Growing Palms in Small Spaces

Six basic rules of how to grow and house a collection of palms in the small space of a house, an apartment, or a small garden. Lovely and atmospheric photo by the author.
Stefan Mifsud, 123 Lampuka Str., Paola, PLAO4, Malta
Chamaerops No.29 Winter 1997

Palms in small spaces: Terracing can be used to give an impression of depth

I suppose every palm enthusiast dreams of owning a tropical garden fall of tall majestic palms and lush undergrowth. But what can you do if you own a small house, apartment or garden? And what if you are limited to growing palms indoors or in green houses because of freezing winters?

One has to be very practical to enjoy palm-growing using just the available space. In my house and back-garden I keep a collection of more than 30 species of palms and the collection is still growing To avoid problems with the rest of my family I need to make sure that the palms do not get too much in the way of movements and cleaning chores. I manage to do so by following some basic rules which I think other enthusiasts who are also limited by space might find useful if they have not realised them already. These include:

1. Do not buy a palm/seed just because it looks nice in photographs and then try to find a place for it at home. It is much more practical to study one's home first and then buy the plant(s) which are suitable. Every home and garden has many microclimates (e.g. shady corners, brightly lit windowsills etc.). So first read about which species are suited for these microclimates - and then buy the palm/seed. The light requirements are especially important in indoor situations. It is no use buying a Washingtonia robusta or Phoenix canariensis and then placing it in a dark corner - the plant will die after a few months. For such a corner you should purchase a palm that naturally lives in the forest undergrowth (e.g. Chamaedorea spp, Reinhardtia spp). If you have a sunny/brightly lit window than yes, you may keep a Washingtonia successfully. In short if you can choose the palm but not the space, choose appropriately.

2. Should a space be divided by a few large palms or by many smaller ones? If you like palms because of their large magnificence then I suppose you should opt for the first choice. If you would like to collect as many palms as possible then give preference to palms which are small at maturity, such as Rhapis, Reinhardtia, Phoenix roebelenii etc. In the right indoor conditions these can also be either propagated by seed or suckers.
Chamaedorea species are particularly good indoor palms with their low light requirements -and there are many to choose from (see Don Hodel's Chamaedorea Palms'). Palms which are large trees at maturity but which grow slowly and which have low light requirements when young can also be good indoor plants. Fortunately for some palm-lovers many large palms fall into this category. However bear in mind that these will eventually outgrow their living quarters and then you would have to regretfully part with them.

3. Go for variety. If you are limited in space you are also limited in the number of plants you can keep simultaneously. Try to obtain palms with different shapes, ages, sizes and colours. Leaf shape is especially important. Try to obtain palms with entire, bifid, palmate, costapalmate, pinnate and bipinnate leaves. Shapes can be varied even within the same genus e.g. Chamaedorea elegans - pinnate, C. geonimaeformis - bifid, C. graminifolia long, thin leaflets, C. klotzschiana - clustered leaflets, etc. Palms can also be colourful e.g. Livistona chinensis, Washingtonia filifera - bright green; Livistona australis, Chamaedorea metallica - dark green; Dictyosperma album, Chambeyronia macrocarpa - reddish parts; Brahea glauca, Sabal minor - bluish etc. Size difference allows small-leafed plants to be grown below the arching fronds of larger species (e.g. a Chamaedorea below a Syagrus romanzoffiana). Age difference can also improve variety between palms of the same species. Many palms change the shape of their leaves as they grow - so you can have small bifid leafed and large pinnate leafed individuals of the same species. Having differently aged palms is also important for rule # 6.

4. Use up all available space. Even dark corners. Do this by rotating your palms from dark to light areas. A dark corner can harbour a tolerant palm for a short time, but this needs to be replaced after a 2 to 3 month period. Your palms can take shifts in this and other dark positions but then they need to recuperate on a balcony, garden, yard or greenhouse. Otherwise artificial lighting will need to be used. Go vertical. In small rooms/gardens floor space is limited. It is therefore important to utilise the larger amount of vertical surface area provided by walls. This can be done in many ways. Tops of items of furniture are obvious locations for pots. Pots here should always be placed in decorative pot holders since these will be at eye level. DIY shelves on a naturally well-lit wall are ideal for holding many small pots. The shelves can be multi-layered and so a wall can be covered with small palms (N.B. The width of these shelves should be chosen to hold the largest required pot diameter). These palms can have leaves touching each other and intermingling together as they would be in their jungle homes, but care must be taken to remove diseased plants or leaves and start preventative treatment promptly, as disease and pests spread rapidly in crowded conditions.
Tall species with erect petioles and compact crowns are ideal for corridors (e.g. Areca catechu, Veitchia merrillii). A wise safety precaution is to choose thorn-less palms for corridors. (Children have literally been blinded by running into the vicious spines of Phoenix dactylifera). Palms with spreading crowns are difficult to position in narrow passageways. However a Livistona chinensis can be successfully positioned in the centre of a table, in an overhead hanging basket, and other places which can accommodate their gracefully open foliage.

5. Slow down growth. Fast growers e.g. Washingtonia spp, or palms reaching maximum desired size cannot be kept if their size exceeds the available space. It is therefore important to prevent this from happening too quickly. Forget about what books and many experts tell us about growing palms quickly by using soluble fertilisers, frequent repotting, extra carbon dioxide etc. If you are limited in space you should not try to increase growth rates, otherwise you would arrive to rule #6 too quickly. If you intend to keep as many palms as possible and for as long as possible you should retard growth rates as much as possible without damaging your plants. The following are some precautions against too rapid growth (see diagram). Rootbound plants grow at a slower pace than usual. I am not disagreeing with Don Tollefson about the benefits of pot-planting (Chamaerops #28). In fact I have a Ravenea and a Syagrus "pot-planted" in the ground and they do very well. I do disagree with him however about calling these "root-bound" since roots grow through the holes at the bottom of the pot and take up nutrients and water. Truly root bound plants grow at a slower rate than usual. (e.g. I planted 2 individuals of Musa sp. in my back yard; one without a pot and in the ground, the other in a pot and not in the ground (i.e. truly root bound). The first grew to 30 feet in 2 years while the root bound plant grew to only 3 feet during the same time period).
Avoid the temptation to re-pot every year and do so only if absolutely necessary (e.g.; only when the compost level rises above the edge of the pot or this breaks open because of the growing root system. Even then only repot into just a slightly larger pot. Some experts tell us that a root-bound palm can remain like this for several years. However the top layer of soil needs to be replaced annually with fresh material so that the smaller roots responsible for taking up nutrients have space in which to grow. This can be done by carefully scraping away the soil from between the top few centimetres of soil, while avoiding too much damage, and then packing new compost back in between the exposed roots.
Keeping more than one individual of the same species in a pot helps reduce growth rates as well as giving plants a bushy appearance. Use slow release fertilisers, and in limited quantities, just enough that your plants remain a healthy green colour. Bonsai Palms?. - another method that I have used to slow down fast growers is one used in the cultivation of Bonsai and that is to trim roots. During the warm growth seasons I allow a palm to grow roots out of the holes in the bottom of the container.
These roots take up water and nutrients from the pan or soil beneath the pot. However in the following winter I cut off these roots. At this time (Malta, in January) the palm must be dormant otherwise it will probably be killed from shock. The next warm season growth starts slowly and the palm grows new roots through the pot's holes. This method has worked well for Washingtonia spp., Phoenix spp Ravenea rivularis and Syagrus romanzoffiana However I cannot guarantee that other (less tough) palms tolerate this root pruning - so please don't try to prune roots if you do not
want to risk your palms. Many palms have seedlings with simple (and boring) grass-like leaves which all look very similar (e.g. Washingtonia spp, Phoenix spp, Sabal spp. etc.). These seedlings should be grown as rapidly as possible to get into the compound leaf stages. Root-bound and bonsai methods should begin only when you are happy with the shape and size of your plant.

6. If a palm has reached the maximum size that you can allow then there is no other alternative but to give or sell it to someone who can continue to enjoy it. If you had success with that species you should replace it with younger members of the same species. This way you can enjoy growing the palm all over again.


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