Personal Best

One man's personal experience of growing Trachycarpus and learning the hard way, by trial and tribulation.
Werner Greschner, Ainseiweg 6, 50181 Bedburg, Germany
Chamaerops No.23, Summer Edition 1996

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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 outside.

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 and rot.

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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