Whether you’re considering purchasing a palm tree or you’ve already brought that green and luscious beauty home with you and it’s planted, you might be wondering what’s involved in maintaining your palm’s health, good looks and how difficult it’s going to be.
Fortunately, palms are one of the most durable and low-maintenance trees you can own, provided you planted them in their preferred conditions. Best of all, you don’t have to be a master gardener to have success growing and properly maintaining palm trees. In fact, it’s the perfect tree for the novice or black thumb gardener who feel they kill everything they touch.
With just a little effort, your palms will flourish for years to come gracing your outdoor spaces with their tropical splendor. Below we’ve outlined some of the basic tips in caring for a palm tree and keeping it a flourishing and eye-catching member of your personal plant community.
Basic Water Requirements
Once established, the vast majority of palm trees are drought-tolerant, meaning their need for water isn’t that great and they tolerate periods of low to no water. However, the vast majority of palms also put on their best growth when given regular applications of water, although most won’t tolerate soils that are constantly soggy.
Watering Newly Planted Palms
Newly planted palm trees have the greatest water needs. After planting, it’s important to immediately water the planting site, being sure to saturate the palm’s root ball. Depending on your local weather conditions, and for the first few weeks, you should continue with deep irrigations three to four times weekly and sometimes daily if conditions are especially hot and dry.
These regular water applications assist the developing root system to retain moisture while it begins to establish itself in the new planting site. Deep applications of water are best as the root system grows deeper instead of more shallow as what happens when light water applications are given. This leads to a sturdier palm fixed in the landscape.
Irrigating through First Year of Growth
After three or four months of growth in the new planting site, the palm tree has pretty well established itself. After a year of growth, the palm tree has a fully developed root ball.
You can decrease watering to once to twice weekly, depending on your local weather after the first three or four weeks. Regular irrigation during this phase of the palm’s growth assists in it putting on its best growth while it continues its establishment. However, don’t stress if you forget a watering because palms are rather forgiving, and here’s where their drought tolerance comes into play.
Watering Mature Palms
After one year of growth, the palm tree is considered established and taken up permanent residence in its chosen location. With the vast majority of palm trees being tolerant to drought, their watering needs decrease. However, and like most plants and trees, regular water applications have the palm putting out its best and healthiest growth.
Once established, you can cut back regular waterings to once weekly. During rainy conditions, you can cease watering all together until things dry up. On the other hand, if your weather is extremely hot and dry, it won’t hurt to give the palm tree an extra dose of deep water.
Again, this is where the particular palm’s drought tolerance comes into play and why it’s best to know what your particular palm tree prefers. We’ve outlined basic requirements for each of the palms, which includes how tolerant each is to drought conditions.
Many drought-tolerant palm trees thrive just fine off what Mother Nature gives it in the way of moisture. They won’t punish you with poor looks and growth if you are always forgetting to water. However, regular water produces the best and fastest growth.
During winter, palm trees go through a period of dormancy so they require less water than during the growing season. You can reduce regular applications to once every three to four weeks.
Watering Container Palms
Palm trees growing in containers will need more frequent water applications than those growing directly in the ground. How frequently you need to water depends on the pot and your local weather conditions.
If the palm tree is growing in an unglazed pot like terra cotta that quickly loses moisture, you’ll need to water more frequently than if it was growing in plastic. Additionally, if you outdoor conditions are especially hot and dry, the soil in the container dries quicker and the palm requires more frequent water.
A good rule of thumb to follow in knowing when the palm requires water is to stick your finger into the potting mix. If the top three or four inches are dry to the touch apply water. Always water deeply and until it runs from the bottom drain holes.
During winter while the palm is dormant and growth slows, you can cut back watering to every week or two.
Adding a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch over the planting site helps cut down on unwanted growth like weeds and grasses, as well as helping the soil retain moisture and thus keeping the palm’s root system cooler. It also helps insulate the roots and keep the warm during winter.
Any type of organic mulch works well and you should spread it out evenly over the site. To prevent possible problems with disease, keep the mulch pulled back several inches from the trunk.
Keeping a planting site that is at least 3 feet in diameter and filled with mulch also helps prevent lawn equipment running into the palm’s trunk and causing potential damage. Damage to the trunk opens the palm up to disease and pests.
Basic Fertilizer Requirements
Although some types are needier than others, like most plants and trees, occasionally feeding your palm tree promotes healthy growth, the best looks, and assists in warding off potential health problems that arise from missing essential nutrients.
As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s easier to prevent a problem before it even thinks about rearing its ugly head.
Regardless of type, giving your palm tree regular applications of a high-quality fertilizer specific to palm trees won’t hurt and will help, including those that aren’t big feeders.
Choosing the Best Palm Fertilizer
When selecting the best fertilizer for your palm trees it’s best to look at products labeled “palm special,” as these blends are supposed to contain all the recommended nutrients and micronutrients required. It’s better to spend a couple of extra dollars on a high-quality blend that will actually do what it’s supposed to do than trying to save a couple of bucks by going with lower quality products that won’t fulfill the tree’s needs.
You want to select an 8-2-12 blend with +4 of Mg, magnesium. When it comes to what the numbers on the label stand for, the first number is for the amount of nitrogen (N), the second number is the amount of phosphorous (P), and the third number is the amount of potassium (K).
When reading the label, you want to also make sure that the amount of nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium are in a control-released form. This means they’ll slowly break down in the soil as you water and aren’t like some water-soluble types that instantly wash away with the first water application.
Additionally, all the other micronutrients listed on the label should be in a water-soluble form other than boron (B).
Best Time to Fertilizer
When it comes to the best time to start applying your palm fertilizer, you want to apply the first application around April. Then you can spread out an additional three to four applications equally divided throughout the growing season through early fall.
Some palms like the Green Saw Palmetto and Silver Saw Palmetto aren’t big feeders so giving them even one dose during the growing season is adequate for them to thrive. However, they won’t punish you with bad growth if you happen to give them an additional feeding of fertilizer.
Don’t fertilize too late in the season and too close to winter or the palm can put out tender new growth that gets damaged by the cold temperatures. Stop feeding the palm tree after early fall, generally September or early October until it warms again in spring.
It’s best to check the recommended amount for the particular palm tree’s size on the product label of the fertilizer you’re using. Always apply the recommended amount and don’t think using more is better and will speed up the palm’s rate of growth. Using too much fertilizer can burn your palm tree and result in its damage.
The basic rule when it comes to fertilizer amounts if you don’t know exactly how much to use of the particular palm special you have is applying 1.5 pounds per 100 square feet. If your soil makeup is basically clay, you should use half any recommended amount.
When it comes to palms in containers, it’s especially crucial to follow the particular product’s label on recommended amounts. When applying it’s always best to use after the soil is moistened.
Applying the Fertilizer
When it comes to applying the palm fertilizer it’s best to spread the product evenly over the planting site and under the palm’s canopy. If you have a layer of mulch over the site you can either scratch the fertilizer into the mulch so it meets the layer of soil or pull the mulch away from the tree and then apply the product. Once applied you can move the mulch back in place.
Don’t allow the fertilizer to bunch against the trunk to prevent burning and be sure to rinse any off the foliage or crown. After applying, be sure to water the fertilizer into the soil.
Tips for Pruning
Pruning is an important part of maintaining your palm tree and keeping it healthy. Doing your pruning chores at the appropriate time is important for the health of your palm tree. Fortunately, it’s not a constant job you’ll have to worry about doing, which means you’ll have more time to enjoy your outer spaces by doing things that bring you pleasure.
Palm trees have two different habits when it comes to their old, dead palm fronds. Some hold onto their dead fronds like Mule Palms and European Fan Palms and you’ll have to trim them off when dead. Others like the Sabal Palm are relatively self-cleaning, meaning they drop their fronds once completely spent.
When to Trim Off Palm Fronds
Although pruning off palm fronds whenever you like may seem like a harmless habit, it actually can negatively affect the growth and health of your palm tree. Everyone can identify if a branch or leaf is dead because it’s totally brown. When it comes to palm fronds the simple rule is if the frond isn’t completely dead don’t prune it off.
Even though dying fronds can look a bit unsightly for a short span of time, those ugly and discolored fronds are actually still feeding the palm tree. Since the palm cannot get from the soil the magnesium and potassium it requires for producing the new growth, it’s basically stealing it from the dying frond.
Think of allowing the dying frond to remain on the palm until totally brown and dead a way you are continuing to feed the tree the nutrients it requires. When you start removing healthy green fronds you are basically taking the much-needed nutrients from the palm.
However, if you’ve planted your palm in a location where a frond periodically gets in the way, you’ll have no choice but to trim it off. Trimming off an occasional frond shouldn’t adversely affect the palm.
Pruning Flower Stalks
If that new pair of loppers is burning a hole in your hand because you feel the need to prune something, you can remove a palm’s flower stalk anytime you desire without harming the tree. Depending on the species of palm, some types can make a mess dropping the ripe berries over the planting site.
If you aren’t into collecting ripe palm seeds, you can trim off the flower stalk or stalk of berries anytime during its growth. Just cut the stalk back close to the base of the tree to remove.
How to Prune Your Palm Tree
Depending on the size of your palm tree you might have to utilize a ladder to get to the dead fronds. If you’re having to climb up to a tall height, it’s a good idea to have someone spot you in the event you start going wild and crazy up in the palm’s canopy with your pruning tools. You don’t want to fall to the ground and injure yourself.
Loppers or even hand pruners work well for removing smaller fronds and a handsaw works well for trimming off thicker stems. Trim off the dead frond’s stem close to the base of the trunk.
Although Atlanta Palms specializes in cold-hardy palm trees that will thrive in our area’s winter conditions, you can still do some things before the cold snap hits to give the tree further protection.
Even cold-hardy palm trees can experience a rough winter from time to time when winter lows are lower than typically expected. Once again, it’s good to get to know the basic cultural and environmental conditions your particular palm tree thrives in, which includes its tolerance to winter lows.
Below are some tips to help keep your palm tree warm and cozy when Old Man Winter pays an unwelcome call:
- Thoroughly water the palm tree the day before the cold temperatures arrive, making sure to saturate the root ball. This helps insulate the root system keeping it warm.
- Add a thick layer of organic mulch over the planting site for added insulation and warmth.
- String holiday lights throughout the palm’s canopy to help produce warmth.
- Group a potted palm with other containerized plants, which helps insulate them and keep them warm. Water the pot’s soil before the cold weather arrives.
If your potted palm isn’t too large and outdoor conditions are predicted to be extremely rough, you can always bring the palm indoors to a warm and bright location. Just remove it back outdoors once the extreme cold weather passes.
What if I Suspect Cold Damage?
If for some reason your palm tree looks like fronds were damaged during the cold snap, it’s always best to wait until spring before you prune off the damaged areas. You don’t want to open up an area of the palm while cold weather is still threatening or you can create even more damage.
Once spring arrives you’ll better be able to assess the true damage and know if the cold completely killed a frond or only burned the ends. If the ends are only brown, wait until the entire frond browns and dies before removing. If the entire frond is dead prune it off.