Pot Planting: A Revolutionary New Advance in Palm Gardening
The subtitle 'A Revolutionary New Advance in Palm
Gardening' says it all. This new method seems unbelievable hut I've
spoken to other palm growers since reading it and it seems it could
just he true... Judge for yourself.
Don Tollefson, 599 Cal ifornia Avenue, Venice, California 90291,
Chamaerops No.28 Autumn 1997
I joined the Palm Society in 1988. During the ten
years since, I have participated in numerous experiments involving
potential new developments in palm gardening. Although there have
been some much ballyhooed, so-called, breakthroughs, in retrospect,
none has had much impact. Most palm gardening progress has been
confined to newly discovered palm species, capable of surviving
in various climate zones. Since the palms were always capable of
survival, the awareness of their ability to survive is more trial
and error discovery than an advancement.
At long last, however, I'm pleased to report what
could become a legitimate, new advancement in palm gardening. The
technique is simple.
When you plant the palm in the ground, leave it in the container.
Just like it sounds, plant the palm in the ground, container and
all. No slitting the sides or cutting open the bottom of the container.
Simply plant the entire palm in the ground, "pot and all,"
a.k.a. "pot planting." "Unlikely," you say.
This is the universal response, but for those who have tried it,
pot planting works extremely well. Regardless of your climate zone,
pot planting should be of importance to you by substantially increasing
your ability to grow many new palm species.
The delay in recognizing the benefit of pot planting
was due to the tremendous initial psychological resistance that
most growers maintained towards planting something in the ground,
in the container. For most, it seemed like taking a bath with their
clothes on. The traditional technique of removing the palm from
the container, prior to planting, was firmly entrenched. Most growers
had never even considered any option other than conventional planting.
Ironically, the more advanced the grower, the greater the resistance,
causing an effective, common sense method to go unused. But ongoing
trial and error efforts have indicated very positive benefits. Caveat:
the true test of a new concept requires several years for verification,
so proceed accordingly.
One day at the Keeline-Wilcox nursery, Pauleen Sullivan
and I noticed that the grower had pot planted small Kentias (Howea
forsteriana) in small clay pots. From there, he had an easily trackable
system. The palms were allowed to grow pot planted in the clay pots
until they reached a robust, marketable size. Then, they were potted
up into large, plastic containers, in groups of threes and fives
and marketed. We made two observations that day. First, that the
grower liked to start the palms as individuals and then plant them
into groups. Second, that the grower liked to pot plant the palms
in clay pots, rather than grow them above ground conventionally.
It was this second observation that we felt was significant. Since
the grower had years of experience, we concluded that he most likely
had conducted an exhaustive, trial and error determination, that
Kentias grew best and fastest pot planted in clay pots.
The following year, Pauleen and I observed some Howea
that had been pot planted in one gallon plastic pots, at one of
her gardens. "Just look at how fast they've grown," she
mused, as we observed their remarkable growth. "There must
be something to this pot planting." I quite agreed and suggested
that we conduct further experiments. It was at this time that we
recognized that pot planted palms not only grew much faster then
traditionally planted palms, but that they also suffered no ill
side effects by remaining pot planted. In fact, the palms seemed
even to benefit from being pot planted long after they had become
During the next few years, we alternated between pot
planting and planting palms conventionally. We began to notice an
unmistakable recurring pattern, in which the palms that were planted
conventionally would "sulk" (sit and do nothing) for an
extended period of time of from one to three years. Finally, if
they survived, they would once again resume normal growth. The pot
planted palms, however, would first display an unmistakable, telltale,
initial, exuberant spurt of growth, followed by steady growth from
then on. It was clear that we were onto something, except for one
obstacle. Planting palms in the ground in the container was such
an unacceptable concept for most enthusiasts, that whenever we mentioned
our results, we were practically ridiculed into silence. Understandably,
Pauleen and I became somewhat sheepish in relating our observations.
Nevertheless, we continued our investigation.
In the spring of 1994, Pauleen asked me if I would
plant two, equal sized Licuala ramsayi side by side as an experiment.
She suggested that we pot plant one and plant the other conventionally.
I liked the idea and promptly agreed. "Then start digging,"
she said, bearing what resembled a Cheshire cat's grin. Later that
same day we also visited the garden of John Tailman, a longtime
palm grower. John is the past President and current Chairman of
the Ventura/Santa Barbara Counties Area of the Southern California
Palm Society. John's palms looked good that day and included an
array of new, young palms, that he'd planted during the past couple
of years. His new, young palms were doing extremely well. They were
clearly off to an excellent start. Most significant was that his
new, young palms had been pot planted. John quickly explained that
his garden was frequented by gophers and he prevented gopher damage
by pot planting the palms rather than the conventional method of
placing chicken wire around them. Instantaneously, Pauleen and I
glanced at one another, realizing that pot planting was the likely
explanation for John's success with his new young palms. At that
time, we also became quite certain that over the upcoming year,
the Licuala ramsayi that we had pot planted would far outperform
the ramsayi that we had planted conventionally. We had the confidence.
Now, all we needed was time.
Right away, the pot planted Licuala exhibited the
strong initial growth characteristic of a recently "pot planted"
palm. Predictably, the traditionally planted Licuala just sat and
sulked. Having anticipated these results, the immediate difference
was far beyond dramatic. After two years, the pot planted Licuala
was nearly twice the size of its contemporary which stubbornly remained
nearly the same size that it was at the time ofplanting. Additionally,
the pot planted Licuala appeared much more robust and possessed
far better colour. Unfortunately, both Licuala inexplicably contracted
root fungus and set back. The one in the container remains substantially
larger than the other, but our sole controlled experiment was effectively
placed on hold due to this event.
Regardless, by this time, Pauleen was so convinced
of the superiority of pot planting, that she believed that she could
now grow species that had never before been successfully grown in
Southern California. She believed she was invincible and in her
quest to prove it, she ordered two large and very expensive specimen
palms from Hawaii. A seven gallon Iriartea gigantea and a 15 gallon
Johannesteijsmannia altifrons (the "joey"). At this same
time, she also decided to plant an extremely unusual and rare 5
gallon red crown shafted Prestoea. I had personally collected it
from the jungle floor in Venezuela during the 1994 IPS Biennial.
I recall finding this spectacular red crown shafted palm as what
appeared to be a nearly trunk forming palm that had capsized on
the jungle floor. It had somehow managed to absorb nutrients through
one single root that remained embedded less than 1/4" inch
in the topsoil. All three of these palms were rare gems with the
red crown shafted Prestoea being the most unbelievable prize imaginable.
Understandably, I expressed concern about pot planting these palms,
but I deferred to Pauleen. She possessed a much better "gut-level
feeling" about growing and planting palms then I could ever
have. Besides, it was her garden, in which she always did exactly
what she wanted anyway.
I expected all three palms to die by mid January.
In fact, I even predicted the demise of the Iriartea by early December.
At the time we planted them, we marked the palms for growth. To
my amazement, all three grew right through the winter. The Iriartea
bad some difficulty, but I wouldn't describe it as problematic.
To my chagrin, the Joey and the red crown shafted palm both exploded
with sensational growth. Right from the beginning, their growth
could only be described as unconscionable. The Joey, a palm that
is otherwise known for painstakingly slow growth, has incredibly
produced two new spikes and three new fronds in just one year! Each
of its magnificent, simple-leafed fronds has been noticeably larger
than the previous. It also grew through the winter as though it
were in the tropics. To confuse matters more, it was already a large,
15 gallon palm to begin with, a size too large for introduction
from the tropics into a temperate climate zone. Yet it suffered
no post-greenhouse shrink, and continues to grow and set all of
the Joey "land speed records!" In fact, I can't ever recall
a palm that was such a dubious contender for California having done
so well as Pauleen's Joey. Whenever I tell anyone about the Joey
episode, I always emphasize that if they get one, pot plant it.
In fact, that's what I say about all palms now. The red crown shafted
palm quickly adjusted to the rigours of the California climate and
grows rapidly and beautifully to this day. In fact, it is such a
rapid grower that I can't help but wonder if it might not one day
become a commercial palm.
On my own accord, I have pot planted over thirty new
palms in my Malibu Palm Gallery this year. I am carefully documenting
their progress photographically, and I have already made some definite
preliminary observations. First, the longstanding rule for the ideal
size at which to plant a palm outdoors in the ground remains the
same. As a substantially root bound, five gallon size. For me, there
has been only a slight, increased ability to successfully pot plant
palms at smaller sizes. For the most part, the palms that I planted
in the ground at smaller sizes have done no better than their traditional
counterparts above ground. For certain, I have had significantly
more fatalities. Beneficial to success, using all sizes, is to plant
a rootbound palm. Preferably, a "substantially" rootbound
palm. My breakeven size is as a strong, nearly rootbound, one gallon.
For those lacking a greenhouse, I would recommend pot planting the
palm at this size. This is because it requires so long to grow a
palm from a one gallon to the next size, without a greenhouse. Obviously,
this is not the case with palm species that perform better out of
a greenhouse. Another option is to grow the palm to a rootbound
one gallon size, potting it up to a five, and then pot planting
it in the ground.
There are two basic reasons for the success of pot
planting palms. First, the palm doesn't experience the trauma caused
by traditional planting. Most growers fail to even recognize that
traditional planting is traumatic to a palm. But the occurrence
of trauma is clearly evidenced by the palm's response shortly after
it is planted. Typically, traditionally planted palms set back,
sulk and in many instances, even shrink in size. This sulking generally
continues for one to three years following planting. Even though
it is the traditional method of planting, it should be recognized
as the traumatic method of planting. Traditional planting produces
far greater shock to a palm than any other normal event, including
exposure to its first cold winter. Does it make sense to prepare
a palm for the rigorous test of its first cold winter by first sending
it into a devastating shock? In most climates, traditional planting
limits the growable palms to Phoenix, Washingtonia, Butia and similar
genera. These genera don't seem to experience much trauma from traditional
planting or are capable of quickly recovering so that they are able
to withstand the rapidly ensuing winter. But, remember, the objective
of palm gardening is not to be limited by the palms that are capable
of enduring or recovering quickly from traditional planting. The
objective is to be limited only by the cold hardiness of the individual
Second, palms like to be rootbound. A rootbound palm
is a happy palm. It will grow rapidly while a non-rootbound palm
will grow slowly or languish until its roots finally fill up the
container. Pot planting provides the opportunity for a palm to "bind"
in the pot, a condition, universally recognized as essential for
vigorous palm growth. As the palm binds, it next sends an exploratory
root out one of the drain holes which further enhances growth. As
the palm continues to grow and expand, it finally bursts out of
the container, experiencing absolutely no setback during this transition.
Observe, for example, a palm that has outgrown its container while
sitting on the ground. It grows beautifully, without ever having
incurred the least, noticeable setback. Pot planting is a perfect
system in which to introduce a palm into the ground. Contrarily,
introducing a palm into the ground conventionally is probably the
It just makes sense that if you can pot plant a palm
and it suffers no setback whatsoever, and it binds and continues
to grow beautifully, that it will do infinitely better than an identical
palm that is removed from the container and planted directly into
the ground and goes into shock and sets back for one to three years
or even shrinks in size as the onslaught of winter approaches. The
test is, "can the palm endure the rigours of its first winter?"
The test is not, "can a palm endure the rigours of its first
winter right after suffering extreme trauma and setback from conventional
planting while attempting to do so in a non-rootbound condition?"
If you analyse this advancement with logic and common sense rather
than with tradition, you will realize that pot planting can add
an increased dimension to your current level of palm gardening.
Try pot planting and you will find palm gardening to be easier and
far more enjoyable than ever before and you will reach new levels
that you never before dreamed possible.
16-12-19 - 13:35GMT
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