How to Care for Palm Trees

Palm tree leaves
Palm tree leaves. Photo by Flickr.

Caring for palm trees can be a fun and rewarding if you know what you are doing. In this article I am going to reveal my secrets to successful palm tree care. I’ve learned them over the years working at the nursery and in my own garden. The key factors are:

  • selecting the right palm
  • planting
  • watering
  • fertilizing
  • trimming
  • cold protection

How To Choose The Right Palm Tree

It all starts with choosing the right tree for your garden. I can’t stress enough how important this step is. If you don’t pick the right palm, you will end up with a big problem. Think about appearance of the palm, the purpose and location in your yard, and cold tolerance of the tree. All these things are equally important.

– Cold Tolerance of the palm. If you live in the tropical climate, don’t worry about it, anything will grow. But if you live in a colder state, you need to spend some time on research, because not every palm can survive in cold temperatures.

How cold does it get in your area during winter? If this is your first time, I would suggest getting a low maintenance tree that grows in your area. Simple! If you do want a more exotic tree, do your homework.

– Purpose and location. You probably already have some ideas of where you would like to plant your palm. Are you going to create an attractive focal point, or some kind of a border throughout the front yard?

Or maybe you want to use it as a fence to divide the property line? Or just use it for some shade around the pool area. Whatever your goals are, each requires a different type of palm.

Many trees don’t want full sun while others demand it. That being said, think about amount of sunlight your palm will be getting. You don’t want to plant for example Triangle Palm in a shade because it requires full sun.

Another factor is size. How much space do you have? Planting a Canary Island Palm in a small yard would be a mistake. Yes, it is small right now, but it can grow up to 60 ft tall with leaves spreading 20 ft wide. Can you imagine this huge tree in a small garden?

– Palm Tree Appearance. Palm trees can be divided into different types according to their growth rate, size, trunk, leaf shape, and cold tolerance. Some grow fast and get tall, others grow slow and stay small.

So be careful, this small cute palm tree that you are buying can grow pretty fast and in a few years you might end up with a big headache. If you have a smaller garden, make sure to get small palm trees that will stay small.

On the other hand, tall fast growing trees are perfect for creating more shade and to form a border line. There are multi-trunk palms and single-trunk palms. Multi-trunk once are great for creating a fence between properties.

Single-trunk are perfect for focal point. Single-trunk can also be divided into clean trunk or be covered with old leaf bases.

What size of palm tree to buy

Now that you know what type of palm tree you want, you probably are wondering if you should get a small size, medium or full grown tree. There are advantages and disadvantages to each size.

Buying smaller one will cost less, easier to plant and you can watch it grow. On the other side, it will be more vulnerable to cold temperatures during winter and it will take a few years before it looks good.

Medium size, about 10 gallon container, are a little more expensive but have a better chance of surviving the transplant shock. They also look pretty decent right away. Large trees, about 25 gallon container, are usually expensive, but they look great and will provide a change to your landscape.

While they are more tolerant to cold temperatures, a lot of time they don’t adapt well to the new location very well. Also, the transportation costs a lot because of the manpower and machines that are needed.

Planting the palm tree

After you’ve selected your palm tree, you need to plant it the correct way to minimize the transplant shock. Many homeowners think they can just dig a hole and put it in. Not exactly. It is always a great idea to acclimatize your palm to the light levels and temperature of the new location before planting it.

Acclimatization is especially important for those trees that require full sun. Newly planted tree is usually much weaker and can get its fronds burned by strong sun. You can slowly move the container to increase light level every week till the palm is used to full sun.

Another way is to create a temporary shade cloth by using four sticks and some plastic cover. Each week make more holes in the cover to allow more sunlight.

The best time of the year to plant is of course late Spring. Definitely avoid planting palms during very hot months and during cold months. After acclimatization, plant it as soon as possible.

Try to disturb roots as little as possible and always keep them moist. I recommend doing all the planting in the evening when soil is a little cooler. It will give your newly planted tree enough time to develop new roots and get used to the new location before the winter comes.

It should to sit it on the same depth in the ground as it was grown before. If you plant it too high or too deep it will die. I’ve seen so many large trees that costed thousands of dollars die because of the incorrect planting, it is not even funny.

Watering palm tree

Another thing, use good soil that absorbs water well because most of palms like moist but well drained soil. Test the soil in your garden by digging a hole and filling it with water. 15 inches deep will be enough.

The water should drain within 1-2 hours. Bad drainage should be fixed or you will end up with a swimming pool at the bottom of your tree. I usually use of the soil from the container that the plant comes in. It helps to deal with the transplant shock.

You should water the palm tree every day right after planting and 2-3 times a week after it establishes. Soil barrier will help to retain water. During summer months it is hotter, so your palm needs more water than in the winter.

During cold winter months, you can just water it once a week. I like to deep water my trees, that way the soil has more time to absorb more water.

Fertilizing palm tree

Most importantly don’t fertilize it right after planting! You need to wait for the plant to develop new growth before applying a good quality fertilizer. Fertilizer is like vitamins cheap fertilizer will not provide your palm with all the nutrients.

Trimming palm tree

I want to say a few things about trimming misconception. Trimming old dying fronds will NOT improve the growth of the new fronds. Why? Because palms use nutrition from lower dying leaves to produce new leaves.

Therefore, if you trim them it will create more stress for the plant and will slow down the formation of the new beautiful leaves. I know it doesn’t look good all these brown leaves but don’t cut them until they are dry. Otherwise you would be hurting your tree, not helping it.

Cold protection

Protecting your trees from cold during winter months is absolutely crucial. Even if you live in a warm tropical climate you can get a nasty cold snap that can kill your palms in matter of a few hours.

You can’t even imagine how many emails I get about cold damage palms during winter. And a lot of times there is nothing that can be done to save those palms. If you know that cold is coming your way be prepared.

It is much easier to protect your palm before the temperatures drop. Once the bud, where the leaves are growing from, of the palm is damaged, the palm will die. It can’t regenerate the tissue of the bud. That is why it is important to do everything you can to protect it.

I wrote multiple articles talking about palm cold protection and also how to care for cold damaged palms. In short, to protect your palm you can start by applying mulch to protect roots. Next, you can use a blanket during cold night hours and wrap it around the trunk. Also, small heater and light bulbs will keep the area around the tree warm.

I hope this article helps homeowners new to palm trees. Remember, caring for the palm trees is not that hard. Most of the time you just need to water them. But occasional fertilizing and cold protection during cold weather can make a huge difference.

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8 thoughts on “How to Care for Palm Trees”

  1. I had 18 fox palm trees transplanted. It’s about 6 months now. They keep getting new growth from the top, but the branches are shedding quite a bit. Is this normal?

  2. Hi, Can over pruning, especially pruning of the green leafs result in poor health and possible death of the tree. I have also heard the over pruning can cause the tree to fall over in bad weather.

  3. We have a palm tree or more bush type that appears to be rotting down the middle and the palm leaves are dying off. Can you help please?

  4. I inherited three tall Mexican palms. The former owners planted dense foliage around the base of each tree. I have two questions. I have tried to fertilize with spikes under the drip line which is generally in the foliage. The trees look good but not great. I figure the foliage is absorbing most of the water and fertilizer. The second question is that if I dig up or thin the foliage will the digging harm the root system of the palms.

  5. I though I knew a lot about palm trees, but I am always reminded that there is more to learn everyday! Thanks for this great write up.

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