How Should I Protect My Palms In The Winter?

A timely reminder of how to look after your 'babies' in the coming months.
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre, London, UK
Chamaerops No.32 Autumn 1998

Woops! Just a bit too late with the winter protection. However, Trachy's will suerly recover.

After the confidence of spring and summer many of us start to ask the same question at this time of the year. Here is a guide to what to do to look after palms outside during the cooler months.

Palms outdoors in small and medium pots are best brought into the protection of a shed, garage or unheated room for the winter. If none of these is available then at least move them to the lee side of the house to protect them from north and east winds. Larger plants in big pots which cannot be easily moved should be treated as palms in the ground.

Small palms in the ground can be completely covered during the coldest weather, by literally burying them under a pile of dry, dead leaves. It's easy to remove this during mild spells and will successfully keep off the wind and the weather. They seem not to object to being in the dark for a few weeks at a time, but do uncover them when weather conditions allow.

With the exception of proven 'hardies' such as Trachycarpus and Chamaerops, medium and large palms in the ground should have their leaves tied loosely together with garden netting or string, and should then be wrapped in an old blanket or hessian held in place with clothes pegs. If you feel that the plant cannot support the weight of a blanket (especially if wet) then knock 2 or 3 bamboo canes into the ground around the plant to take the weight. Bubble plastic can create condensation and should be avoided. A plastic cover over the top of this will keep off the rain, but leave the bottom open so that air can circulate. Rot probably kills more palms than cold. Again, this simple covering can be removed during mild periods.

At the same time, the ground around the base of the plant should be covered to a depth of a foot or more with some kind of mulch: dead leaves, wood chips, chopped bark etc. to keep the ground from freezing.

The above, simple protection measures are usually all that is required for average cold-hardy palms in average winters, but if severe weather threatens or if your palms are more tender to cold, then something more elaborate can be considered. Semi-permanent structures can be built to enclose your palms and should be prepared well in advance. These usually consist of constructions of timber covered with a double layer of polythene, one stapled to the inside of the frame and one to the outside. The top should be sloping so that rainwater will be shed. The palm will be snug in here for the entire winter if necessary. In extreme cases, an electric fan beater can be slipped underneath and set to keep the temperature just frost free. However, electricity in the garden can be dangerous so such an arrangement should be carried out by a qualified electrician.

Don't be alarmed by reference to electric beaters and permanent structures for protection. In most cases, simple shelter from the elements is all that is required, and then only for the coldest periods of the winter, typically two or three weeks a year. It seems a shame not to carry out these simple precautions and to leave the palm to take its chances. Half an hour's work can make all the difference during those coldest two weeks and your palm will then be there for you to enjoy for the remaining 50.

Damage by cold usually does not show up for a few weeks after the event, and is usually apparent by the centre spear rotting and coming away with a slight tug. Larger plants have 2 or 3 further spears 'in reserve' as it were and the loss of the centre spear does not necessarily mean the loss of the plant. However, some quick thinking and first aid may well mean the difference between life and death. If the very centre spear pulls out leaving an evil smelling hole, pour in a strong mixture of Benlate or other fungicide, then cover the plant to prevent the ingress of rain. If more than the centre pulls out and it starts to look really serious, proceed as follows: Take a sharp saw and cut off the top of the plant, including all the leaves. Cut further slices off until you are down to solid wood, OR scoop out the centre rot with a spoon and pour in the Benlate. Keep the plant dry, and your fingers crossed. Many apparently 'dead' palms have been saved by this prompt action.


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