Palm Care is As Easy As 1-2-3

For a healthy, beautiful palm there are only three things you need to do. Three!

Palm Care # 1 – “Leaf” it alone!

Leave the Leaves

Prune no palm leaves (fronds) EVER. Palms have been taking care of themselves for eons and they know which leaves they need. They will drop what they do not need.

If you dislike the naturally shaggy appearance of palms, at least wait until the leaves turn brown before you remove them. If you need to for safety, you can remove a green leaf – say if they are a hazard to people or property (in a walkway or rubbing the roof). Then, prune only in April and early May or August and September. I will come back to this.

Fan palms are a great nesting place for many of our native birds.
Such excessive pruning can kill a palm.
All palms, even date palms, need to shade their trunks. It’s why their fruit is carried on long stalks.
This will result in a weak trunk that may snap in a strong wind.

Do not “skin” your Palm

The stubs of the palm fronds need to stay on the trunk for the health of the palm. 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.

Palms need their leaves to stay on the plant and form the trunk.

Why you need to “leaf it alone”

Palms are NOT “trees.” Palms are upright, tall, semi-woody, long-lived, perennial plants. A palm is like a giant onion plant that gets woody only after 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. Weak trunks can fall on your home or car costing you thousands.

The wild palms of Joshua Tree Nationa Park. That skirt of fronds protects them from the scorching sunlight.

Plants are Thrifty

All plants are thrifty and palms are some of the thriftiest! Palms will recycle as much as they can. Before they get rid of an old leaf, they take all the minerals, sugars, proteins, and other necessary chemicals and ship it to new growth. When you cut off green palm 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 palm fronds bend downward and help keep the trunk shaded and cool.

This is a cousin to the palm borer.  They eat the softer inner tissues and kill the plant.

Avoid Insect Damage to Your Palm

Pruning causes stress and stressed palms are more likely to become infested by insects. Particularly deadly is the giant palm-borer. This insect starts munching 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. Adult borers can fly at least 2 miles to lay their eggs of freshly pruned palms. These palm-borers are found throughout the Southwest.

Palm Care # 2: Fertilize

For best plant health 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.

The native Arizona fan palm (Washingtonia) is found in the hot, dry Kofa Mountains near Yuma, where it lives on rainfall alone.

Palm Care # 3: Water Properly

Most palms do best with dryer soil. Let the soil dry out!  Soak the plant but allow it to dry out between times. Soak the plants once, maybe twice a month in summer and not at all in winter. Yes folks – I said month.

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 (almost) the same as the fertilizer! The exception is September. Do not encourage new growth with fertilizer in September. Palms are about to enter their dormant winter phase.

That’s it! A simple 1-2-3 to taking care of your palms so you have healthy, long lived, trouble-free palms.  Leave the leaves, fertilize at least once a summer, and water in case of drought.

Thanks for reading!


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