How to Care For Palm Trees

Nothing emits the same lush, tropical feel as a landscape filled with majestic palm trees. Well-maintained palms beautify the landscape as they add to your home’s value. What’s not to like about that? Proper palm tree care leads to hardy and long-lived trees and their care begins the moment you transplant them into their new surroundings. We’ve debunked some common myths and cover important tips on palm tree care that keep your palms thriving like champions.

Palm Tree Soil, Irrigation Requirements

Once established in the landscape, most species of palm trees are relatively tolerant of brief droughts. However, and according to the University of Florida, it can take anywhere from 6 months to 1 year for a new palm to establish its root system in the new planting site. During this establishment period, it’s important the transplanted palm receive enough water.

Depending on your soil type, its moisture-holding capacity and your local weather conditions, you may have to irrigate your new palm daily. That’s especially true if your soil is sandy, and outside conditions are especially hot and dry. However, this doesn’t mean you want to keep the soil soggy and saturated. Overwatering is just as bad for the tree as underwatering, especially during its early development. This is why is important to transplant your palm into well-draining soil, as most palm species don’t tolerate growing in soils constantly saturated with water.

These are the standard watering guidelines according to the University of Florida and depending on the species of palm, its drought-tolerance and your local weather conditions:

  • Trees 1-2 years old trees typically require three to four weekly applications weekly.
  • Trees 3-4 years old trees require two to three water applications weekly.

When watering, make sure to always water deeply so it reaches the root ball, which promotes deeper root system development.

Browning Frond Tips

One sign your palm tree isn’t getting as much water as it needs are the tips of the fronds starting to brown. In addition, this can also be a sign of too much salt buildup in the soil due to excessive fertilizer use. Although the browning tips won’t change back to a normal color, you can correct the problem. Increase the amount and frequency of water, which also helps flush any salts from the area. Don’t overfertilize.

Expert Tip: Spreading a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch over the planting site helps the soil retain moisture, as well as cutting down on unwanted vegetative growth. Just keep it pulled about 4 inches back from the palm’s trunk to discourage pest and disease problems.

Watering Guidelines for Potted Palms

Palm trees grown in containers might require water daily through the active growing season of spring through summer. During winter, the palm tree goes through dormancy. Its growth slows so its water requirements drop. In addition, potting soil dries out quicker than soil in the landscape, especially if contained in a porous container such as terra cotta. It’s easy to check if your potted palm requires water:

  • Stick your finger into the potting mix. If the top 3-4 inches of soil feels dry to the touch, water the palm tree until it runs out of the pot’s bottom drain holes.
  • As with overwatering palms in the landscape, it’s best to allow the potting mix to dry slightly before watering. If you don’t, your palm tree can develop root rot and die due to constantly soggy conditions.

Expert Tips: Whether an indoor palm tree or grown outdoors, if your potted palm’s frond tips are turning brown, it signals that it’s not getting enough water, there’s not enough humidity or the fertilizer salts are producing burns. A process of elimination should solve the problem and prevention is basic:

  • Water potted palm trees when the top several inches of soil become dry, applying until it runs from the bottom drain holes.
  • Increase humidity by misting the palm tree with room temperature water several times weekly or placing the container on a tray of pebbles. Humidity is created as the water evaporates from the pebble-lined tray.
  • Don’t overfertilize and use slow-release palm fertilizer granules that gradually release into the soil when watered. Most slow-release granules don’t require reapplying for up to three months.
  • Flush the pot every three to four months to wash away any salt buildup from the fertilizer. Allow water to run slowly through the potted soil for about five minutes.

Follow these steps to reduce browning frond tips even if you’re growing the palm tree as a house plant.

Fertilizing Palm Trees

An important element of caring for a palm tree is fertilizing at the proper time and with an appropriate palm fertilizer containing all the macronutrients required for good growth. Proper fertilization maintains the palm’s healthy appearance and growth, improves its hardiness and prevents health problems caused by nutritional deficiencies. Remember, it’s easier to prevent problems associated with deficiencies than correct them after they’ve reared their ugly head.

Before you start spreading palm fertilizer around, it’s important to get a soil test so you know if your soil lacks or has sufficient nutrients. This allows you to know exactly what your palm requires to keep it healthy and looking its best.

When asked what’s the biggest mistake when it comes to fertilizing palms, Sally Scalera, Urban Horticulture Agent & Master Gardener, UF/IFAS Extension Brevard County notes, “Not testing the soil first before fertilizing. Excess levels of nutrients will tie up other nutrients, so it is just as important to know what nutrients are in excess levels as it is for those that are present in low levels.”

Epsom Salts May Be Helpful, but No Cure-All

As an example of when too much of a good thing can turn bad, Ms. Scalera cites the use of Epson salts, which anyone living in “palm tree country” has more than likely heard is a cure-all for whatever ails your palm. Unfortunately, that’s just an old wife’s tale.

Ms. Scalera states, “Case in point, applying Epsom salts to palms on a regular basis. Epsom salts supply magnesium and high levels of magnesium will raise the pH, tighten the soil and tie up calcium and potassium. It is very common for nonnative palms to suffer from potassium and magnesium deficiencies, often at the same time.”

Step-by-Step Palm Fertilization

When it comes to basic fertilization practices, the University of Florida suggests fertilizing four times yearly, but you should wait until you see your new palm producing new growth before its first feeding. After a month or so, you’ll see a new palm frond developing and now it’s time to fertilize. When it comes to selecting and using a standard palm fertilizer that works best, the University of Florida recommends:

  • Use a palm fertilizer 8-4-12-4 blend that includes all micronutrients.
  • One hundred percent of Nitrogen (N), Potassium (K), and  Magnesium (M)g should be in a controlled release form.
  • Use at a rate of 1.5 pounds per 100 square feet of the palm’s canopy.
  • Spread evenly under the canopy, being sure to keep the fertilizer about 4 inches from the trunk to prevent burns and damage.

Your soil test will let you know if you need to add additional nutrients to the soil and at what amounts. Always water any fertilizer products into the soil after applying.

Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Palms

This Canary Island date palm shows magnesium and potassium deficiency symptoms. Photo courtesy Sally Scalera

The last thing anyone wants to discover is their palm tree not looking its best and it’s obvious there is some type of problem. Most of the time, palm tree problems are associated with nutritional deficiency. Many nutritional problems are associated with a lack of sufficient nutrients, an imbalance of nutrients and even planting too deep or poor soil aeration.

When they lack particular nutrients, palm trees will let you know by exhibiting certain symptoms. You can always take a sample of your palm to your local county extension service office to get a diagnosis and find out what you can do to correct the problem. Common signs of nutritional deficiencies and their causes include:

  • Nitrogen: The palm’s growth rate is greatly reduced and older or even all the palm leaves show uniformed chlorosis (yellowing).
  • Potassium: Fronds have a necrotic translucent orange-yellow spotting, older fronds have frizzling that is most severe on the tips and the deficiency can be fatal to the palm. Treatable with sulfur-coated potassium sulfate.
  • Magnesium: The oldest fronds show marginal chlorosis. Treatable with magnesium sulfate.
  • Iron: The newest fronds show generalized chlorosis and the leaf veins are green and sharply defined. In soils too alkaline, treat with chelated iron and in acidic soils, treat with Fe-DTPA (330).
  • Manganese: Newest fronds are smaller than normal, frizzling at the leaf base and with interveinal chlorosis and necrotic streaking. It can be fatal to the palm. Treatable with Manganese(II) sulfate MnSO4 (TechMangam).
  • Boron: Newest fronds are crumpled, smaller than normal and sometimes there’s a horizontal sharp bend in the trunk. Can kill the center bud of the palm tree.

Palm Tree Pruning Requirements

An important aspect of palm tree care is properly pruning the tree and not doing it correctly can weaken the tree’s health and even lead to its death. This is another reason where selecting a proper landscape location. Palms should be able to reach their full potential without interfering with structures, power lines or walkways is of prime importance.

There’s one important rule of pruning palm fronds – don’t trim anything but completely brown and dead fronds. Trimming off green fronds is a good way to weaken any species of palm. Even palm fronds with the slightest bit of color are still giving nourishment to the entire tree.

Palm fronds go through a natural lifecycle of slowly browning, which eventually leads to completely dead fronds. Depending on the palm species, this process can take several months. Only then should you prune off the frond. Additionally, some palm species are self-cleaning and drop their dead fronds.

If you live in an area frequented by hurricanes, you’ve probably seen lawn services promoting palm tree “hurricane cuts.” Don’t fall for it because it’s a scam to get your money and has no concerns about the health of your palm trees. This type of trim scalps the tree, only leaving several fronds extending from the crown. The University of Florida advises staying away from this type of pruning because it only weakens the tree and can lead to health problems and eventually death.

sabal palms with 'hurricane trim'
These sabal palms have been given “hurricane cuts” which remove still-needed fronds too soon. This type of trim is bad for the palm’s long-term health. Photo courtesy Sally Scalera

Winter Protection Tips

The vast majority of palm species don’t tolerate a cold snap that brings along frosts and freezes. If you live in an area with year-round frost-free weather, you probably won’t have to worry about winter protection. Those who endure rare freezing snaps need to prepare. Additionally, this is another reason why it’s good to know the hardiness requirements of your palm and whether it’s hardy within your USDA growing zone and tolerates your average winter low temperatures.

The steps to protecting your potted palms and those in the landscape before a cold snap are relatively basic.

Palms in the Landscape

  • Water the planting site saturating the root ball the day before the predicted cold weather. It helps insulate it from the cold.
  • Apply a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch over the planting site to help insulate the palm’s root system.
  • Wrap the trunk in burlap.
  • If the palm isn’t too tall, string holiday lights through the fronds and canopy or wrap in a cotton sheet.

Potted Palms

  • Water the potted palm tree.
  • Bring the potted palm tree to an indoor location with natural light close to what it was receiving outdoors.
  • If the potted palm is too large to move, place it close together with a grouping of other potted plants, to help with insulation.
  • If left outdoors, you can string holiday lights through the canopy or cover with a sheet.

Expert Tip: If you feel your palm suffered some cold damage, wait until the palm fronds are completely dead and brown before trimming them off.

Healthy, Happy Palm Trees

Proper palm tree care is important in keeping your palms hardy, problem-free and year-round eye-catching specimens. Healthy palms produce lush, robust growth and their addition can almost instantly change a bland yard into a tropical paradise. With so many different choices in palms, your biggest problem will be choosing which one to bring home to plant.

Joyce Starr

Joyce Starr

Joyce Starr has been writing on horticultural and landscaping topics for over 15 years. In addition, for the past 20 years she’s owned and operated a landscaping and design business. She shares her experience and passion for all things green through her writing.