The Perfect Palm

A bit of the tropics for your garden

Emily Clay

Palm trees are the perfect choice to add a tropical touch to the landscape; however, palm trees are choosy about where they grow. There are so many palms growing with wild abandon on the South Carolina coast that it is easy to think they will thrive with such vigor here in the Midlands. Yet, palm trees are picky about the temperature, especially nighttime lows. They come from many different climate zones, but our coastal, native palms cannot thrive in cold, freezing temperatures for long. 

Palm trees are closely related to grasses because of the way their cells soak up moisture. Once established, they can survive with little water and withstand the hot, humid temperatures of long summers and thrive for many years.

Palm trees need a lot of sunlight to survive. Most varieties require 6 to 8 hours of direct sun to thrive. If the palm tree does not receive the required amount of sun, it will become weak and die, and the soil is just as important as the amount of sun they receive. Most varieties grow best in soil that is not too dense, which drains poorly. In fact, they grow particularly well in sandy soils. Most importantly, make sure the soil has good drainage. For soil that is too heavy to suit a palm tree, add sand and vermiculite to help lighten the soil and improve the drainage. Most trees, after becoming established, can survive with one good watering a week.


So Many Wonderful Choices

Choosing the right palm for the right spot is crucial to the tree’s survival. Consider requirements for soil, temperature, and space.

Here are some reliable varieties to choose from to add that tropical accent to your garden:

Sabal Palmetto — This variety is the South Carolina State Tree that adorns our state flag and what most consider as the South Carolina palm tree. It is also referred to as a cabbage palmetto. This popular variety thrives in the sun and can reach a mature height of 35 feet. It is happiest growing in sandy soil and will need little water once established. It is vitally important that this type of palm tree is transplanted by an experienced crew in the spring or summer. Sabal palmettos will be “hurricane” pruned before leaving the nursery, which means the fronds will be reduced by half to help lessen the likelihood of shock when the tree is transplanted.

Give your new palm three to four weeks after planting before you apply the first fertilizer. Use a complete fertilizer that contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Water the fertilizer in well. Make sure that no fertilizer pellets are left on the trunk of the tree. Water three to four times a week during the first season after planting. If weeds appear around the base of the tree, weed by hand. Some palms are sensitive to herbicides and can suffer damage if the herbicide touches any fronds or exposed roots.

It is also essential that the tree be supported after it is planted so that it will grow upright and not lean to one side or the other. Palm trees are top heavy and the root ball is relatively small for the tree’s size, so it must be braced right away after planting. Bracing the tree is preferable to staking it as trunks are smooth, so the ties used in staking will slip down the trunk and be ineffective. Bracing the tree is a complicated process and is best done by an experienced arborist and crew. Never hammer a nail or any other object into the trunk of the Sabal palmetto or any other tree. Leave the braces up for at least a year to ensure that the tree is strong enough to continue growing straight.

Windmill Palms — Windmill palms are another popular variety of palm that grows successfully in the Midlands. A mature windmill palm can grow to 40 feet. A relatively slow grower, this variety of palm has a rough and hairy trunk. The “branches” that are attached to the trunk are sometimes referred to as “boots.” Unlike sabal palmettos, windmill palms can often be found growing in containers. These specimens will have a stronger root system than those grown and dug from a field. Because of this, windmill palms do not need to be braced after planting as often as sabal palmettos. Windmill palms are a beautiful companion to sabal palmettos as they look exotic and lush when planted together.

Sago Palm — Sago palms are another easy-care variety of palm that grow well in Columbia gardens. Sago palms thrive in full sun and need little water once established. This type of palm is characterized by having a central bulb with coarsely textured branching fronds. The fronds are strong and can be sharp, so use care when pruning. Sago palms can be damaged by winter temperatures lower than 10 degrees F. Many gardeners plant sagos in containers so they can be stored in a garage or greenhouse during the winter. If the branches do become damaged due to an ice storm or extremely low temperatures and turn brown, just prune them back to the central bulb, and new fronds will appear later in the spring. Preferably, prune sagos every year. The new fronds are beautiful when they appear in late spring. One warning: many gardeners say that sagos are poisonous to dogs.

European Fan Palm  — This variety of palm is one of my favorites. European fan palms grow more like a bush so they are easily planted in a large container. This is a great choice for a poolside planting or a front door combination to greet visitors. Fan palms are the right companion plant for sabal palmettos and windmill palms. It is a multi-stemmed, shrub-like palm that has a clumping growth pattern. They are better planted in groups to add a tropical accent at the base of taller trees. They create a skirt-like effect at the base of a tree. European fan palms can survive winter temperatures as low as 5 degrees F. Ice, however, can damage the fronds, so if an ice storm threatens, cover the plant with old sheets or a tarp.

Pindo Palm — Pindo palms are large palms with a thick, stout trunk. Long, silvery-green, arching fronds grow directly from the trunk base. This tough variety of palm tolerates full sun and prefers regular watering when the topsoil becomes dry. Pindo is a slow grower with a mature height of 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Make sure you give this prolific variety much room to grow. This easy variety is basically carefree once it becomes established.

These five palms are hardy in our Zone 8 gardens in the Midlands. Many other appealing palm varieties that are not hardy can be grown in containers and stored in a protected place during the winter. Those to consider for container planting are Christmas palm, pygmy date palm, ponytail palm, lady palm, and fishtail palm. Most of the hardy varieties and these non-hardy varieties can be found at local nurseries and garden centers.


Pruning Palms

Pruning is critical to keep your palms looking healthy and tidy. The canopy of a palm tree does not respond well to severe pruning. If the entire canopy of a palm is pruned or removed, it will not grow back. The only time you should prune a palm is when particular fronds begin to turn yellow or brown. Some gardeners choose to prune the fruit that appears in late spring and summer. Some gardeners let the fruit ripen. Birds and squirrels love to feast on the ripe fruit. Each frond must be pruned one by one with a sharp pole pruner. Cut the stem as close to the trunk as possible for a neat appearance. Do not remove too many fronds at one time. If your palm is too tall to prune, be patient. The fronds will eventually fall off by themselves. Prune conservatively.

Palms are wonderful to enjoy in nice weather, and their fronds provide welcome shade for other plants and for active gardeners as well. Another benefit is the wonderful tropical sound it makes when the breeze blows. Palms can turn a pool area from a suburban retreat to a tropical paradise and are beautiful when planted to create a formal allee. Palms are ideal to illuminate with low voltage lighting for a nighttime glow. They are stunning focal points. Plus, palm trees are festive during Christmas holidays when decorated with lights, such as with green lights on the fronds and white lights circling the trunks. Since lighting a palm can be daunting, consider using a company that will do this type of decorative lighting for you.

Palms are truly everywhere in Columbia. They are in most neighborhoods, downtown courtyards, and the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, which is a virtual palm tree arboretum. If you fancy adding a tropical accent to your garden, take a ride around to look for different types, go to nurseries to view their inventory of palms, and find one that is just right for you and your garden. You may choose more than one!


Gardening Chores for the September Gardener

• Peruse the garden for any tired and dying annuals. Deadhead or remove them to keep the garden neat and tidy.

• Deadhead ‘Dragonwing’ begonias. Place a few stems in a cup of water, and in a few weeks you will have a new sprout to plant.

• Re-define the garden beds. Grass may have grown into the beds. Remove with a sharp spade and re-do the trench edge or re-install metal edging.

• Record successes and failures this time of year so you can re-evaluate what is planted next spring.

• Prune shrubs that have become over grown. Cut out any dead or crossing branches.

• If you are planning to transplant any large shrubs later this fall, begin the root pruning process now.

• If you grow chrysanthemums, pinch them back once or twice during September so they don’t become top heavy and flop over after they bloom.

• If you plan to enter any camellias in the State Fair Camellia Show, gib them now to get larger blooms. Gibbing refers to the practice of forcing early blooming by applying a drop of gibberellic acid to a pinched out bud.

• Keep watering. It is still hot.

• Check on houseplants that were moved outside during the warmer months. Prune any dead leaves. Check for bugs and treat accordingly. You don’t want them to move into your house with the plant.

• Check outdoor lighting for damaged fixtures or burned out bulbs.

Check irrigation for any heads that need attention or any drip lines that have become clogged.

• Make notes of any areas that have become shadier because of tree or shrubbery growth.

• Clean out the fountain and replace with fresh water.


What’s Blooming?

Abelia, buddleia, crepe myrtle, ‘Knock Out’ roses, blackberry lily, salvia, canna, ginger lily, cleome, dahlia, hosta, impatiens, lantana, farfugium, plumbago, and zinnia