For healthy, happy, palms here in the Southwest, there are only three things you need to do. Three!
Palm Care is Easy
Palm care tip 1: “Leaf” it alone!
Prune no leaves (technically fronds) ever, because palms will drop what they do not need. If you dislike the appearance, wait until fronds are brown and drooped over before removing. You should only remove green fronds if they are a hazard to people or property (in a walkway or rubbing the roof). If you must, prune ONLY in May or August.
Do not “skin” the palm. Leave frond stubs on the trunk, they help protect it from insects and sun. Do not use a saw to shape the trunks of palms. Let the palms shape themselves. They will do it correctly for their species.
Why you need to “leaf it alone:”
Palms aren’t “trees.” Palms are upright, tall, semi-woody, long-lived, perennial plants. A palm is like a giant onion plant that gets woody as time passes. For the palm to get properly woody, and strongly so, it needs all its fronds – and needs these fronds to turn brown all the way to the trunk. Removed too soon you get weak trunks.
Palms are very thrifty. Palms take minerals, proteins and necessary chemicals out of old fronds and ship it to the new fronds. By cutting off green fronds, you force the plant to start over from scratch. This stresses and weakens the palm.
We live in the desert, where the summer sun is blazing hot. Just as humans need some shade to keep from dehydrating, so do most plants. Palms make their own shade! Those older fronds bend downward and keep the trunk shaded and cool.
Pruning causes stress and stressed palms are more likely to become infested by insects. Particularly deadly is the giant palm-borer. This insect starts on the succulent young leaves and works its way to the sugar-rich heart of the palm, killing it. It can take up to 9 years for borers to kill larger palms. Adult palm borers are most active in June and July, and can find pruned palms to lay eggs on from at least 3 kilometers away.
Palm care 2: Fertilizer
Fertilize your palms one to four times per year. The best time is during active summer growth, so May, June, July, and August. Use a general purpose or lawn-type fertilizer at half-strength. Mix with water and pour all around the palm, several feet away from the trunk, where the feeder roots are. Water deeply in this same area. Soak the soil and carry the fertilizer down to the root zone. Palm roots are often 6 to 8 feet deep.
Palm care 3: Water Correctly
Most palms do best with dryer soil. Soak the plant but allow it to dry out between times. Soak three to four times during the summer months to encourage healthy growth. When in doubt, soak on these days unless we get a good monsoon rain: May 15, June 15, July 15, August 15, September 15. Water is the same as the fertilizer! – except for September. Do not encourage new growth with fertilizer as palms enter their dormant winter phase.
Care for palms is easy if you let them simply grow and “chillax” in the Southwest sun.
Less is more when it comes to palms in your yard – both water and pruning should be minimal! Now that you have read this, I am sincerely looking forward to seeing some better cared for palms as I drive around town!
More about overall care of your land and landscape in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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