Pot Planting: The Saga Continues

An update on the most controversial issue to grace these pages.
Don Tollefson, 599 California Ave., Venice, CA 9029, U.S.A.
Chamaerops No.33 Winter 1999

I'd like to report a recent revelation." Pot planting enables the planting of palms the year around. Even during the dead of winter! In some respects, this is nearly as remarkable as pot planting itself. Pot planting is the practice of planting a palm in the ground, "pot and all!" Traditionally, planting a palm during the winter was the kiss of death. Step one, plant the palm. Step two, watch it die! But now, you can obtain a plantable palm during the winter and plant it the same day. The same day! You no longer have to wait until the weather warms up the following spring. Now, any time of the year, successful palm gardening is within the realm of anyone. Even the newest beginner.

I'd also like to report the best formula for successful palm gardening. Pot plant a plantable palm. In the past, successful palm gardening was a complete mystery. Particularly to beginners. When they visited outstanding palm collections they witnessed success. But they didn't have the slightest idea how this success was attained. Not the slightest. Even successful palm gardeners couldn't put their finger on it. Plus, successful palm gardening required at least ten years of trial and error experience. Of the many who embarked, only a handful succeeded. Unfortunately, palm gardening was not a hobby of gardening. It was a hobby of dogged determination and dogged persistence. Not particularly alluring for the patience impaired. Nor for gardeners and backyard green thumbs with gifts of creativity and horticultural proclivity, but lacking intransigent resolve. Palm gardening needn't be the exclusive domain of the boneheaded. It should be for anyone with an affinity for palms. And it easily can be if these simple rules are followed:

"Pot plant" a plantable palm. It's as easy as 1,2,3!

(1) Dig a hole (2) Place the plantable palm in the hole, "pot and all" (3) Backfill and water.

Sound simple? It is. But success begins with a plantable palm. Plantable means that the palm is well grown, outdoor acclimated, five gallon sized and of a species known to survive in your area. The ability to produce a plantable palm requires
years of growing experience and a state of the art greenhouse (or a perfect tropical environment). Producing a plantable palm is better left to speciality palm growers. At least until the beginner becomes an advanced palm gardener. Advanced enough to produce a plantable palm which possesses the following attributes:

Well grown: The palm must be healthy, compact, lush, good sized for the container and quickly grown. If a palm is missing any of these attributes, it will have difficulty surviving the planting transition. Outdoor acclimated: The palm must be "hardened off' to the immediate conditions to which it will be introduced. If not outdoor acclimated, it will perform poorly. Acclimating a palm is a difficult skill to the inexperienced. It makes sense for a speciality palm grower to do this rather than pass this burden on.

Five gallon: This is universally recognized as the ultimate size for pot planting. Palms can be smaller or larger and still succeed. But smaller palms generally suffer from "delayed start up time. This delayed start up time can be as long as four or five years. Larger palms can experience "post greenhouse shrink." This is even worse. It's a non reversible condition in which the trunk of the palm shrinks grotesquely at the point of new growth. Since the perfect size seems to be a five, why not just start with the perfect size? A species that can survive in your area: All of the best growing techniques in the world won't work if the palm is one that cannot otherwise survive.

The final step to successful palm gardening is pot planting the plantable palm. This is left to the enthusiast. The purpose of pot planting is to avoid setback. When a palm is planted traditionally, it always seems to suffer setback. - Why obtain a perfectly grown, perfectly acclimated, perfectly sized palm of a species known to grow perfectly in your area and then traumatise it by planting it conventionally? It would be like sending a strong young adolescent into a rigorous sports competition, but first subjecting her to a near fatal automobile collision. Or like breaking a tiny bird's wings, just as it was attempting its maiden flight from the nest. Don't do it. Pot plant the plantable palm instead. It factors the near fatal automobile collision or the broken wings out of the planting equation. Following is the unabridged version of what is really required for palm gardening success.

Pot plant a plantable palm (It's as easy as 1,2,3)!

(1) Dig a hole (2) Place a well grown, outdoor acclimated, five gallon sized palm of a species known to be cold hardy for your area in the hole, pot and all. (3) Backfill and water.

Sound simple? It is. Pot planting plantable palms has now enabled successful palm gardening by even entry level growers. Beginners with no previous experience, but with the simple goal of planting ten palms during their first year (an entry level palm collection). And increasingly, palm enthusiasts can now obtain plantable palms at affordable prices. These palms are available from at least three, Southern California speciality palm growers (and probably numerous more). Growers who have learned the necessary prerequisites for developing a plantable palm.

The following handout was provided to prospective buyers at the First Annual Los Angeles Area Winter Palm Sale. The sale was held December 05, 1998, in Venice California. Blue Moon Palms, Malibu Palms and Palm Bay Palms collaborated to provide a large and varied selection of plantable palms. All of the palms had four things in common. You guessed it! They were well-grown, outdoor acclimated, five gallon size and of a species known to be cold hardy for the area. Only the final step, pot planting the plantable palms (as soon as they arrived home or the following day), was left to the palm enthusiasts.

From reading the handout you can quickly see the emphasis on pot planting. It has been discussed throughout the palm world for the past two years. The subject has even been aired frequently on the internet. Each month, more palm enthusiasts join the fray. Many in support. Some in disagreement. Personally, I believe pot planting to be the most significant advancement in temperate climate palm gardening since the greenhouse. It is specifically beneficial to new palm society members (beginners). In the past, all sizes and species of palms were sold to this unwitting group. Most of these palms were then planted in the traditional manner. Sound like a formula for disaster? It was. The following year, less than one in ten of these victims would return for more abuse. The rest gave up. The few that remained were those who probably would rather have belonged to "the persistence, disappointment, frustration and sadism society." Lost were many talented and creative, "would have been" palm gardeners. Lost also, were their many, exquisite, sub-tropical palm collections that should have adorned the Southern California landscape. Lost, needlessly forever, in an ongoing, yearly misadventure that was pushing palm gardening toward the bottom rung of the horticultural ladder.

Fortunately, that has all changed. And almost overnight. It has changed because pot planting plantable palms has become a mainstream palm gardening technique. Ironically, it's the beginners who paved the way. Two years ago, Pauleen Sullivan and I first reported the benefits of pot planting plantable palms. It's an understatement to say the concept was poorly received. Experienced growers considered it repugnant (with the notable exceptions of Mardy Darian and John Tallman, both of whom had pot planted for years). Fortunately, many beginners were not so jaded. In fact, pot planting plantable palms made perfect sense to them. And it was beginners who embraced pot planting most enthusiastically. So for the first time, beginners attained some of the highest levels of success in palm gardening history. Gone are the days when a 60% palm survival rate was considered excellent. Now, by pot planting plantable palms, many beginners are reporting palm survival rates of over 90%. Several have not yet lost a single palm. And they consistently reported that most of their palms grew continuously and robustly through their first winter. With no sulking! Obviously, palms growing continuously and robustly will fare much better than palms that have merely managed to remain alive. They are also far better to look at and enjoy. Read the following handout. And remember, it was for palm enthusiasts purchasing plantable palms, three weeks before Christmas.

Can I Plant My Palms Today?

Yes or no? Absolutely. Blue Moon Palms, Malibu Palms and Palm Bay Palms sell plantable palms that are outdoor acclimated and ready for planting. Today, tomorrow or anytime in the future. No surprises such as a palm "taking a hit," because it just came out of a greenhouse. All the palms on sale today have been growing outdoors for several weeks or months. They should have no difficulty in our climate so long as they are "pot planted" and protected from cold winter wind.

Pot planted? That's right. And protected from cold winter wind. Pot planting is a relatively new concept in which the palm is planted in the ground, pot and all. It's as easy as 1,2,3. 1. Dig a hole. 2. Place the plantable palm in the hole, pot and all! 3. Backfill and water.

What does pot planting do? It's not what it does. It's what it doesn't do. It doesn't cause a palm to set back when it's planted in the ground. For some reason, palms always seem to set back when they are removed from their containers and planted in the ground. And it can be drastic. Often a palm even shrinks in size. This setback is the major limitation to palm gardening. The process, termed "sulking," normally continues for one to three years. If a palm sulks, it's not strong and healthy and prepared for its first winter. Unfortunately, the first winter is the major obstacle to successfully introducing a palm outdoors. If a palm does poorly during that first winter it will often die. Or if it lives, it will generally "lag." Once a palm lags, it rarely catches up. Conversely, if it does well, there's no looking back. The secret to successful palm gardening is simple. No pot removal, no setback.

Isn't pot planting a bit like taking a bath with your shoes on? Yes. But you get over it when your palms explode with exuberant growth the following spring.

What do I do with the part of the pot that shows? You can cut off the part that shows or you can just look at it. It's perfect to catch and hold water. And you don't need to water outside the pot. Just inside. It's an excellent water conservation method. Typically a palm can scrape by with only a gallon or so of water.

Can I pot plant in the winter? Absolutely. A major benefit of pot planting is that you can now plant properly acclimated palms in the winter. In the past, traditional winter planting (removing a palm from the pot and planting it in the ground) was the kiss of death. But if pot planted, the palm doesn't skip a beat. It continues to grow just as if it were still in a growing area. Winter has now become an excellent time to plant palms. Arguably the best time to pot plant is during the late winter, right after the cold winter winds have subsided. This is because during winter, the sun is not so intense that it can easily burn palm fronds. Unquestionably, the most frequent error committed by "advanced" palm gardeners is sunburning newly planted palms. Winter pot planting prevents this by providing more than six months for a palm to establish and acclimate to summer. This also removes the necessity of providing shade protection. Another essential consideration when planting during the summer.

Should I slit the sides or remove the bottom of the pot? The jury's still out. The one thing for sure is that 'lust plain" pot planting works. However, many palm enthusiasts are experimenting with pot planting variations. The future will no doubt yield substantial information in this area.

Does pot planting work in all climate zones? I don't know. And this could be very important. Most experience is in winter wet, summer dry, Southern California. If you're a palm gardener from another climate, you must make your own determination. However, pot planting would most likely be beneficial anywhere (or in any instance) that palms set back due to traditional planting. The operative concept is "setback avoidance." It's simple and basic. Setback is devastating and pot planting avoids it. Even in a warm climate, palms outperform their litter mates that have been setback. Each grower must determine individually whether setback occurs to her palms. It's easy enough. After you plant a palm conventionally, mark the emergent spike with a felt marking pen where it penetrates the lower leaf sheath. Then check for growth daily or weekly. Does it continue to grow or does it sit and sulk (or even shrink in size)?

Do you have a favoured method of pot planting? Yes I do. I love to pot plant without backfilling. I allow a little dirt to fill back in each time I water. This nearly duplicates the condition of a palm sitting on top of the ground. Everyone has seen the explosive growth that occurs when such a palm connects with Mother Earth. I wait until after I witness that explosion. Then I complete the backfill. It's a fool proof system.

You emphasised avoiding cold winter wind? Yes. And this is so extremely critical that I can't emphasise it enough. Although pot planting gets most of the attention, protection from cold winter wind is even more important. This is because cold winter wind is even more adverse to successful palm gardening than traditional planting. Wind and wind-chill effect a palm just as it does a human. Exponentially! Cold wind can easily lower your growing level a zone or two. If cold winter wind is prevalent, you must counteract it. Either with wind barriers (fences, shrubs, trees etc.) or by growing the palm to a larger size before planting it. For instance, from the recommended five gallon size to perhaps a ten or fifteen. Likewise, a five gallon palm, pot planted in a windy location, is like planting a one gallon in a non windy location. So don't concentrate on setback avoidance (pot planting) and overlook the even more important aspect of protecting the palm from cold winter wind. Is there an easy method of wind protection. Yes, there are several. One popular method is to position "windbreak objects" between the palms and the direction of the prevailing winter wind. Throughout the world (northern and southern hemisphere), cold winter winds arrive from the north to northeast. This is due to the counter clockwise rotation of the earth and its atmospheric reaction between its large land masses and its large water masses. Windbreak objects can be items such as barrels, boxes, larger potted plants, or shade cloth attached to lodge poles. Anything that can serve quickly as a windbreak. A solid fence is best. And don't be concerned with the marginal impact of wind turbulence. It's the ongoing, cold blasting wind that is damaging. A sure-fire method is to plant palms up against the south side of a solid north wall or fence. Don't be afraid to use shade cloth either. A 70% shade cloth will diminish a ferocious, 100 mph gale to a 30 mph breeze. Allow the windbreak to remain until the palm becomes equivalent to a good sized fifteen gallon. Even larger if possible. This could require a couple of years or more. By then, the palm is established and has the mass and hardness to endure the wind. And it will have grown much faster then it would have had it remained in a container. Remember, cold survival is a species thing. Wind survival is a size thing. Make certain that your palm gardening limitation is cold and not wind. The two are easily confused.

Don Tollefson is the Los Angeles Area Chairman of the Southern California Palm Society. He offers < The Diamond Lane Guide to Growing Palms > for $29.95 plus $2.95 shipping and handling ($32.90 domestic, $33.90 foreign) California residents add $2.47 for tax ($35.37). Send orders to 599 California Avenue, Venice, CA 90291.


  03-02-23 - 08:13GMT
 What's New?
 New palm book
 Date: 24-05-2004

An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms
by Robert Lee Riffle, Paul Craft.
 New: Issue 48
 Date: 24-05-2004
Chamaerops 48
has been published in the Members Area.
 Archive complete!
 Date: 03-12-2002
All Chamaerops issues can now be found in the archive: More than 350 articles are on-line!
 Issues 13 to 16
 Date: 28-08-2002
Chamaerops mags 13, 14, 15 and 16 have been added to the members area. More than 250 articles are now online!
 42 as free pdf-file
 Date: 05-08-2002
Free Download! Chamaerops No. 42 can be downloaded for free to intruduce the new layout and size to our visitors
 Issues 17 to 20
 Date: 23-07-2002
Chamaerops mags 17, 18, 19 and 20 have been added to the members area. Now 218 articles online!
 Book List
 Date: 28-05-2001
Take a look at our brand new Book List edited by Carolyn Strudwick
 New Book
 Date: 25-01-2001
'Palmen in Mitteleuropa'
by Mario Stähler
This german book tells you all about how to cultivate your palms in Central Europe. more...