Palm Care Is as Easy As 1-2-3

For healthy, happy, palms there are only three things you need to do. Just three simple things!

Palm care tip 1: “Leaf” it alone! Prune no leaves (technically fronds) ever, because palms will drop what they do not need. If you dislike the appearance, wait until fronds are brown and drooping before removing. You should only remove green fronds if they are a hazard to people or property (in a walkway or rubbing the roof). If you must, only prune in May or August.

Part of “leaf it alone” is to not “skin” the palm. Leave frond stubs on the trunk; 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.

Palm trunks develop their own beauty when not “skinned” by power tools.
Native Washintonia palms slowly develop a charming trunk.
Canary palms naturally have nobby trunks.

Why you need to “leaf it alone:”

Palms aren’t “trees.” Palms are upright, tall, semi-woody, long-lived, perennial plants. A palm is like a giant onion plant that gets woody as 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. If removed too soon, you get weak trunks.

Palms are very thrifty. Palms take minerals, proteins and necessary chemicals out of old fronds and ship them to the new fronds. By cutting off green 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 fronds bend downward and keep the trunk shaded and cool.

Washingtonia palms in Death Valley survive the blast-furnace heat by shading their trunks with old fronds.

Pruning causes stress – and stressed palms are more likely to become infested by insects. Particularly deadly is the giant palm-borer. This insect starts on the succulent young leaves and works its way to the sugar-rich heart of the palm, killing it. It can take up to nine years for borers to kill larger palms. Adult palm borers are most active in June and July, and can find freshly pruned palms to lay eggs in from at least 3 kilometers away. This is why you should avoid pruning in June and July.

Palm care tip 2: 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 to carry the fertilizer down to the root zone. Palm roots are often 6 to 8 feet deep.

Stately Washingtonia palm planted at the University of Arizona in the 1920s.

Palm care tip 3: Most palms do best with dryer soil. Soak the plant but allow it to dry out between times. Soak three to four times during the summer months to encourage healthy growth. When in doubt, soak on these dates unless you get a good monsoon rain: May 15, June 15, July 15, August 15, September 15. Notice – water is almost the same dates as the fertilizer.  Makes it easy.  Except for September. Do not encourage new growth with fertilizer in September as palms enter their dormant winter phase.

Want to learn more? Look for Dr. Soule’s free lectures at your local Pima County Library, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event she will sell and sign copies of her books, including Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada (Cool Springs Press, $26).

© Article copyright by Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. Republishing an entire blog post or article is prohibited without permission. I receive many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you may use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos may not be used.


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One Comment

  • Sandy Smith

    Thank you for such excellent advice! Oh my gosh, if you ever need more ‘DON’T’ pictures we have plenty around here. We have a good man who merely trims (are they called flower fronds?) the arching flowering pieces. Some of our neighbors trim their palms until they look like (my words) Matchsticks; then they skin the trunk below the remaining branches. Last week, I noticed they had called back their Palm trimmer because he hadn’t cut the trunk low enough for their desire. (crazy) thanks for letting me vent.
    Appreciate the advice about fertilizing, what kind and when. SW Gardening Board is so helpful!
    Sandy Smith