Expert Advice: How to Prune a Palm Tree (with Pictures)

Tall palm tree trimming using hydraulic lift with a basket.
Tall palm tree trimming using hydraulic lift with a basket. Photo by Flickr.

Trimming palm trees is much simpler than trimming other broadleaf trees. You only need to remove dead leaves and old fruit stems. If your palms have a crown shaft, they make it even easier by naturally shedding brown leaves. Just scoop up those fallen fronds and send them on their leafy way.

Palms generally maintain a certain number of leaves at all times. Each leaf follows a life cycle, starting from the bud in the middle of the palm and ending with the leaf turning yellow, then brown, and eventually falling off.

As the old leaf dies, the palm redirects nutrients to the newer fronds. So, even though those yellowing and browning fronds might give your palm a temporary “bad hair day” look, resist the urge to give them the snip too soon.

Cutting them off too early takes away essential nutrients from the tree.

How Many Palm Leaves Should You Remove?

There are a few different types of cuts. To avoid over-pruning, I always recommend following a Natural Cut or the so-called 9 to 3 Cut.

Here is a picture of an untrimmed Date Palm. It has old dying leaves at the bottom and healthy green leaves emerging from the top.

The Natural cut involves trimming only the dead fronds, leaving all the green leaves untouched. Notice how the old leaf bases near the top have been trimmed in a beautiful diamond pattern.

The 9 to 3 cut means positioning your hands on the clock at 9 and 3 and then removing all the fronds below that level. Essentially, the leaves should be parallel to the ground. This is the most popular cut that most palm owners use. It’s still healthy and leaves plenty of fronds.

The 10 to 2 cut is when you position your hands on the clock at 10 and 2 and then remove all the fronds below that level. Palms with this type of cut are considered over-pruned.

Many landscapers use this cut to reduce the frequency of trimmings, doing it only once a year instead of multiple times a year.

However, this is a harmful practice because even though some fronds have some yellowing, they are still essential for the palm.

If your palm has been over-pruned, provide it with extra fertilizer to compensate for lost nutrients.

A Hurricane cut is something some homeowners do to prepare for a hurricane. Only a few fronds are left.

But here’s the deal: it’s a recipe for disaster! It starves the palm and sends it into shock. My advice? Just say NO to the hurricane cut – your palm will thank you later.

How To Trim Palm Tree Leaves

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 the leaf base from the trunk before it’s ready to fall off, you can scar the trunk.

In some species like Date palms, you can create an interesting pattern on the trunk by cutting the leaf stems at a uniform distance from the trunk.

Palms with crown shafts like the Royal Palm or Foxtail Palm are self-cleaning. They shed dead leaves, so there’s no need to prune them.

However, sometimes you might want to remove a dying leaf to create a cleaner look.

When removing old leaves from palms with crown shafts, see if the leaf base can be easily pulled from the crown shaft.

If it doesn’t, leave it in place and cut off the leaf as close to the trunk as you can. Pulling the leaf base before it’s ready to fall might harm the palm.

You can remove it later when it begins to turn brown or just wait for it to fall on its own.

On younger palms, when cutting bottom fronds, try to cut as close to the trunk as possible.

However, as you get higher on the trunk, leave about 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch of space from the trunk because on younger palms, the trunk is still growing, and cutting too tightly might disturb its development.

When there are multiple trunks, be careful not to cut the green leaf coming from the other direction from the tree next to it.

Follow the brown leaf to the trunk to make sure you are cutting the right one. Cut below the last set of spines (if there are spines on the stem).

Palm Tree Hurricane Pruning

Hurricane palm tree pruning. Photo by Flickr.

Because the hurricane cut is such a big problem in coastal areas, it deserves its section. Some tree trimmers, with nothing else to do, offer the hurricane cut, a technique that could be fatal to palms.

This type of service has persisted for so long that many palm owners don’t realize how harmful it is to the plant.

Most palms are very wind-resistant and don’t get severely damaged by high winds. Yet, many still believe that trimming off most of the leaves will help the palm survive a hurricane.

On the contrary, severe leaf removal weakens the crown to the point that it may snap off even in moderate winds.

Severe trimming also stresses the palm, making it more susceptible to insect infestations and diseases.

If you want to trim the palm in preparation for a hurricane, trim off only those leaves that hang below the horizontal plane of the crown.

This practice retains a sufficient leaf crown to maintain the tree’s health.

More severe pruning can harm the palm. Before trimming it again, allow the palm to grow a complete ball-shaped crown.

Also, don’t forget to fertilize the trimmed palm regularly. This will guarantee an adequate amount of nutrients to compensate for nutrients removed with the trimmed leaves.

Best Palm Tree Pruning Tools

Tools of the trade? They’re simple and easy to find. A regular utility knife works wonders for small palm fronds and flower stalks. Hand pruners are perfect for smaller palms, while ratchet loppers or lopping shears handle those larger fronds with grace. When using hand pruners, always make the cut with the blade facing up.

For towering palms you can’t reach, a telescoping pole saw comes to the rescue. There’s even an electric pole saw that lets you reach heights of up to 20 feet – no ladder required.

To help prevent the spread of diseases such as fusarium wilt, treat your pruning tools with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide after each palm. You can also use household bleach to disinfect the tools.

How to Trim a Tall Palm Tree

Tall palm tree pruning using hydraulic lift with a basket.
Tall palm tree pruning using a hydraulic lift with a basket. Photo by Flickr.

If you’re not afraid of heights, you can rent a very tall ladder. Then use a regular pole saw or an electrical pole saw to trim the fronds. Home Depot has extension ladders that extend up to 40 feet and cost around $50 per day for rent. Personally, I wouldn’t go higher than 15 ft.

For palms that are even taller, you can rent a truck with a telescoping basket, a hydraulic lift with a basket on the end where the tree trimmer stands. The lift brings the trimmer to the crown of the palm so that it can be pruned.

At this point, you might want to consider hiring a professional service that has all the necessary equipment and is used to working at height. Most palm owners with very tall palms get professional trimming service every other year.

Since all palms eventually shed their old leaves, decide how important dead leaf removal is to you. Renting a cherry picker can be expensive, and the reach of the lift may be inadequate for extremely tall palms.

Another option is to hire a tree climber, who specializes in scaling palms to trim off old leaves. However, there’s a downside to this method. Most tree climbers rely on boots equipped with climbing spikes.

These climbers ascend by puncturing the trunk with these spikes as they ascend, inadvertently causing damage to the palm. The resulting holes can serve as entry points for diseases and insects, potentially leading to lasting harm to the tree.

Trimming Palm Tree Seed Pods and Flowers

Queen Palm Tree (Syagrus romanzoffiana). Photo by Flickr.

Palm trees vary in their seed edibility, with some producing edible seeds and others that can even be toxic.

While it’s not essential to remove seed pods from palm trees, it won’t harm the palm to do so. It’s crucial to remove seed pods with toxic seeds.

By the way, removing seed pods won’t accelerate the palm tree’s growth, despite what some might believe.

As for pruning palm flowers, it’s generally unnecessary unless you want to avoid dealing with the resulting fruits.

Most palm owners opt to remove seed pods and flowers to prevent the mess they can create in the yard.

When Should Palm Trees Be Pruned?

Although palms with yellow and brown fronds may not look their best, it’s advisable to trim palm leaves only after they have completely turned brown.

When old leaves die, they transfer nutrients to the newer fronds. Cutting off leaves that aren’t fully brown robs the tree of these essential nutrients.

Moreover, as long as a leaf has some green left, it can continue photosynthesizing and producing food for the tree.

Repeatedly removing green leaves can result in “pencil pointing,” where the trunk becomes narrower at the top, affecting the palm’s health.

However, partially green or yellow leaves can be unsightly. You can safely remove dying leaves when they are more than 50% brown.

Spring, during the growing season, is usually the best time for this.

Trimming Newly Planted Palm Trees

During the spring in coastal areas, you’ll often spot newly planted palms with few or no leaves. The practice of removing most leaves is common to reduce water loss in in-ground-grown palms.

The key difference between container-grown palms and in-ground-grown palms is that when in-ground-grown palms are dug up, their roots are cut, resulting in a smaller root mass for water absorption.

This means they need to regenerate new roots, increasing their water requirements significantly compared to container-grown palms.

The most significant water loss in newly dug in-ground-grown palms occurs through transpiration from the fronds.

To reduce water stress, more than half of the leaves are removed during digging. The remaining leaves are bundled around the bud.

For certain palm species like Sabal palms, which have to regrow all their roots after transplanting, it’s best to remove ALL the leaves.

This ensures their survival and faster establishment, especially if normal post-transplant irrigation is unavailable.

How to Trim Palm Tree Trunk

Many palms, such as Mexican Fan Palm or California Fan Palm, have trunks covered with old leaf bases that remain after old fronds are removed or naturally shed. Over time, these bases can make the palm look messy and unattractive.

Not only do these old leaf bases take several years to fall off naturally, but they also do so unevenly, contributing to an unattractive appearance.

That’s why many homeowners prefer to trim or “skin” the trunk instead of waiting. If you have a neglected palm with old leaf bases, pruning the palm trunk can be a challenging and labor-intensive task.

Here are the tools you will need for skinning the trunk:

  • Heavy-duty gloves to protect your hand from sharp teeth and potential insects.
  • Goggles to shield your eyes from the dust and debris that may fly your way.
  • A Face mask to guard against dust and various debris lodged within the old leaf bases.
  • A baseball hat or any other type of hat to shield your head from falling debris.
  • A utility knife, preferably with plenty of spare blades.

Avoid using a chainsaw. While it may seem like a quicker and easier option, it’s also much riskier in terms of potentially damaging the trunk. Chainsaws are powerful tools that cut deeply and rapidly.

Like most professionals, I recommend using a regular utility knife, the kind you’d use for cutting carpet.

Because the old leaf bases overlap in a crisscross pattern, removing one may require taking off the one below it.

Begin by skinning at the very bottom of the trunk, gradually working your way upward. Be cautious not to cut too deeply into the trunk.

Your aim is to remove the stems and gently graze the upper surface of the trunk without causing any harm.

Creating horizontal lines on the trunk, all in the same direction, will result in a natural and appealing pattern.

Many homeowners like the reddish-brown hue of the Mexican Fan Palm’s trunk. Nurseries often remove all the old bases and expose the trunk before selling it.

At first glance, one might mistake it for being spray-painted, but this vibrant color is entirely natural and tends to fade into a gray shade over time.

What Happens If You Don’t Trim Palm Trees

Unpruned palm trees. Photo by Flickr.

Whether or not palm trees should be trimmed depends on their species. In general, all palms eventually shed their old leaves, so trimming is not always a necessity.

The petticoat of dead leaves on taller palms can even become an ornamental feature, and palms with a crown shaft are experts at self-cleaning.

However, some palms do require regular maintenance to avoid potential issues. Aside from having an untidy and unattractive appearance, unpruned palms can become fire hazards, topple over during strong winds, or become infested with insects and rats.

Insect pests and palm rats are particularly fond of living under dead fronds and in the old leaf bases on the trunk. Over time, palm rats can create a mess in your garden and even find their way into your home.

Another concern is that dry fronds are highly flammable, especially when wildfires are nearby. The risk of fire increases if the palm tree is growing near electrical wires.

Strong winds can also topple an unpruned, top-heavy palm, posing a threat to your home or car.

How Much Does It Cost To Get Palm Tree Pruned

Photo of a climber trimming tall palm tree.
Photo of a climber trimming tall palm tree. Photo by Flickr.

The cost depends on the number of palm trees you have. If the company has to bring in a crew with lift trucks and you only have two palms, it might not be cost-effective, and the price could be relatively high.

However, if you have ten palms in need of trimming, the cost will likely range from $100 to $150 per tree, depending on their height.

Most homeowners opt for trimming every other year. But if you have palms near a pool area, annual trimming might be necessary to prevent fruits from falling into the water.

Will a Palm Tree Die If You Cut the Top Off

Unlike broadleaf trees, palms cannot heal themselves when injured. All of a palm’s leaves form in the heart of the tree, near the top of the trunk.

If you cut off the top, the palm will die because it cannot generate a replacement.