scratches and scrapes. From there, secure an equal number of small pieces of wood with metal bands or similar ties that will not allow the wood to slip up or down the palm during high winds. Securely nail the braces into the small pieces of wood—never nail directly into the palm. At the bottom of each brace, insert a 2x4 stake into the ground to nail the brace into. Leave the braces in place for one year or until the palm has reestablished sufficient roots to stay anchored.

Caring For New Palm Trees

Give your palm two to four weeks to acclimate to your garden before applying any fertilizer. Once the plant is established, fertilize it four times a year using a complete fertilizer that contains two parts nitrogen, one part phosphorus, and three parts potassium along with one part magnesium.

New palms should also be watered frequently to help form more roots. Make a small dam on the soil surface around the outside of the root ball, then add water inside the dam to direct water into the root zone. If you're replanting a field-grown palm, it's going to need extra watering—because these trees have had their roots cut, they need all the help they can get reaching water. That being said, keep in mind that too much water may discourage roots from growing, delaying the palm's progress. Watering three or four times a week is sufficient for most species, except moisture-loving palms, which will need more frequent watering. After three to four weeks, you can gradually cut back on watering to four or five times a week for another period of three to four weeks. Do this until your watering schedule is down to three or four times a week. If a palm's lower leaves turn yellow and brown, this could be a sign that it's thirsty for more water. However, be aware of drainage, because too much water can cause roots to rot.

If your soil drains well, use a mulch to retain moisture and keep out weeds. As the mulch breaks down, it will enrich the soil around the palm. Apply a 2- to 4-inch-deep layer, with it thinner near the trunk and thicker over the root zone. This will help keep excess mulch from piling up, which can cause rot and fungal disease.

You should also be cautious with weed-control products, especially on new palm trees. Some palm species are sensitive to herbicides and can suffer damage if the herbicide comes in contact with green stems, foliage, or exposed roots. This may result in brown leaf spots, browning foliage, deformed new growth, and death. It's a good idea to hand-pull weeds until the palm is more stable and grown.

Pruning Palm Trees

Pruning palm trees is actually quite simple. Remove dead fronds and old fruit stems. Once the old fronds turn completely brown, it's safe to prune them from the palm. Just make sure you wait until there is no green left on the frond. Use a hand pruner for smaller palms and a sharp pruning saw for larger leaf stems. Whichever pruning tool you choose, treat it with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide in between pruning different palms—this helps prevent the spread of disease from plant to plant.

When removing a leaf, cut it as close to the trunk as possible. The remaining leaf base will eventually fall off, but it may take several years. If you try to strip it off before it's ready to fall off, you can scar the trunk. If you have a large palm tree and can't reach old leaves with a pole saw, decide how important it is to prune your palm tree. Eventually, the palm will shed its old fronds, but if you don't want to wait, you have a couple of options, including hiring a cherry picker or a tree climber.

Protecting Palm Trees In Winter

Palm species vary greatly in their sensitivity to cold. As mentioned, some palms can handle temperatures in the high teens for short periods, while others are damaged when temperatures hit 45°F. Know the freezing patterns of your region and make sure to buy a palm that can handle it.

Protecting your palm from cold damage can be simple. If you have a cold-sensitive palm, plant it in a warm microclimate, such as behind a windbreak or in a sheltered courtyard. This will protect it from the chill of winter winds. You can also take potted palms indoors before freezing temperatures arrive. If the palm is too heavy to move, drape a lightweight blanket or sheet over your palm to trap heat inside and keep your plant 4 or 5 degrees warmer than the air.

If your area expects unusually cold temperatures, protect your palm with an outdoor propane heater, while keeping the heater far enough from the palm to prevent burns. You may also water the soil around the palm prior to a cold snap; moist soil stays warm longer because water loses heat less rapidly than dry soil. Take care to keep water off the palm—when water freezes on the palm, it causes damage to the plant tissues below.

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