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.
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
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
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
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.
13-12-19 - 04:45GMT
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