Whether you are trying to move a palm tree from one location of your yard to another, or getting a field-grown palm tree from a nursery, the planting steps would be the same. Understanding how palm roots grow and respond to being cut, will help you avoid damaging them and increase palms survival rate.
In short, to transplant a mature palm tree without killing it, you need to dig it out with minimum root damage, safely transport it to the new location, prepare the soil and the planting spot in advance, and take extra care of the palm after planting to minimize the transplant shock.
It’s a little more traumatizing for the field-grown palm to be moved from one location to another than for the container-grown palm because of the greater root damage.
Even though the roots of the container-grown palm will still be exposed to light and air, they won’t be cut unlike field-grown palms.
Be prepared for your palm to undergo so called “transplant shock”. Transplant shock happens when palm tree experiences number of stresses after being recently transplanted. Those stress include new soil, new sunlight levels, new temperatures, and water stress.
1. How Far To Dig Around Palm Tree Root Ball
Palm trees don’t have woody roots like broadleaf trees. They have a lot of small roots, tightly packed together, growing from the base of the trunk, similar to grass roots. Unlike broadleaf trees, palm roots don’t increase in diameter and remaining the same size as they first emerged from the base of the palm. The palm roots don’t go very deep.
Research done by University of Florida, showed that different palm species respond differently to root cutting. Roots of some palms like Sabal palmetto will die back after being cut and will be replaced by the new roots. Thus, it really doesn’t matter how close to the palm base you cut them.
In some palms like Coconut palm, half of the cut roots will survive and start branching no matter how close you cut it. That being said, for these two palm species, you can keep the root ball small when digging them out. However, most palm species depend on the existing root survival.
For palms that are less than 15 ft tall, I would recommend leaving at least one 1-2 ft radius from the trunk. Since rootball is three-dimensional, you will also need to dig 1-2 ft down. But of course the root ball radius depends on the size of the tree.
If you are not sure how sensitive a particular palm species is to root cutting, leave enough distance from the trunk. Keep in mind, that while larger root ball will minimize the transplant shock and speed up the recovery, the additional cost and weight involved, might not be worth it.
2. Dig Out The Palm
Now that you know how big of a radius to leave, start digging a trench around the palm. No matter how careful you are, some of the roots will be cut. Push the palm gently to tip it over and cut the rest of the roots.
Depending on the size of the palm, you might need three to four people to lift out the palm from the hole. If the palm is over 30 gallon, you will need a tractor or a crane. Palms are heavy. For example a 20 ft tall palm can weigh around 1,000 lbs!
3. Leaf Removal
To reduce amount of water stress in larger palms, a lot of nurseries remove ½ to ⅔ of the old palm leaves. I’ve also seen some people removing all of the leaves. It does depend on the type of the palm you are moving.
For some species like Sabal palm that will loose all of its roots during transplanting, a full leaf removal is the best method of insuring survival.
From my personal experience and by looking at the recent research, leaving some leaves on the palm will significantly improve regrowth and survival rate. If you’ve visited Florida during spring months, you’ve probably seen a lot of just planted palms all looking like a rooster.
4. Preparation For Transport
Before lifting the palm with a crane, tie the remaining fronds together to prevent leaf damage. Additionally, slender palms can easily snap. To avoid that, attach 2 splits to the trunk on opposite sides and the leaf bundle.
Also never nail anything directly to the trunk because unlike broadleaf tree, palm can’t heal itself when its trunk is injured. Scratches or scrapes on the trunk might leave palm vulnerable to insects and fungus. Before attaching chain, ropes or cables to the trunk wrap it with a nylon slings.
Here is a great photo illustrating how you need to prepare large palm before loading it on to the truck.
You should wrap the roots with wet burlap to ensure roots stay moist during transit. If transported by a pick-up truck, make sure to wrap the entire palm with a damp tarp. This will not only protect from damaging roots, bark, and fronds, but will also help to prevent roots from drying out from the wind during the trip.
5. Site Preparation
Dig a hole twice the diameter of the root ball. Since palms require a good drainage, test the soil before planting. Fill the whole with water and wait for an hour. Then fill again and see how long it takes for the water to go away. If it takes a few hours, you have a great drainage. If it takes days, there is a problem.
To improve drainage you can add some sand. For clay soil use three parts of native soil with one part of organic soil mix and one part of coarse sand. If you have sandy soil, just use three parts of your native soil with one part of organic soil mix.
Aside from adding sand to the mix, you can add stones to the bottom of the planting hole, drill some holes at the bottom to loosen up the soil, or in severe cases install a drainage pipe that will take the water away from the plant.
6. Planting Palm
Try to plant it as soon as possible. If you can’t, place it in a shady spot and keep the roots moist. You can cover them with a layer of mulch to keep them from drying out.
The palm should be planted on the same depth at which it was growing before. Planting it too deep may result in water stress and nutrient deficiencies. Planting the palm too high is also a not a good idea. Since roots of the palm have not established yet, wind can actually blow it over.
Saturate the soil with water before planting. Center the tree in a hole, then backfile it with half of the prepared soil mix. Then water it again before backfilling the rest of the soil. Making sure there are no air pockets.
While you can just use your native soil for backfill, I like to mix it with organic matter to provide plants with better nutrients. A research showed, that if the backfill soil differs too much with your native soil, the new roots of the palm will stay within the amended soil like in a container. However, amending about 25% should be ok.
After you are done backfilling, create a soil barrier on the perimeter of the tree to retain the water.
Unlike container-grown palms, field-grown palms have had their roots cut when dug and thus have a smaller root ball to absorb water. While they are regenerating new roots, their water requirement is greater than that of contaier-gown palms whose roots have not been disturbed as much.
You will need to provide them with greater amount of water and water them more frequently until new roots regenerate. Water your newly planted palm every day for the first three weeks, and every other day for the fourth week. If you are planting during hot season, you might need to water it twice a day during the first few week.
Deep watering method works the best. Leave a water hose with slowly dripping water for 20 min to make sure soil around the root ball is moist. It takes time for the soil to absorb water. After about six weeks you can cut back on watering and just go back to the normal schedule.
8. Adding Mulch
To retain moister and to keep weeds out, use mulch around the base of a palm. As the mulch breaks down, it will provide palm with an enriched organic soil. Add about 2 inch of mulch making it thinner near the trunk and thicker over the root zone.
To much mulch against the trunk can cause fungal diseases and rot in the trunk and prevents water from getting to the roots. Keep mulch 1ft away from the trunk of a smaller palm and about 2 ft away from a large tree.
Mulch is a much better groundcover than lawn, which uses up nutrients and moister meant for the palm. Also, lawn creates a maintenance problem when it needs trimming close to the trunk. Avoid using a string trimmer around palms because string can cut and permanently damage the trunk.
9. Untying Leaves
There are a lot of arguments about this one. Many gardeners believe that keeping the leaves tied up for a few weeks after transplanting will reduce loss of water and prevent palm from moving in the wind.
However, recent research showed that keeping the leaves tied up will not improve the growth, but might provide a favorable environment for plant diseases. I would strongly recommend untying the palm fronds right after planting.
10. Creating Support
While container-grown palms rarely need staking because their root balls are big enough to hold the palm upright, field-grown palms have smaller root balls in proportion to their height and need to be supported.
To prevent newly planted palms from toppling during wind storms, support it by timbers. Never nail anything directly into the trunk. Wrap the trunk with burlap before attaching 4 short lengths of lumber with metal bands or a similar tie. This should not damage the trunk while preventing the wood from slipping up or down.
Next, nail four or five support timbers into these pieces. Leave the support for 1 year or until the palm has reestablished enough roots to say on its onw.
Do NOT fertilize the palm until you see new growth. I see a lot of articles on Internet recommending to apply a fertilizer right after transplanting the palm. Until the palm grows a new root system there is really no need to fertilize it. In about two months apply a good quality slow-release fertilizer.
13. Transplant Shock
If your transplanted palm tree looks like it’s dying, it’s probably experiencing a “transplant shock”. Some of the signs are brown and yellow leaves with dry tips. There is little you can do. The palm needs to get used to the new place and grow new roots.
It might take up to 4 months for the palm to get acclimated to the new place. Be patient. Sometimes palms loose most of their leaves in the first year after transplanting. Also, don’t expect it to produce a great deal of new growth during the first year.
It usually takes palm about 3 full growing seasons to get fully established at the new location.
When Is The Best Time To Transplant A Palm Tree
If you live in a tropical climate, you can transplant your palm any time of the year. However, it’s best to transplant palm during spring or early summer when it’s warm so the palm has enough time to establish and grow new roots.
Ovoid moving palm trees during periods of drought. Since palms loose a lot of their roots, they already have hard time providing enough water without having to deal with the stress of the drought.
Keep in mind, that root growth is significantly slowed down by the soil temperatures below 65F.
Can You Sell Mature Palm Tree
When moving, many homeowners want to sell their mature palms that are growing in their backyard.
The problem with large palms like 20ft tall is that they need a lot of manpower and heavy equipment to dig them out and to transport them. Also, the larger the palm, the less chance it has to survive the move.
In the end, if you have to rent the equipment and transpiration to move the palm, it might be easier and less expensive just buying a new container-grown palm from the nursery. Of course if it’s some kind of a rare palm that is hard to find, many nurseries will be happy to buy it from you.
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