Mention the tropics and what do you think of? (Hint: something that grows)
Want to know the best part?
You can have some of the more cold hardy palm trees right at home in your garden even if you get cold winters. I’ll share with you the different varieties and how you can add them to your garden.
Those majestic palm trees with their unique fronds are the stereotypical tree of the tropics and you see them everywhere, in parks, beaches and hotels.
It may seem strange to think of palms and winter and snow in the same sentence. However that is entirely plausible, as there are quite a few palm trees that can survive cold weather.
Let’s have a look to see what your options are and what you need to do to add cold hard palm trees to your garden.
What Palm Trees are Best for Cold Winters?
There are many types of palm trees. They are all in the family Arecaceae or sometimes also called Palmae.
There is a subset of palms that are considered to be cold hardy palm trees. These can survive in colder temperatures with little to no damage and minimal protection.
Here is a list of ten of the most popular types:
Bismarck Palm Tree, Bismarckia nobilis, 10-12m (30-40ft) tall, 6m (20ft) wide, native to Madagascar
Cabbage Palm Tree, Sabal palmetto, 10-12m (30-40ft) tall, 3-4.5m (10-15ft) wide, native to N. America
California Fan Palm Tree, Washingtonia filifera, 10-12m (30-40ft) tall, 1.5-3m (5-10ft) wide, native to N. America
Chinese Fan Palm Tree, Livistonia chinensis, 6-9m (20-30ft) tall, 1.5-3m (5-10ft) wide, native to China and southern Japan
European Fan Palm Tree, Chamaerops humilis, 1.5-3m (5-10 ft) tall, 0.3-1.5m (1-5 ft) wide, native to the Mediterranean
Mexican Fan Palm Tree, Washingtonia robusta, 12m (40 ft) tall, 1.5-3m (5-10ft) wide, native to Mexico
Needle Palm Tree, Rhapidophyllum hystrix or Rhapidophylum hystrix, 1.5-3m (5-10 ft) tall and 0.3-1.5m (1-5 ft) wide, native to Southeastern US, does not form a trunk
Pindo Palm Tree, Butia capitata, 4.5m (15ft) tall, 3m (10 ft) wide, native to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree, Serenoa repens or Sereno repens, 1.5-3m (5-10ft) tall, 0.3-1.5m (1-5 ft) wide, native to Florida
Windmill Palm Tree, scientific name Trachycarpus fortunei, 3-6m (10-20 ft) tall, 1.5-3m (5-10 ft) wide, native to central and eastern China, slow growth rate (we own two of these palm trees)
Reference info from: http://www.florida-palm-trees.com/cold-hardy-palm-trees/
Each type of palm can survive different temperature ranges.
Some of the palms can only survive cold temperatures at the bottom of their range for a short duration such as one night. For extended cold spells you may need to provide protection, including wrapping them.
Often the palm will survive but will sustain significant frond damage. So it may take a while to recover after a bad winter.
The infographic below contains the names of the 10 cold hardy palm trees mentioned above, showing what temperature ranges they can survive at.
Pick the right spot for the palm
Picking the right site for the tree is very important. You can’t easily move an established mature tree if you find it was planted in the wrong spot. You very likely will kill it if you attempt to move it.
As with any other tree, you need to consider the mature size of the tree, not the size it is in the nursery pot.
Most palms will grow quite tall, so you should not plant them under the low overhang of a roof.
While typically palms don’t spread out like the average tree, they still take up some space and look better if they are not crowded close to other trees.
The other consideration is that palms typically produce seed heads and those seeds will fall down onto whatever surface is underneath.
If you plant the palm over a flower bed expect to have lots of baby palms sprouting from the seeds. If you plant over a walkway, expect to have to sweep away the round seeds for safety and to keep your walkway looking tidy.
We have both of these problems but we were not the ones that planted them, so we have to put up with pulling the baby palms and sweeping our walk regularly. Don’t let that happen to you: find the right place to begin with so you’ll be spared the problems we have.
Planting in the Ground
Planting a palm tree is similar to planting any other tree. You dig a hole and plant it!
However there are some considerations that will help it establish and survive cold winters.
Plan to buy and plant the tree as early in the year as possible. You want to give the tree a chance to establish itself before winter. If you live in a mild winter climate then you may get away with planting in the fall.
The relatively new process of planting any tree is to avoid amending the soil with compost, fertilizers or minerals such as bone meal. The idea is to have the tree roots spread out past the planting hole instead of just staying where the soil is richer due to amendments.
It is critical in the first two years to ensure your tree gets enough water either from rain or supplemental watering that you provide.
Cold Hardy Palm Trees in Containers
The other option is to keep your palm tree in a large container, which could be moved around if you decide it is in the wrong place. Or if you have very cold winters or want to grow one of the less hardy palms. The palm can then be moved where it will be protected.
It also will help to keep the palm from growing too big for your garden. Let’s look at that in more detail now.
Pick a very large container that is sized for the tree. You may want to start off small and re-pot the tree as it grows.
These tree containers can be extremely heavy, especially when watered. Think ahead if you do need to move it into a greenhouse or other sheltered area in winter.
Make sure your container is as mobile as possible. There are plant dollies that you can purchase. Just make sure they are rated for the weight of the full container and tree. Or you can built a custom planter for the tree and attach heavy duty casters to the bottom.
It helps to also locate the container where you can easily roll it into the greenhouse or other sheltered area. Without having to go up stairs, ramps or over uneven ground.
How to Keep a Palm Tree Alive in Winter
Depending on your winters and how hardy the palm tree is, you may need to consider providing your palm tree winter protection.
You have the option of wrapping palms for winter weather. There are many types of wraps available. Be sure to remove wraps once night-time temperatures are consistently above the cold hardiness range the tree can survive in:
- Chicken wire – wrap chicken wire loosely around the trunk of the palm and fill between the chicken wire and trunk with deciduous leaves
- Incandescent Christmas lights – wrap the trunk and leaves with strings of old-fashioned Christmas lights (not LED as these will not produce enough heat) during the coldest times of winter
- Burlap or bubble-wrap – wrap the trunk and leaves with burlap or bubble wrap
- Heat tape – these are generally used on roofs to stop the build-up of ice. This will only work if you then also wrap the tree in burlap or bubble-wrap but be sure to leave the thermostat outside the wrapping and plug the heat-tape into an approved outdoors outlet
If however you have planted your cold hardy palm trees in containers, you are lucky, providing you took the advice above and made the planters moveable. Just move them into a sheltered location such as an unheated greenhouse, garage, carport or garden shed.
How to Maintain a Palm Tree
Cold hardy palm trees require a minimum of care and maintenance.
The main task that you will need to perform on a yearly basis is trimming the palm fronds that die off.
Caution: because palm trees tend to grow tall, ensure you have a sturdy ladder. I would recommend a three-legged orchard ladder as it is the most stable. Also palm fronds typically have “teeth” along their stems plus the fronds/leaves can have sharp edges. These can easily cut your hand if you are not careful, so wear sturdy gloves and handle with care.
To trim off the fronds you will likely need a strong pair of loppers or even a pruning saw. Trim off the fronds close to the trunk. And trim off only the ones that are tattered looking or completely brown (meaning they are dead). Most palms also have seed clusters that dry up and also should be pruned off.
Fronds can be dried and then used for starting a woodstove or fireplace fire. Alternatively you could shred/chip them up into mulch.
The final care task is to move the palm into a sheltered area before the temperature drops too low. Use the minimum temperature as a guide to know when to move them but to be on the safe side, move the earlier than later, otherwise a surprise cold snap could kill the palm.
If you can’t move the palm, you may need to protect it with burlap or other coverings. This gets harder to do as the palm gets taller and may not be necessary as a more mature palm is more resistant to cold.
So I hope that has inspired you to consider getting one or two cold hardy palm trees for your garden. Bring the tropics to your home and create yourself an exotic tranquil garden retreat!
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Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC