|When a customer buys a palm
tree at our nursery, they often ask "How do I plant
it?". The simple answer of "Just dig a hole
and put it in" is not the right answer. This
is because there are many factors involved in
successfully growing a palm tree. The
process of physically planting a palm tree into the
ground is only one of the important steps. There are
other factors that determine success in growing a palm
tree in any given locality. So, I shall present a top to
bottom discussion on planting a palm tree and begin before
you've even purchased the plant.
On arrival and requesting palm trees, the first thing we
typically ask these
customers is "Where do you live".
This tells us something about their growing conditions. Next, we’ll
ask them how cold do they get during the winter. Unfortunately, many
people don’t know the answer to this question. Then we’ll ask if the
plant will be in full sun, partial sun, or shade. Different species
like different conditions. Finally we’ll inquire about any specific
species they know of and like, or get a feel for a “look” they
prefer. Palm trees have a wide spectrum of size and appearance and
one must balance the predictable mature size and characteristics of
any given species with the customer’s needs. With the information
above, we can make knowledgeable recommendations of species that may
do well in their garden. Thus, before you just go out and buy a palm
tree, make sure that it’s the right plant for your garden’s
conditions and needs. For instance, if there are utility wires
overhead, one wouldn’t plant a species that gets real tall. Or, if
one has a very small area, one wouldn’t plant a Canary Island Palm
or a Mediterranean Fan Palm. Or, if the area is in the shade, one
wouldn’t plant a Triangle Palm. These are all basic mistakes that
can be avoided. So, let’s discuss all the basics about selecting and
planting a palm tree so that you will have success and enjoy the
tree for decades to come.
Plants at specialty palm/cycad nursery
Palms of various sizes and species
||This is probably the most important factor in successfully growing a
palm tree. And it is a very exhaustive topic as there are over three
thousand species of palms. Unless you want to spend hours or even
days researching the topic, it is often best to go to a reputable
nursery that specializes in palm trees. Such a nursery will really
know their trees while typically the large retail
stores know very little about the palms they sell and are
not geared to provide cultural knowledge to the customer.
And, they typically don’t know how to guide customers when cultural
problems arise. Because of this fact, we get at least ten calls a week from such customers
who are having problems with the plants they bought elsewhere.
Starting with a specialty palm nursery might avoid such difficulties.
Tolerance of sun and cold are the most important factors in
selecting the right species. Many species don’t
want full sun while others demand it. Some palms don't like real
cold weather. Other articles at this Site will help
educate you on these points. Or, if you don't have
time to research it yourself, just drop by and
we’ll guide you in your purchases. One final point is that it is
preferable to buy nursery stock that is locally grown in your area.
Often imported plants brokered in from more tropical areas (Florida
or Hawaii for example) and sold through big outlet stores perform
poorly. Locally grown palms might have seen years of our colder
Southern California weather and this improves your chances of
Large palm being moved by a crane
Caryota gigas in a 24 inch box
||The customer has to decide what
size plant he wishes to purchase. Some people prefer
buying small palm trees and "watching them grow". Others
prefer a medium sized plant that is "something to look at
right now". And, when finances permit, some prefer
larger plants or mature crane sized palms that offer instant
gratification. There are advantages and disadvantages
to each size of palm plants. Small plants (band size and one gallon)
are inexpensive but will take quite a few years before they
look like something. They may also be more vulnerable
to cold. Medium sized plants(5 and 15 gallon size) are
sturdier and probably improve your chances. Larger
plants (20, 25 gallon and boxes) are wonderful if one's
finances permit such a purchase. Acclimation is
typically easier with larger plants. And, at the far
end of the spectrum are the plants that are dug from
somewhere else and craned into your yard. Such
plantings are extremely expensive and sometimes disruptive
to the garden. We sell the first three groups of
plants mentioned above. People who only dig and crane
large palms are known as "relocators" or "diggers" and are
not true nurseries by definition. We work with some of
these latter specialists and give referrals when needed.
In general, as the size of plants goes up, the availability
of species goes down. The rarest of species are seldom
available in the largest sizes. This varies from
nursery to nursery. At our nursery, in the 24 inch box
size and below, we offer about 800 species of palms.
It is almost impossible to find an extremely rare species in
the crane size. This is because the rare species are
either not available or not for sale. But, remember
that all sizes will eventually end up giving the same mature
plant if grown well. It's merely a question of the
customer's patience and financial capabilities. Our
most popular size sold is the 15g. It is big enough
that you appreciate the plant and is still affordable for
most. If you get plants larger than a 24 inch boxed
size, be prepared to use heavy equipment to plant. Men
can lift and transport a 24 inch box size. 30 inch
boxes are near impossible for men to lift. Above this
one needs a tractor or crane. And, this dramatically
increases your costs.
As mentioned, the most popular size we sell is the 15 g
plant. (see illustration). It is easy to lift
and move and not that difficult to plant. When you
drop by, we can often show you various sizes so you can make
your decision on the spot.
20g sized Chambeyronia macrocarpa
Examples of plants in the 5 gallon size
Sunburn on a palm leaf
||When you buy a palm tree, pay
attention to the growing conditions that the plant was in
when you purchased it. Sometimes you might purchase a palm tree that was grown inside a
greenhouse or under shade cloth. This is quite common.
If you plan on planting a palm tree in full sun in your area, it will need to be acclimated to your conditions
for optimal performance. People do this all the time. This process can take six or eight weeks
but will assist you in avoiding sunburn to the leaves. Also,
remember that localities for inland or in desert areas are much
different than coastal climates. Even if a palm was in full sun
along the coast, your sun may be brighter and hotter. Trained staff
at a reputable palm nursery will guide you on acclimation
requirements. An alternative to acclimation in the container
is to plant the palm into the garden. One then builds
a temporary shade cloth protector above the plant.
As time passes, one cuts holes in the shade cloth to allow a
gradual increase of sun through the filtering cloth.
Eventually full sun is achieved. This process is a bit
more work, but the plant is growing and establishing roots
while one is waiting for acclimation.
Deciding when to plant your palm
||There is controversy over this issue. Traditional thought is to
plant more tender or marginal species from Spring to Fall. This
avoids a palm’s throwing new leaves during the coldest months.
Others would argue that planting when it’s cold gives the plant’s
roots time to grow and establish strength for rapid Spring growth.
If you are in an extremely hot area like Palm Springs or Las Vegas,
avoiding planting during the extreme hot months might be warranted.
However, there are very sturdy species that can essentially be
planted any time of the year. It’s probably best to check with your
palm expert at the nursery when you buy your plants. If you
decide wait to plant your palm, this gives you ample time to
fully acclimate the plant to the desired location.
|This is an important issue because it deals with the question of
water drainage and how you will water your garden. By “water
drainage” I am talking about what happens to the water you apply to
the ground or what happens to the rain that one receives. Does water
stay around or does it travel downwards or away from the plant?
Sandy soils have better drainage. Clay soils tend to hold
onto water and have less ideal drainage. In some cases, clay soil
can be very nutritious. But, if an area is always boggy with water,
this may limit success on growing your plant. Clay soil can also
turn into a “block” if allowed to dry out. Soils that have a lot of
decomposed granite tend to have adequate drainage. Or, rocky soils
typically drain well. If you don’t know which type of soil you have,
you can typically find out by just examining your soil. Dig a hole
an look at what you shovel out. Is it sticky and thick? (clay) Or,
does it appear open and easily broken apart with touching? (sand). Wet
the soil. Does it stick to your hand like peanut butter and require
washing with water to get off the hand? (clay). Or, can you merely
brush the soil off your hands by rubbing them together? (sand)
If you place some in your hand and compress it, does it
leave a tight wad of soil with finger indentations? (clay).
Is it very dense and heavy? (clay) When you dig, are
there a large number of rocks of various sizes? (rocky
soil). This makes digging harder, but typically this
type of soil drains well. One can, over time, change
the characteristics of the soil you have. This is
accomplished by adding amendments to the surface of the
soil. Over time, these amendments work their way into
the soil and enrich the soil and improve drainage.
The amendments one uses when preparing the soil for planting
are different for clay or sandy soil. (see below).
Example of clay soil
Nicely draining soil
|Why do we ask you about your soil type? Because it is one of the
factors involved in garden drainage. And, in general, plants like
good drainage. The best scenario is to have a
sandy soil with a bit of slope or incline to the garden. The water
doesn’t pool and typically moves to lower areas. Plants prefer this
as they get a drink of fresh water when you irrigate the garden. If
you are in a low lying area (bottom of a valley), have clay soil,
and your garden is perfectly flat, you are probably going to probably have drainage
problems. Consider this: a hole dug for a palm might collect
excess water that collects at the bottom of the hole and gets putrid
over time. In other words, you would have a funky swimming pool at
the bottom of the hole where the water is never flushed away or
circulated. It’s hard for anything to thrive given this situation.
Dig a hole
Fill the hole
A full hole
A drained hole
simple test for drainage is to dig an experimental hole in your
garden. Dig a hole about 16 inches deep with a shovel and rapidly
fill the hole with water from your hose. Observe how long it takes
for the water to disappear. With excellent drainage, the water will
disappear within an hour or two. Acceptable drainage would be for the
water to disappear within twelve hours. If, after a day or two,
water is still in the hole, you have a drainage problem. Potential
remedies for the latter problem include drilling holes in the bottom
of the hole with auger bits to “break through” to better drainage;
utilizing French drains to divert the water to lower areas;
“building up” the planting area so that the roots are above the
water table; or installing a pipe into the hole such that excess
water can literally be sucked out of the hole with a pump or siphon.
The addition of gypsum to the bottom of the hole may be beneficial
but will not solve a major drainage problem.
Bark mulch that appears to contain redwood
||The question arises as to whether one should add amendments to the
native soil in the garden prior to planting. This is a topic that
even the experts don’t agree upon. The “do nothing camp” would argue
that your plant eventually has to grow in your native soil and that
amendments are postponing the plant’s eventual need to “grow in what
you have”. Those that prefer amendments would argue that these
additives help the plant’s roots expand and grow first into the
amended soil and then into the native
soil. We tend to prefer that you amend your soil when you plant a
palm. The amendments available will vary on where you live. In our
locality, we use two things: organic material and sand (if needed).
By organic additives is means some type of wood or organic product
that have been ground or decomposed into a finer material. Examples
would be redwood or fir shavings, bark mulch, ground bark, sawdust,
aged leaf matter, aged lawn cuttings, etc.
These should be aged and often need to be
“nitrolized”. The latter means adding fertilizer to the material
because Nitrogen is actually consumed during the decomposition of
such organic mater. Manufacturers typically will spray a dilute
nitrogen fertilizer into the material to make up for the anticipated
nitrogen loss. Regarding sand, typically the larger the grains of
sand, the better the drainage. We prefer #12 grit sand. #16 grit is
much finer but will work if that’s all you can buy. Amendments are
added directly to the pile of soil you dig from your garden. They
are mixed into your soil with the shovel. The ratio of additives is
For Sandy Soil: For every three parts of your native soil, mix in one
part of organic material (fir shavings, etc.)
For Clay Soil: For every three parts of your native soil, mix in one part
of organic material and one part of course sand. It might be
mentioned that nowadays, organic gardening is much more popular.
This involves such things as worm castings, organic manures,
composted “teas”, etc. This topic will be addressed in a future
article but may be something the grower wishes to research.
Other materials can be utilized to amend
your native soil. Many times this
depends on local availability of
materials. Such alternatives
include other wood types of mulch
(Coconut products, Cocoa bean products,
cedar bark, pumice, scoria, and gravel).
Remember that these products purpose is
to enrich the soil and to promote
drainage. If one chooses not to
amend the soil at all, one would repack
the hole around the root ball with the
removed native soil. But, still
follow the watering pattern discussed
|We typically recommend digging the hole six inches wider on all
sides and six inches deeper than the plant’s existing root ball. One
determines the root ball size before digging by using a tape
measure. It is the width of the pot (not counting the overhanging
lip) and the height from the ground level at the top of the pot to
the bottom of the container. Thus, if the root ball is 14 inches
tall, one would dig a hole approximately 20 inches deep. Remember
that the soil dug is thrown to the side for adding amendments
(above). We typically do not recommend adding gravel or rocks to the
bottom of the hole. People that do this will comment that it
“promotes drainage”. But, if you think about it, drainage is
determined by the characteristics of your soil (addressed above). If
you have terrible drainage, a few inches of gravel solves nothing.
Sometimes digging the hole can be difficult and digging
bars, picks, or even jackhammers are needed. If you
soil is very difficult to dig, you may have areas of
sandstone or other dense material. If this is the
case, it is imperative that you check your drainage!
I might mention here that some have advised putting vertical
pipes into the hole for the mere purpose of providing "deep
watering". The concept is to add water to the pipe and
water goes to the bottom of the hole and waters the deepest
roots. Although this may be advisable under some
circumstances, I know of few people who actually do this and
most grow their plants perfectly. I would not
recommend it as a standard practice.
An exposed 5 gallon root ball.
Notice how one can measure the
Tilting a 5g plant to remove the root ball
Your goal while removing the root ball from the container is to do
minimal damage to the roots and root ball. With smaller plants (up to
5 gallon size), we recommend inverting the plant upside down and
tapping the edge of the container on a table or hard surface.
Typically the root ball will just slide out of the container. With
larger plants such as 15 gallon up to 25 gallon, one can typically
lay the plant on a flat surface and gently slide the root ball out of
the container. You might have to tape the sides of the container
with a mallet to loosen it up a bit. If a root ball is “locked” into
the container with massive roots, one can carefully cut the side of
the container being careful not to simultaneously cut the roots.
Large knotted up roots coming out of the drainage holes of the
container may require expanding these drainage holes with a pair
of pruners to allow the roots to slide through. If your plant has
long, healthy roots coming out of these holes, try to protect them
while removing the root ball. If you have a boxed specimen, these
plants are usually stood up vertically close to the hole and the box
is disassembled, sides first. The bottom of the box is removed
unless it is so entangled with the roots that this is not possible.
Have adequate manpower to put the heavy root ball into the hole and
check your vertical measurements prior to placing the plant.
Otherwise, you may have to lift the plant back out if it’s too low
or too high. Being accurate on your measurements can avoid
headaches or poor growth later.
The root ball gently slides from the
Carefully removing the root ball from the
A totally exposed root ball, ready for
|Most people plant their palm so that the soil level in the container
matches the soil level of the garden. But, you might want to plant
it an inch or two deeper to create a “watering well”, which is
actually a shallow hole in the surface for water to collect
and drain down to the roots. This is
particularly true for those who will do hand watering. One
definitely does not want the root ball higher than the garden soil as
this will end up exposing the roots. Such plants are said to be “on
their tiptoes”. Plants with their roots showing tend to be unstable
and wind can actually blow them over. When roots are exposed,
you should plant the palm a bit lower so that when you cover
the exposed roots the plant is not too high in the hole.
See the photograph for an example of a plant with exposed
roots. The opposite is true as well.
Don’t plant the root ball so that a significant portion of the trunk
is below the ground level. This potentially can lead to rot and
death of the tree. Accurate root ball measurements insure that the
plant is perfect for your needs. Remember that the pot size is
not the same as the root ball height. Plants in
containers typically have a few inches of space to hold
water. When you measure root ball height, measure
from the bottom of the root ball to the top.
If a root ball is irregular or falling apart, you will have
to adjust accordingly. One can actually suspend the
tree in the air in the hole and gently pack soil around the
roots of a misshaped root ball. This is very common
when planting cycads.
A containerized palm showing exposed
roots. These roots would be
covered when planting..
|One now takes their soil blend (see above) and adds it to the bottom
of the hole. Compact this soil by jumping on it on hitting it with
your fist or an appropriate tool. Before you put the plant into the
hold, you should water this soil. This will help compact it even
more. You may have to re-pack the soil. Recheck your hole’s depth
with a tape measure. If you don’t do this initial compaction step
above, the entire root ball may “sink” into the hole over time and
you end up with a plant that’s too deep into the ground. If
you don't measure the depth accurately, your plant may be
too high or too low. We typically do not think gravel
or sand is needed in the bottom of the hole.
A triple King Palm. Position the
trunks for best appearance when
||You now take the plant with the exposed
root ball and carefully put it into
your hole. Check to make sure the trunk is vertically straight.
Center the root ball into the hole. You may wish to rotate the plant
so that it shows best toward your viewing vantage point. Remember
that every plant has a “front side”. This is typically the side of
the plant that has seen the most sun. Growers usually put this side
facing them from their point of observation. Or, expose the
"front" to the most intense sun. If one shows the
'back" of the plant to the most intense sun and the
underside of the leaves are exposed, one can be sunburn on
those leaves. (see photo) If the plant is a
multiple, decide if you want the smallest plants or trunks toward
the front (most popular), or toward the back (more hidden). With
some plants, if you plant it facing the “wrong way”, the resulting
plant just doesn’t look right. With practice, one can learn to
recognize the front of the plant and thus properly place it into the
This is the final opportunity to make sure the top of the
root ball is at the right elevation compared to the native
garden soil. Adjust your planting accordingly.
I am frequently asked by customers if they should treat the
roots in any fashion prior to planting or if they should
splay the roots apart before putting the palm in the ground.
This is typically not necessary. The picture below
shows a root ball that has been intentionally splayed apart.
My opinion is that the damage one potentially does to the
roots by doing this outweighs any benefit from doing it.
Roots can be torn or damaged. Roots will eventually
find their way out of the root ball and work into the
adjacent soil you have provided.
The "front" of a Pigmy Date Palm.
Notice how it appears
full and beautiful
The "back" of the same Pigmy Date Palm.
Note how it doesn't appear right.
A totally exposed root ball
"Splaying" of the root ball, which we
| This is one of the most important steps of planting. We recommend
using your soil mixture to fill around the sides of the root ball
halfway. You then pack the soil down with your fist or a mallet and
water it. This allows water to surround the central portion of the
root ball. You then fill the remainder of the area around the
root ball to your desired height and water it again. You will see
that this means you water the bottom of the hole, the center of the
hole, and the top of the hole. This three step watering process
guarantees that the root ball will receive ample watering after the
shock of transplanting it into the ground. There’s another important
point about watering. Often one sees a root ball that has a greater
physical density than the surrounding mixed soil used to fill the
hole. This can result in water bypassing the root ball altogether.
You can see that, if one doesn’t do the three step watering above
and only waters after the root ball in placed into the ground, that
water could go around the root ball and into the bottom of the hole
and totally miss penetrating the root ball. Because of this we
recommend you set your watering hose on a slow trickle and place
this at the base of the planted palm. Leave it there for about
twenty minutes. This slow trickle of water will penetrate the
root ball and not have the force to go around it. Many
people like to put garden mulch over the base of the palm
after planting. This can conserve water and eventually
enrich the soil around the plant.
|In general, the answer is “NO”. Remember that transplanting is a
shock to the tree and fertilizers, especially if incorrectly used,
pose another shock. The double threat is not worth the benefit
received. We recommend holding off on fertilizer for six to eight
weeks after planting. And, we caution against the unpredictability
of fertilizer spikes planted close to the roots. If one insists on
fertilizing when planting, utilize a slow and safe fertilizer like
|This, of course, depends upon your local weather and soil
conditions. If it’s really hot, water frequently. If it’s cool,
adjust accordingly. As a rule, we typically recommend watering it
when you plant it as above (day 0) and repeat watering on days 2, 4,
7 and 10. If you live in a hot inland area, you might want to
consider water every day or two for about two week. Then get back
into your regular watering program.
It's important to emphasize again the goal in watering: to
maintain adequate moisture around the roots. Many
might think that if they set their automatic sprinklers for
several minutes a day that this will be adequate. But,
this amount of water at best will only travel an inch or two
into the soil. This may not be adequate. What
you're trying to do is to replace the water loss from the
soil from evaporation and usage by the tree. If you
underwater, the lower areas of the soil will eventually dry
out and the plant will looked stressed and not be
attractive. It is typically best to deep water less
frequently than lightly water more often. If you have
a watering well, try to fill the well three times in
|| In general, such things are not needed. Can they help give better
results? Possibly. They certainly don’t hurt. This includes things
such as B Vitamins, Superthrive, foliar sprays, etc. If you like to
do everything you can, give them a try. I should make specific
mention of the antitranspirant agents. These are sprays that put a
protective coat onto the leaves and help prevent plant desiccation.
A product named Cloudcover is an example of such a product. From a
theoretical point of view, their usage seems to make sense. I know
of few growers that use them on a regular basis, but I have utilized
them with good results on planting palms in the past. These sprays
deteriorate over weeks or wash off the leaves after a few rains.
|You should watch your plant carefully after you plant it. This
particularly involves checking to make sure the soil isn’t drying
out too much. Keep up with adequate watering. If you didn’t
acclimate the palm to your conditions or hurried the acclimation
process, within a few days to a week you might see signs of sunburn.
This begins as a faint chocolate brown color to the leaves and ends
with dry, necrotic areas to the leaves. You can diagnose this
because it is worse on the leaves or leaflets that get the most sun
exposure. Hidden leaves will not show the sunburn.
Be aware that the
nice leaves you’ll see on the plant in about a year are typically
not the leaves that are on the plant when you put it in. Plants will
typically steal nutrition from lower leaves to produce new leaves.
Therefore, it’s a normal progression of things to see the lowest
leaves die off while new, beautiful leaves are formed. If you notice
that new leaves are burning or looking bad after they emerge, check
to see if you have given that palm too much sun (more than desired)
or are under watering. Or, the latter could be secondary to
added fertilizer which we do not recommend applying when you
plant. To check for growth of the palm, one can use a
magic marker to mark simultaneously and side by side the newly
emerging leaf spear to an adjacent old leaf petiole. The spear
should lengthen in comparison to the mark on the older petiole.
During the growing season, this can be as much as one half to one
full inch in 24 hours. But, any movement means that growth is
A sudden worsening of the plant soon after planting means
that something drastic has happened or you have done
something wrong. Things to consider would be
significant root or crown damage while handling, fertilizer
burn, desiccation from lack of water, sunburn from poorly
chosen species for your conditions, or no acclimation of the
plant prior to planting. Always consider
this: if a species can grow in your area and you are not
having success, ask yourself "what am I doing wrong?"
There is typically an answer if you look for it
Marking new spear and adjacent petiole
Watching for growth on new spear
Above we have presented a fairly comprehensive discussion of a
rather simple topic: planting a palm. One can see after
reading this article that there are many things to consider.
Most important is getting a healthy plant that will grow in your
area and under your conditions. Beyond this, one must
consider acclimation, soil composition, amendments, drainage and
positioning of the plant. Proper application of water is
another important point to culture. Once one learns the
basic principals of planting palms, it becomes second nature.
And, when done correctly, failures are rare. We wish
everyone success if their garden and hope that the information
above is helpful.