How to care for palm trees

Updated May 13, 2019


Imagine relaxing on a sunny, salt-laced beach, and you probably have palm trees in the backdrop of this fantasy paradise. Their tropical allure makes fronds a popular addition to outdoor living areas across the country – but caring for these Arecaceae-family trees is no vacation.

A common sighting on many commercial and residential properties, especially in warm-climate areas, palm trees require diligent maintenance and attention.

Here’s how to give your clients their own exotic-foliage oasis without harming the palms.

It’s hard to go far without seeing a towering palm tree in Florida, so it’s especially important for landscapers in this region to know how to install and treat palms.

Leave it to the pros

And in some areas like Dade County Florida where Sean Nutter, owner of Greenday Creations Inc. in Miami, lives, no one can work with trees unless he or she is licensed.

This law is important, as Nutter, a certified arborist, has seen what can happen to palms if they are cut improperly.

When someone removes a frond from a palm tree, they are taking away the tree’s energy – where it uses photosynthesis and receives its oxygen. “A tree expert will advise you not to cut any frond before it dies,” Nutter says. “However, that won’t work for the commercial market.”

Since the naturalist approach might not please your clients, make sure to use the best reduction techniques to trim palms and keep them healthy.

Trimming tips

The best time to trim palms is when they go to sleep in the colder months. “When they wake up, they start putting out new branches,” Nutter says. “I’m opposed to trimming when it’s hot.” If you trim when it’s too hot, the second generation will burn before it can grow back.

Sago_palm“Don’t trim the fronds like a candlestick,” Nutter warns. “The tree needs to have spectrum.” To achieve a fuller look, he says not to remove more than 25 percent of the canopy. Less reduction keeps the structure intact, and it’s less likely for damage to occur around the palm if you cut that much.

“You can always take away,” Nutter says, “but you can never put it back.”

When trimming the palm, it’s important not to cut or spike into the tree. It creates a parasite opening and forever harms the tree. “The wound is there for the life of the tree,” Nutter says. “It also allows parasites to go in the tree and get in the heart of the tree and kill it.”

Hold your trimming tool – Nutter prefers loppers and handsaws – at a 10- and 2-o’clock angle to get the correct degree of cut. If you trim down, the diamond effect of the fronds will be frayed. By cutting upward, it will create a clean, precise cut.

A lot of inexperienced crews create “lion tails” when they remove leaves in branches – forming poofs on the end of the fronds, Nutter says. In a windstorm, that type of trim collects air at the end of the branch and snaps the tree.

Not only will cutting the palm too much cause growth issues, it can also invite unwanted pests. When the tree is distressed, it emanates volatiles that attract certain bugs, such as the red palm weevil, that can kill the tree.

After trimming, spray the tree with a liquid greening solution (Nutter uses Dyna-Gro) that puts medication straight to the tree, instead of using a granular substance. Distribute the solution evenly around the drip line of the tree. If it’s too concentrated, it will burn the root of the tree.

Also be careful if doing work with heavy equipment around a tree. “You can compress air in the ground around the trunk and suffocate the tree,” Nutter says.

Gro Outdoor Living photo EBeach appeal

About 1,000 miles north of Nutter, Matthew Gilligan, RLA, Magnolia Landscape LLC in Virginia Beach, Virginia, adds palm trees around newly installed pools and other outdoor living areas.

He likes to pair them with other warm-weather plants such as canna lilies and Purple Heart (Setcreasea pallida). Around Virginia Beach, the most popular palms are windmill (Trachycarpus fortunei) and jelly (Butia capitata), Gilligan says.

The palm fronds (browning only) should be trimmed from the bottom up in the early spring or late fall. “In our zone, prior to winter, it’s suggested to gather the fronds upright and wrap the fronds and the top of the trunk in shrink wrap,” Gilligan says.

“Palm trees are popular in our area because we are a beach town, and many people like the tropical look provided,” Gilligan says. “Most of our clients are doing poolside landscaping and want their backyards to resemble a tropical oasis.”

Popular palms

  • Windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) are one of the most cold-hardy palms. Trunks can grow 20 to 40 feet, and leaves reach 8-foot-wide crowns.
  • Royal palms (Roystonea regia) are mostly seen in Florida and other tropical areas. They reach heights of 40 to 60 feet.
  • Red sealing wax palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are not cold tolerant. If the palm gets too cold, a parasite wakes up – which would normally be dormant – and ravishes the tree.
  • Fishtail palms (Caryota) don’t have as many problems with insects compared to other palms, and the compound leaves can measure more than 8 feet long.
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