Book Review: 'The Diamond Lane Guide to Growing Palms in a Temperate Climate' by Don Tollefson

Could this be the ultimate book on the subject? Toby Spanner has been reading between the lines.
Tobias W. Spanner, Tizianstr. 44, 80638 Mčnchen, Germany
Chamaerops No.22, Spring Edition 1996

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Did it ever occur to you that there is actually no hook on the market today that is entirely devoted to all the practical problems of how to grow a palm in your garden? Of course, all the major palm books give advice on cultivation in their introductory sections and usually additionally under the individual species, but this is usually short and very general and often rather unsatisfying when dealing with a specific problem.

When looking for the first time through Don Tollefson's recently published book, "The Diamond Lane Guide to Growing Palms in a Temperate Climate", I thought, finally, palm enthusiasts in temperate climates can get a comprehensive guide on how to successfully grow palms outdoors. The author has included nearly everything you need to know to get started: How to get a collection started, collecting, importing and germinating seeds, all the many aspects of growing and planting and how to run a greenhouse, the problems with pests, climatic considerations and cold hardiness. Any questions? Unfortunately, yes.

The more I got into the book, the more uneasy I felt about it. Firstly, the general presentation is rather poor. Actually, it is more a stack of photocopies held together by a plastic binder than a book. Also, there seems to be no concept of layout. If the author had only invested in an up-to-date layout programme for his computer, used sensible typefaces for the titles as well as the text, and omitted the double spacing of the text, the whole book would have been much nicer in appearance, easier to read and would have filled only half of the 151 pages it has now. There are but two colour pages within. Not such a good deal for US$29.95.

However, looks aside, more important are the contents. The first thing that sprang to my eye were the many spelling mistakes and typing errors. Botanical names are also frequently misspelled (Archontophoenix alexandria instead of A. alexandrae; Livistona cariensis instead of L. carinensis; Chamaedorea geomaeformis instead of C. geonomaeformis; Wallachia instead of Wallichia - there are many more examples) . Also, names of forms or varieties are usually not referred to as such but are treated as though they were valid species' names: Archontophoenix 'Illawarra', Phoenix 'Reasoneri', Sabal 'Riverside', etc.). The nomenclature could have done with a proper review. By the way, the cover picture shows Prestoea acuminata (growing with Geonoma undata and Wettinia praemorsa), not an undescribed Prestoea species. At least it should have been called an 'unidentified' Prestoea species.

Following an introduction are various chapters on books, travelling, collecting and the like. As we read on, advice about fertilizing, watering, potting mixes and soils, albeit simple to understand are generally superficial and not very helpful when problems arise. In the chapter 'Temperate Verses Tropical Palms", the term 'temperate palms' seems to be applied mainly to species from temperate rainforests or tropical high mountain areas. Certainly many of these, as the author states, are difficult to grow, so he draws the strange conclusion that the climatically marginal but easier to grow 'tropical palms' have 'become the mainstay of temperate climate palm collections', and accordingly, concentrates his further advice manly on how to grow these marginal species. But what about all the many Braheas, Butias, Phoenix, Sabals, etc. which after all are still the most reliable in a temperate climate? Aren't these essentially temperate palms the easiest and most frequently planted? Curiously, they are largely omitted from this hook.

What I particularly enjoyed were the detailed explanations on temperature related problems in establishing small palms, where many myths, like the one that palms need to be 'grown hardy' from early age, are set right. Various suggestions oin how to get a palm to a plantable size as quickly as possible, including the use of greenhouse and coldframe, are presented in detail. A complete misconception in this chapter however is the lengthy explanation on how to provide plants with 'fresh' carbon dioxide through exhaust ventilation in a greenhouse. Seriously, there is no way to collect carbon dioxide (fresh or otherwise) from the air in a greenhouse as Don Tollefson suggests.

Information is given on when, how and where to plant palms in the ground. This is extremely useful, first hand information. But again, Don Tollefson's 'Cold Hardiness Palm List' in the back of the hook, in which he rates the different species according to their performance in various (Californian) climatic zones is very difficult to understand as well as being short of some important and well-tried species, such as Sabal minor, Phoenix canariensis and P. dactylifera. In short, the hook is too California-centred and, in ignoring the rest of the world, often not very helpful if you live in a different temperate zone. It would have been better with a title such as: "Growing Tropical Palms in California".

In conclusion, I think the book is well worth buying as a collection of fresh and useful ideas on growing palms outside the tropics. As a complete guide to growing palms in temperate climates it does not serve, and I would not recommend it as such.

"The Diamond Lane Guide to Growing Palms in a Temperate Climate" is available at US$29.95 plus shipping cost of $2.95 from the author: Don Tollefson, 599 California Avenue, Venice, CA 90291, U.S.A.

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