One man's personal experience of growing Trachycarpus
and learning the hard way, by trial and tribulation.
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Werner Greschner, Ainseiweg 6, 50181 Bedburg, Germany
Chamaerops No.23, Summer Edition 1996
I guess most palm enthusiasts in the north have all
shared one similar experience: Triggered by a holiday in the south,
you cannot escape the fascination of subtropical plants especially
palms. Why couldn't you plant one in your own garden, maybe that
Trachycarpus you've been keeping in a pot for ages? Most of the
commonly available German books about palms contain many nice pictures
but very little information about frost resistance and winter protection,
so they were of no help. I was asking myself, what can the degree
of frost resistance of a particular palm tell you about its ability
to survive our winters? Very often the winters in our region, (the
Cologne-Bonn Basin), are comparatively mild, but there is a constant
change in temperatures together with high rainfall. The second question
was, in which northerly climate similar to ours does Trachycarpus
flourish? From a holiday in Normandy, I remembered a few, mostly
in private gardens near the coast, protected by walls and high hedges.
Temperatures around -12°C are possible even here. Trachycarpus
also grows in northern Italy and in southern Switzerland. In Tramin
(Southern Tyrolea), I enquired about what kind of winter protection
they receive. During the coldest days, the trunks of young palms
are wrapped in hessian. "Everybody does that here", I
was told, I wondered if that makes a difference? My assumption that
Trachycarpus is a lot hardier than so many books here try to make
you believe were confirmed through seeing them in cultivation in
those areas. By coincidence, I came across an article in a gardening
magazine: "Tropical fascination in Grundau near Frankfurt.
A private garden with a collection of palms and subtropical plants"
. Finally, information and experience from an expert, I thought;
what a great coincidence. I got in contact with Mr. Eitel, the author,
who gave me detailed and promising accounts about Trachycarpus planted
Over the next few winters I realized just how important
his experience was to me, but I will come back to that later. A
climatic map I came across told me that I was living in a zone which
hasthe mildest climate in Germany. As my Trachy had spent the recent
winters outside in a tub anyway and was unscathed by -12°C (same
as a Chamaerops by the way), I decided in March '93 to plant it
in the ground. lt has two trunks which were 80 and 160cm respectively.
The first thing was to decide on the best location. The palm should
have a place where it is clearly visible in my garden and at the
same time benefit from a good microclimate in order to reduce the
necessity of winter protection. I chose the edge of the patio on
the south facing side of the house. Here, it is protected by a corner
of the building and a hedge that encloses this part of the garden.
Because there was often excessive water in the ground around the
patio, I dug the planting hole twice as deep as the rootball and
started with a layer of sand and gravel for drainage. The backfill
was mixed with copious quantities of bagged planting compost and
sand. After planting, I watered generously and fertilized later
in summer. Already in its first summer I was thrilled. My Chusan
Palm flowered and put up healthy new leaves. I was proud too, but
I was already thinking about the next winter. To be able to face
even an extremely cold winter, I constructed a suitable protection.
The poles of an old tent served as a frame over which a cover sown
out of bubble plastic could be slipped. Additionally, I bought a
heating cable, just in case...
November 1993 came with an unexpected cold front and
temperatures down to -12°C. Inexperienced as I was, I immediately
erected the whole structure and mulched the ground around the palm.
In the evening, when I checked the temperature again, I noticed
that the leaves of the palm were closing up and that they showed
patches of a dark green colour. Immediately I thought the palm would
be damaged, but a phone call to EPS member Roland Eitel brought
relief - this phenomenon is completely normal and shows that the
mechanism of the plant is still intact. I realized that I had erected
the winter protection much too soon, so I took it down again and
only left the mulch on the ground. The second cold spell in that
winter came in February, again with minimum down to -12°C and
subzero temperatures during the day. My Chusan palm went through
it unprotected. In a test, I found out that the bubble plastic insulates
about 5°C by itself. Certainly an advantage in extreme winters.
Summer 1994 was fabulous and the palm raced away with
plenty of water and good feed, producing nine new leaves, impossible
in a pot. In winter 94/95 the weather brought another variation
when rain froze to a thick coating of ice on the leaves. Some books
said that snow and ice would damage the heart of the palm. This
is certainly not true for the Chusan, I simply shook the leaves
off a little so they wouldn't break,
Another piece in the palm puzzle was my acquaintance
with Jurgen Eisel. He lives in Rengsdorf, high above the Rhine valley,
north of Koblenz. Not a very suitable area for palms I thought and
so I was determined to visit his place. I was very surprised to
find such a subtropical refuge. I counted several impressive Chusan
palms, a large Trachycarpus wagnerianus, Chamaerops. Jubaea, Sabal,
Rhapidophyllum, various Yucca spp., Opuntias, tall Laurus trees,
countless Bamboos, Eucalypts, evergreen Magnolias and an Araucaria.
Certainly an unrivalled garden in this area and too much for a single
visit. Mr. Eisel patiently showed me all his plants and gave me
plenty of advice for my palms, for instance how important it is
to open up the winter protection after cold spells to avoid overheating
In my experience, one important thing that came out
clearly (also in conversations with many other palm people) is that
everybody must test out the possibilities and limits for palms in
his particular area. At which point a plant gets damaged in winter
conditions and needs to be protected is connected to so many different
factors. Failures cannot always be prevented but we must all learn
by our (or, better, other peoples') mistakes and try to observe
our plants carefully and gain experience.
After its third, this time not particularly mild, winter, my palm
is still happily growing outside, I hope my experiences will inspire
other members and will prompt them to share their experiences.
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