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 hydraulic lift with a basket. Photo by Flickr.

If you not afraid of height, 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 ft and cost around $50 per day for rent. I personally would not 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 in which 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 have all the necessary equipment and are used to working at height. Most palm owners that have 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 will climb the palm to trim off old leaves. The problem with this option is that most tree climbers use boots with climbing spikes.

They climb by driving these spikes into the trunk as they get higher and in the process damaging the palm. The holes left from spikes provide entry points for diseases and insects and can become permanent features.

Trimming Palm Tree Seed Pods and Flowers

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

Depending on the species of the palm tree palm seeds can be edible or not edible. Seeds on some of the palms can even be toxic.

While it’s not necessary to trim off seed pods from palm trees, removing them will not harm the palm. Seeds that are toxic should definitely be removed. Btw, removing seed pods will not make palm tree grow faster although many believe that.

Also, your don’t need to prune flowers from the palm unless you are trying to avoid having to deal with the fruits. Most palm owners prefer to remove seed pods and flowers to avoid the mess they create in the yard.

When Should Palm Trees Be Pruned

While palms with yellow and brown fronds look unattractive, it’s best to remove palm leaves only after they have turned completely brown. As the old leaf dies it moves nutrients to the newer fronds. By cutting off leaves that are not completely brown, you are robbing the tree of these nutrients.

In addition, as long as the leaf has some green in it, it can photosynthesize and produce new food for the tree. Repeated removal of green leaves can lead to pencil pointing, a condition in which the trunk becomes narrower and narrower at the top where the leaf crown forms.

The leaves become smaller as well. If excessive trimming continues the palm may never regain its health. However, partially green or yellow leaves can be quite unsightly. You can safely remove dying leaves when they are more than 50% brown. Typically, it’s best to do it in the Spring during growing season.

Trimming Newly Planted Palm Trees

If you drive around coastal area during Spring time, you will notice a lot of newly planted palms with little or no leaves at all. Removal of most of the leaves is a common practice for minimizing water loss in in-ground-grown palms.

The main difference between container-grown palms and in-ground-grown palms is that in-ground-grown palms have their roots cut when dug and thus have a smaller root mass to absorb water. Because they need to regenerate new roots their water requirement is much greater than container-grown palms.

The greatest loss of water in newly dug in-ground-grown palms occurs from transpiration through the fronds. To decrease water stress, one half or more of the leaves is removed at the time of the digging. The remaining leaves are then tied together in a bundle around the bud.

In some palm species like Sabal palms that have to regrow all of their roots after transplanting, it’s best to remove ALL of the leaves. This will insure its survival and faster establishment especially if normal posttransplant irrigation is impossible.

How to Trim Palm Tree Trunk

Many palms like Mexican Fan Palm or California Fan Palm, have trunks covered with old leaf bases which are left after old fronds have been removed or shed by the palm. Overtime, those palms start to look ugly and messy.

Not only does it take several years for those old leaf bases to fall off on their own, but they also fall off unevenly creating an unattractive look. That is why many homeowners prefer to skin the trunk instead of waiting. If you have a palm that have been neglected for a long time, pruning palm trunk can be a difficult and labor intensive.

You will need:

  • Heavy duty gloves to protect you hand from the sharp teeth, and insects.
  • Goggles to protect your eyes from all the dust flying into your face.
  • Face mask to protect yourself from dust and all kind of debris trapped inside of the old leaf bases.
  • Baseball hat or any other kind of hat to protect your head from falling debris.
  • Utility knife that is used to cut carpet and a lot of blades.

Avoid using a chainsaw. While it looks like a much faster and easier way to remove the bases, it is also much easier to damage a trunk with it. Chainsaw is a very powerful tool that cuts fast and deep.

Like most professionals, I recommend using a regular utility knife that you would use to cut a carpet. Because old leaf bases overlap tightly in a crisscross pattern, it’s hard to remove one without removing the one below it. Starting at the bottom of the tree, will allow you to remove them more effortless.

Start by skinning at the very bottom of the trunk slowly moving up. Try not to cut very deep into the trunk. You want to cut off the stems and slightly scratch the top surface of the trunk without damaging it. Making horizontal lines on the trunk that all go in the same direction will create a natural looking pattern.

Because many homeowners like the reddish brown color of the trunk on Mexican Fan Palms, nurseries skin the trunk of the palm removing all the old bases and exposing the trunk before selling it. One might think it was spray painted, but this is a natural color of the trunk that with time fades into gray.

What Happens If You Don’t Trim Palm Trees

Unpruned palm trees. Photo by Flickr.

Whether or not palm tree should be trimmed depends on the species of the palm tree. Because all palms eventually shed their old leaves, you don’t have to trim them. The petticoat of dead leaves on taller palms can even become an ornamental feature. Palms with a crown shaft do a great job cleaning themselves.

However, some palms require regular maintenance to avoid potential problems. Aside from a messy unattractive look, unpruned palm can catch on fire, topple over from a strong wind or get infested with insects and rats.

Insect pests and palm rats love to live under dead fronds and in the old leaf bases on the trunk. Overtime, palm rats can destroy your garden and find their way into your home.

Another problem is that dry fronds are quick to catch a fire if there are wildfires near by. The risk of fire increases if the tree is growing near electrical wires.

Strong winds can topple over an unpruned top-heavy palm and it can fall on top of your home or a 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.

It depends on how many palm trees you have. If the company is bringing a crew with the lift trucks and you have only 2 palms, it won’t be worth their time or the cost might be high.

But, if you have 10 palms that need to be trimmed, it will probably be around $60-$100 per tree depending how tall the palm is.

Most homeowners do it every other year. But if you have palms that are close to the pool area, you might have to trim them every year, to avoid fruits falling into the water.

Will a Palm Tree DieIf You Cut The Top Off

Unlike broadleaf trees, palms are unable to heal themselves when it’s injured. All leaves of the palm are formed in the heart of the tree which is located near the top of the trunk. If you cut it off the palm will die because it cannot produce another one.