Nightmare on Palm Street

One reader's frank rebuttal of Don's Tollefson's last article. Unexpurgated!
Jon Kenaghan, West Sussex, U.K.
Chamaerops No.31 Summer 1998

I have read all of Don Tollefson’s articles in “Chamaerops” and have found them to be interesting, informative and written with great enthusiasm for his subject. Until that is, his latest contribution “Fine Tuned Palm Cultivation” (Chamaerops No. 30). Goodness knows which frequency Don was “Fine Tuned” to when he wrote this particular article but it is NOT on the wavelength of this particular writer! Frankly - it was a total nightmare!

The article covers fungus, fertilisation and fencing. Firstly, Fungus. Don advocates “bud fungicide” and “stem fungicide” and advises us to “carry a spray bottle along with us” when we visit our gardens, and as we “observe each palm, spray its emergent bud....about once a week”. However, healthy palms, especially when planted in such a fabulous climate as Don enjoys, should NOT require such intensive “treatment”. Indeed a well grown palm should be able to “grow away” from minor problems without the need to resort to an arsenal of chemicals. However, I am not a Green Fanatic, and I do recognize that in some cases spraying may be required, but surely they should be the exception and NOT the regular rule. Without knowing the exact chemical nature of Don’s sprays (there being nothing in the U.K. known as “bud” or “stem” fungicide) I will not comment further except to say that anyone who is having to spray on such a regular basis is possibly over watering, over fertilising or doing something else DRASTICALLY WRONG.

Secondly , Fertilising. Don who has apparently gleaned his fertiliser knowledge from “countless Miracle-Grow T. V. commercials” and “reading the label”, goes on to recommend “Miracle Grow”, which I presume is the same general purpose fertiliser (NPK 15:30:15 plus trace elements) marketed here in the U.K. as “Miracle-Gro”.

Don recommends “continuous application” of this fertiliser and implies that this will keep the palms “at their peak”.


This is due to the N/K ratio which tells us that plants require a higher ratio of Nitrate (N) to Potash (K) during the Summer, and the reverse during the Winter.
It therefore follows that more than one fertiliser should be used if you are living in a frost free area or have a heated greenhouse in a frost prone area, i.e. a Summer Feed and a Winter Feed.

By coincidence the very same issue of “Chamaerops” carried an excellent article by Richard Weekly entitled “Palms in the Temperate House, Kew”, and in the final paragraph we learn which fertilisers the (genuine) experts use, and of course they use a Summer Feed and a Winter Feed. The Summer Feed is NPK 19:19:19 and I am convinced that Don will get much better results from this formulation, especially if given the occasional but cautious Nitrate boost from nitrogenous fertilisers such as urea or ammonium nitrate.

The local experts are best though, and may I suggest that Don checks up with his local University (California) where their Agricultural Experimentation Station has, I understand, carried out much research on liquid fertilisers.

Not knowing the precise nature of Don’s local microclimate I cannot comment on the advisability (or otherwise) of a Winter Feed. Again; check with the local experts.

A few tips to members in Temperate areas subject to regular Winter frosts : Use a Summer Feed. Do NOT use a Winter Feed in the garden ( but do use one in moderation in a heated greenhouse, minimum 8°C). Always cease your feed well before the first frosts in autumn, but a small quantity of Potash (in the form of Sulphate of Potash K2S04) may help to “harden” growth.

If you are fortunate to live in a Warm Temperate area with NO Winter frosts then use both a Summer Feed and a Winter Feed.

Wherever you live bear in mind that too MUCH fertiliser is a lot more dangerous than too LITTLE, so play it safe! Over fertilised palms are more vulnerable to pests and diseases (such as fungus!). Over fertilised palms have softer growth and are more vulnerable to frosts. A high level of solute within the stem of a palm will substantially lower its tolerance to frost. You have been warned!
Finally, Fencing.

Don twice mentions the “benefit” of a “solid fence” but here on Planet Earth such structures are liable to cause MORE problems than they solve due to the wind TURBULENCE solid structures create within the garden. Commercial nurseries often use plastic strip or netting but these are not exactly things of beauty! A better, more attractive alternative is a lath fence made of vertical one inch laths screwed to parallel cross supports; the gap between the laths also being one inch. This form of structure will FILTER the wind and give effective lateral protection of 7 to 10 times the height of the wind break. If you MUST use a solid fence or wall do plant shrubs to filter the wind before it hits that barrier. If you cannot plant on the other side of that fence then at least erect some form of trellis on top of the fence to minimise the problem.

My own Golden Rule for growing palms and other exotic plants in any area subject to Winter frosts: HARD AND SLOW’S THE WAY TO GROW - SOFT AND FAST WILL NEVER LAST!


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