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Palm Trees >>Palm Tree Help >>Palms Trees In The Landscape >>Page 2


Palm Trees In the Landscape, Palm Culture Basics 

Two Part Article

by Phil Bergman

Basic guidelines for successful palm tree selection, planting, acclimation, maintenance and care.  Also learn about special problems with growing palms and what causes poor growth.


There are few groups of plants that offer the beauty and charisma of palms. This factor along with increasingly more species available to consumers has resulted in the palm craze that we've seen recently. Whether you are new and starting your first garden or an experienced collector just adding one more species, there are basic data that will make your growing palms much more successful.  We shall start at the very beginning and walk you through all aspects of developing a palm garden.

Howea forsteriana

 Howea fosteriana




palm trees


Getting the Right Property

If you haven't yet purchased or leased your home, search out the perfect location for growing. Find the warmest area in your locality and make sure you have good sun exposure. If you're in a cold area, find property on a ridge or hill to promote cold drainage. Ask prospective neighbors if it freezes. Look for successful growth of palms in that neighborhood. Investigate water quality, soil quality and drainage as well. And finally, pick a property large enough to support your present and future palm habit.  It's all too common to "run out of room" even though you want to try different new species. 




high grade soil
high grade of soil


Before You Begin Your Garden

It is advisable to have a plan before you put in your first palm. Decide what you are trying to accomplish. Determine planting density desired, pathway location, needed retainer walls and improvements, and work areas. Dig a few holes just for the purpose of examining the quality of your soil and for checking drainage. This can be done by digging a hole about 18 inches deep.  Then, rapidly fill it with water.  If the water is gone within an hour or two, then you have great drainage.  I'll talk about this more below.  Remember, if your soil is of poor quality, import new soil or begin amending soil before planting.

If you buy large amounts of soil, research it thoroughly and purchase top quality soil blends. Affordable fill dirt will haunt your garden forever. If drainage is bad, amend your soil with sand and install leach lines where needed.  If possible, install your irrigation system prior to planting. Also, create your own home nursery and gradually accumulate species that you wish to eventually plant.  This also gives time for acclimation (see below).

Don't make the mistake of finishing your hardscape and then "having to buy all the plants today".  Or, trusting your beloved gardener to get you anything but the most common of species.  I've seen it happen hundreds of times that people want unusual and end up with depot-type store plants.




Crowding next to street parking area.  Phoenix reclinata will soon overpower this area with spiny leaves where people exit a car. 


small Canary palm
Juvenile Phoenix canariensis

Tiple Pygmy Date
Triple Pygmy Date with Canary Palm in background

Garden Design

Haphazard planting gives haphazard results. Plant species in the appropriate locations. Palms are quite unique in that you can predict the plants eventual size and appearance.  Also, one can get an estimate on the likely rate of growth. Usually, if you know the species you can anticipate how it will perform for you.  You can predict how it will look in the chosen location in your garden.  This allows you to pick the right location for each species. 

As an example, a large clumping palm will obscure smaller species planted behind it. So, put smaller plants nearer the foreground.  Or, the tall Caryota urens may shade out an adjacent sun loving species. The huge Phoenix canariensis planted right next to the house will most likely need removing later. A spiny species planted right next to a walkway could be dangerous. By knowing your palms and what they will be, you can avoid these problems.

A very successful plan is to plant fast growing palms to establish canopy and resulting filtered light or shade.  This not only gives a more protected environment below the canopy but vastly expands the number of types of plants that can be grown below.  Just plant so the shade produced is where you want it. For instance, shading out the swimming pool might not be a desirable thing.  Put spiny species away from well traveled areas. Remember to plant palms far enough apart to give plenty of room for growth and viewing.  Also, be willing to plant fan palms to mix with your pinnate palms as this will add eventual diversity and beauty to your garden.

Another nice thing to do is to group multiple plants of the same species together.  I.e., form a clump of multiple single trunked palms.  Certain species such as Archonotophoenix, Howea, and Roystonea are attractive when grouped, so consider such a planting.  Also, be imaginative. Use boulders if available. Have different elevations and mound some plantings. Utilize companion plants such as cycads, ferns, Ti, Heliconia, Philodendron, etc. as these can really give a great finished look and blend nicely with the palms.  You can even attach a few epiphytic orchids or Bromeliads onto your palm trunks to add color and distinction. Also, palms in a row along a sidewalk or driveway can be quite dramatic.


Assorted understory palms beneath larger species makes for a beautiful landscape effect.


Exotic garden design. 

  Triple King palm
 Triple King Palm




King palms
King Palms & Canary Palm, both adding overhead canopy

The Importance of a Canopy

We mentioned the desirable advantages of establishing a canopy above.  Rapid growing species such as Caryota, Syagrus, and Archontophoenix will quickly grow overhead and produce resulting canopy. This is aesthetically pleasing because it gives the third dimension of height to your garden. More importantly, it gives a protected environment below that enables you to introduce many more exotic and sometimes fragile shade-loving species.

A well formed canopy may be the single most important thing you can do while creating a palm garden. The canopy results in areas below that are warmer in the winter, have less wind, hold more humidity and create a rain forest appeal. Many genera such as Geonoma, Chamaedorea, and understory Dypsis sp. cannot survive direct sun, especially at a young age. It would not be unusual to have microclimates below your established canopy that are three to six degrees centigrade higher on a cold night. However, always remember that palms will grow and your "canopy" might shade out a sun-loving species.

canopy palm

Foliage canopy.
(click photo to enlarge)


caryota gigas 

Caryota gigas makes a great canopy-forming plant.  In San Diego these will get up to 35 feet


nursery plants

Customer selecting plants at the

Selecting the Palms to Plant

Gradually accumulate the species you want for planting. Remember your canopy plants. Be adventuresome and try new species. Mix fans with pinnate palms. Try some dwarf species. Try species with different trunks, textures and color. Read about palms or ask friends who grow palms which species can be grown in your area. A good palm specialty nursery can easily provide this information.  Don't over-utilize a single species or genera. Just because Queen Palms were a good buy doesn't mean that you should plant fifty of them.

palm trees
Assorted palm trees at nursery

sunburn leaf
Appearance of sunburned leaf

Acclimating Your Palms

If your palm is from a greenhouse, shade structure or imported from a more tropical area, acclimate it before planting. Such plants must deal with lower outside humidity, cooler temperatures, and more intense sun. Any of these changes can be a problem for your palm, even if it is sun loving. Acclimation from the greenhouse into full sun should be done gradually over a two to three month period (or more) for many species.  Start in the shade. Slowly and incrementally increase the sun exposure every two to three weeks. Occasionally wet down the foliage. If you notice any burn (faded, then brown areas) on the sun exposed foliage, return the palm to more shade.

An alternative to acclimation to sun is acclimating the palm into filtered light, planting it in filtered light and then allowing the plant to slowly grow into the sun.  Finally, there is one more method: to place a temporary shade cloth over the plants and gradually over time cut holes in the cloth to let in more sun.  Then, as time goes by, cut even more holes in the cloth over a gradient to allow the passage of more sunlight.  I know an enthusiast who has successfully grown one gallon plants in the garden this way over the past decade with few losses.  Now his plants are huge!






shade cloth

Shade cloth at nursery.



small palm trees

Assorted smaller palms .


The Best Size to Plant

In most climates outside the tropics, a plant with some degree of size has a better chance of surviving, especially if it is a species that is marginal in one's locality. A general rule might be the bigger the better, but pocketbook limitations may apply. I would recommend planting acclimated plants of at least one half meter height. Larger plants seem to better tolerate the shock associated with transplanting. Very durable species will most likely survive regardless of the age of the planted palm.

It typically takes a palm about 12 months after planting to start looking good. During its first six months, the plant is establishing new roots and acclimating to your gardens temperature, soil, and humidity levels. Existing leaves may yellow or age. As new leaves are formed, the plant may suck nutrition out of the old leaves. This makes older leaves look brown, faded and dying.  This is a normal thing to see and (as long as it's not the newest leaves looking bad) eventually the plant will establish a normal crown of leaves.  One can sometimes see what is called "Post Greenhouse Shrink" where stretched out leaves used to the greenhouse environment get shorter when grown outdoors.  This usually corrects in time.  You can also see this phenomena with shade grown plants.  Normally plants will reestablish their leaf length with time as they adjust to their new environment.



Assorted palms & cycads


Royal Palm Box
Large Royal Palm at nursery




When to Plant

Outside of the tropics, the optimal time to plant is after the risk of cold weather has passed. This is typically spring and summer for most growers. If you live in a very mild climate, you can probably plant anytime from late winter to late fall. If you choose to plant just before cold weather arrives, try not to plant the most tender of species.  I might add that there is disagreement over whether to plant in the Fall or wait until next Spring.  Some say it gives the plant undue risk.  Others say this practice optimizes root growth for rapid Spring growing.  So, realize that not everyone agrees.

learning about your soil

checking drainage
checking drainage in hole with water

Sticky, clay type soil.  Note finger imprints in moist soil

Typical appearance of a sandy soil although you are not sure until you dig your hole.  Note how rock and sand are evident.

Drainage of Soil

Almost all species of palms prefer good drainage. One should familiarize themselves with the type of soil in their garden and the drainage it affords. Heavy subsoil or clay may have very poor drainage. An experimental half meter deep hole dug in a representative area of your garden will teach a lot about your soil's drainage in that area and how often you need to water the plants.  Digging this hole teaches you the following: First, you will learn the depth of your topsoil and the difficulty of digging in your soil. Secondly, you can remove a sample of the soil and either by yourself or through a lab have the soil tested for such things as salinity, pH, and nutritional status. Third, you will discover the effectiveness of your existing watering pattern by just seeing how damp or dry the soil is in the hole.  If the soil is very dry, you know you are presently under watering.  If it's soppy, the opposite.  And, most importantly, the fourth thing you will learn how well your soil drains. 

Into the 18 inch deep hole (about the same width) you've dug,  quickly fill this hole with water and time how rapidly the water totally disappears. With excellent drainage the water will be gone within thirty to sixty minutes. Good drainage would take several hours. Adequate drainage would take six to twelve hours. With poor drainage, the water remains for 24 hours or more. 

If you garden falls into this poor drainage category, you can predict some species will have problems unless you plan ahead. You may have found that, in digging your hole, you came to a clay or heavy substrata. It may be this layer that prevents the gravity driven drainage of water from the hold.  With poor drainage, one actually gets "swimming pool" that hold water in the bottom of the hold that you planted into.  Nothing tolerates stagnant, progressively brackish water in the bottom of such a hole.  If this layer isn't too thick, you can utilize heavy metal bars or a jackhammer to break up this layer prior to planting and thus promote drainage. Or, one can use a hefty drill and a very long auger bit to drill through this substratum.  It may be advisable to prepare multiple holes at one time if rented equipment is used.

An alternative technique to handling this retained water in the hold is by digging underground diversion channels from hole to hole utilizing gravity to divert water down a slope.  But, you must have an adequate slope for this to work.  If none of the above techniques work, one can also mound plants (with or without constructed walls) above the water table. If your problem is heavy clay topsoil causing drainage problems, consider repetitive amendments of sand and coarse organic material. Over the years this will promote better surface drainage. 

Planting on slopes presents a drainage problem of sorts. Slopes can work against you in terms of getting water to the roots.  Irrigation water follows the path of least resistance.  Often this is down the hold rather than penetrating the soil.  "Water wells" can help with this.  Also, slow emission of drip irrigation and mulching around the water well can help prevent the downhill loss of irrigation water.

(There's more!  Click to read the rest of this article, click to read part two) 






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Last modified: March 17, 2017


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