Starting Out

Literally starting from scratch, Nick describes how he began with an empty plot and is transforming it into a tropical oasis....
Nick Sharp, 40 Barclay Court, 1 Ikeston, Derby, 0E7 9HJ UK
Chamaerops No.33 Winter 1999

Cover up: Winter protection, before & after, using ready to wear covers.

As I write this letter, I wonder: will my Chamaerops journal arrive tomorrow?.. .I would like to begin by thanking everyone who has shared their knowledge and experiences which enable hardy palm sceptics like myself to gain confidence and grow a Palm collection out of doors.

It was June '93, Marisca (my wife to be) and I, had just moved into a new house. The first thing on the agenda was the back garden. It sloped away from the house, a one metre drop over twelve metres of heavy clay, Marisca decided, (oh sorry! WE decided) that a flat garden would look better. This meant building a one metre high, fifty metre long retaining wall around the garden.

After it was constructed, I made a series of drainage holes at the base, which connected to a network of land drain pipe running up into the middle of the garden. All this was then back filled with gravel. I tried to improve the soil with six tons of stable manure, which would, when finished, become the subsoil. A further sixty tons of topsoil brought the ground up to the required height, and was allowed to settle for six months, this gave me time to think about planning and what to plant. I suppose at this point I should mention that I had very little knowledge of plants.... any kind of plant!!

Have you ever tried to remember the precise moment you became hooked on Palms? Was it a gradual thing? Or did it happen very quickly? I was in and out of garden centres every weekend, and it was on one of those visits that I think the message finally got home. There were large specimens of T. fortunei, Chamaerops humilis P. canariensis, tree ferns, Bamboos and Agaves WOW ! Then of course I asked all the usual questions, "Will these grow in this country? Are they hardy?... Is that the real PRICE?" I was sceptical about the hardiness and the price, but they looked GREAT! I was cautious and only purchased a book, "Palms of the World" by Alec Blombery & Tony Rodd.

Now, where could I find someone who grew those plants and was willing to give the correct information? I now noticed many Garden Centres sold at least one of these palms, (T. fortunei). But information was not always positive, most said they would survive, but needed protection during winter.

Visiting a particular retailer several times during the winter, I observed that the palms were being kept outdoors with no protection, and we had experienced some fairly low temperatures. By the Spring, all the P. canariensis and several Agaves were dead. On the positive side, the Trachys, Chamaerops and tree ferns weren't! To me this was very exciting!! The following summer I had great problems with keeping my wallet closed. Strange, they didn't feel so expensive anymore. So I bought three Trachys, two Chamaerops, (one large one) a Cordyline, tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) and a selection of bamboo's (Phyllostachys species). I was very happy!! But where could I find more information?

I must have been blessed the day I happened to see a Trachycarpus-lined driveway, while driving not far from home. The house was surrounded by tall trees and hidden from view. I was standing at the foot of the drive, with two large wrought iron gates in front of me, all I could see ware TRACHYS!! Dozens of them, from two to ten metres high or more with underplantings of various sorts. Walking halfway down the drive, then back again. I couldn't contain my excitement. I was overwhelmed just walking amongst them. I took a deep breath and walked towards the house, if he sets the hounds on me, then so be it! With relief I was greeted with a smile by Paul Carnill who gladly offered to show me around. This was the first time I'd seen anything like this, Butia's, Chamaerops, Phoenix and tree ferns to name just a few. Apparently he'd been growing palms for over twenty years, and had developed a huge collection in what could be two acres of land. Perhaps aware of my enthusiasm, he asked if I'd been to the "Palm Centre". PALM CENTRE?? PALM SOCIETY?? All this in one day.

The introduction to the "E.P.S." and" the Palm Centre" felt as good as meeting Marisca for the first time, (joke). I couldn't believe how many different palms could be tried here in sunny old England, and the more I read, the more interested I became, especially by articles from Robert Lackner of Austria. Now if he can grow palms in his temperatures anyone can!

My first winter 1995 I protected the Chamaerops, tree fern and Cordyline with only plastic shade netting, draped over the top and pinned to the ground. Sorry, I kept no record of day to day temperatures, only being a novice I had not yet realised that being an expert in weather conditions came as part of the job. I know it was bitterly cold from late December with drying frosts of -6.5 deg C. over several nights and remaining below freezing during the day. North-east winds blew until early June. Most of the leaves on my bamboos had been burnt off, but everything else was fine, the Chamaerops even grew a little. I later learned that the winter had been exceptionally bad with a higher quantity of Cordylines and Phormiums dying than usual.

New palms for spring/summer '96 were three more Trachys, a small Rhapidophyllum, a large Butia capitata, two small clumps of Chamaedorea radicalis, a Washingtonia robusta, a small Arenga engleri and a Sabal minor.
The winter of 96/97, (only Chamaerops and Butia protected ! ) I tied up the leaves and used straw around the top of trunks. In my opinion, for the palms not a great idea. Although a good insulator it looked very untidy and held moisture, preventing the crowns from drying out. With a fear of fungal infection I had to change the dressing four or five times during mild weather, each time allowing the plants to dry out. With lows of only the occasional -6 deg C. not much snow, but a lot of wind and rain I am happy to report no fatalities. My only two losses were through being dug up and placed in the bin. I know that sounds harsh, and I DO love palms!! And looking back maybe I was a little hasty with my decision. Plants adapt and change slightly to the conditions that they are planted in. A palm cultivated indoors will grow differently from one planted out. For example, leaves could be sunburnt when placed out, they could even change size. Anyway, the Arenga and Washingtonia leaves were badly damaged by wind, snow and frost, in fact there was nothing left, even the centre spear was looking a little browned off! And not having the patience of Robert Lackner. ..I binned them. The Sabal minor also suffered, this plant only produced one new leaf that year, so it was living on the edge. The Butia grew slowly through the winter, which was great, and the Chamaedoreas which burned a little by the sun, even though planted in the shade, did fantastically!! The leaves have now became very dark and stiff. Beautiful!

New palms for spring/summer 97 were T. wag, Trithrinax acanthocoma, Jubaea chilensis, Brahea armata, Chamaerops var. cerifera and a Chamaedorea microspadix...and a Serenoa repens, and a medium sized Rhapidophyllum.
During a holiday in Rhodes in the Autumn of '96 I noticed that the gardeners were planting palms, I'll try to describe how. They were planted in raised mounds with the soil dug away around to form a small trench. When watering they filled up the trench, and walked on to the next plant. The base of the palms trunk being on top of a mound wouldn't sit in water. I started planting palms like this at home, with the idea that water quickly drains away from the trunk, but still allows me to water well and control the feed. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't! But understand the trenches I've made are not BIG trenches, the palm doesn't sit in a huge puddle of water all winter. Luckily my garden does drain well, it would have helped if from the start if I had known what 1 was going to plant, I could have dug in twenty tons of grit 1 have to add this now when planting, along with a coarse compost and super phosphate mixed with the garden soil, to help with root establishment. That's all the feed they get for the first year.

Before I get to the winter of 97/98, I have to mention a loss during the summer! I wanted to group plant Serenoa repens so I bought one to see how it faced a winter. Without any thought I carefully planted it in a prime position, full sun. After one or two weeks each leaf, one by one shrivelled up and died, then the centre spear shrivelled and pulled out. We had not experienced high temperatures, maybe mid twenties max. I put it down to severe sun burn, remembering the same symptoms with the Chamaedoreas. I dug it up and began to investigate I pulled the crown to pieces to see if it was dead, (yes I know that's like dunking the witch in the lake, if she drowns she's innocent) only to reveal a new centre leaf!

Something else I've tried, which I hope doesn't make Don Tollefson of California cringe and think I'm something of an moron I've stripped a Trachy, or two! I did think about it, long and hard, worrying about this affecting the hardiness, after all they don't wear jackets for nothing! All I can say is that I was very careful, starting at the base of the trunk, I found using a junior hacksaw with a fine blade best. This gave me much control preventing the cuts being too deep around the leaf sheath. Covering the white trunks with a layer of newspaper for three weeks stops any burning (this MUST be done) after which revealing a beautiful green colour. I must also mention that maybe spraying afterwards with a fungicide would be recommended. After reading Don's article in Chamaerops no.30, "Fine Tuned Palm Cultivation." I felt like running outside into the garden clutching a spray gun. Is this the answer to why after growing a healthy palm for a number of years, the centre rots and pulls out?

It is stated in every palm book that I've read that mulching is very important, "Its presence on the soil surface greatly reduces the stresses which plants experience during hot, dry weather" (Palms Throughout the World. David L. Jones). In October 97, I laid out fifteen tons of five to ten millimetres granite chippings over a weed suppressing membrane, called Plantex. This covered the entire soil surface at 7.5cm deep. I hoped that this would also be beneficial in reflecting precious light during the dark winter months, (seven hours daylight) which it seems to do. It was surprising how much it opened up the planting area, giving the impression of more space so I can buy more plants! Then, maybe there is a benefit of heat retention and preventing frost penetration along with keeping the soil moist giving a better draining soil.

With the remaining Plantex I had an idea, winter protection for the plants! I wanted something that was neat, quick and easy to fit, could easily be removed during mild weather and held no moisture. It kept the plants dry and of course protected from frost and wind but still allowed the plants to breathe.. .The answer, Plantex bags?? These were made on the sewing machine, they had a Velcro opening down one side and an elastic drawstring at the open end to tie around the trunk. For the larger plants such as the Butia, we made a sleeve. Again with a Velcro opening down one side, but open at each end with an elastic drawstring. The protection was made for Brahea armata, Trithrinax acanthocoma, Jubaea chilensis, Butia, two tree ferns and a Phoenix species given to me by Paul Carnill in September 97. This plant was about 1.5 metres high with the leaves, grown from seeds which he had collected from Crete, thought to have been P. theophrastii At first the bags were made of two thicknesses, later this proved not quite enough.

Winter 97/98 came early at the end of October with two nights of-5 deg. C and hung around freezing during the day. I usually start tying up palms in the middle of November, so only the tree ferns were protected. I had packed fallen leaves into the crown, and this is probably enough. But I really wanted to save the fronds, I've seen pictures of tree ferns in Cornwall with huge thick crowns, and having nice green fronds in March starts the year nicely. Those two nights were a good test, the bags weren't quite good enough. Also, the tall thin one loses its fronds to frost more readily than the short fat one, does this mean fat ones are hardier? The palms were ok, only the Trithrinax suffered with about thirty per cent leaf bum. The rest of the winter, temperature-wise was GREAT, mild with only the occasional frosts. Strong weather fronts came in from the west which brings warmer air, and with it gale force winds and LOTS of rain. The highest rainfall for over ten years I believe, with major flooding in many areas during April. Everything went through the winter unprotected, I didn't even tie anything up. I was caught out one day in January were we had a light snow fall not forecast. But all was Ok.

New palms for spring 96 were a large Rhapidophyllum, the other two that I'd bought previously were looking very well, two new leaves from each crown a year and the smallest was growing more suckers. A large Phoenix canariensis, hardiness I believed to be suspect, although the one previously given to me survived the winter unprotected, albeit a mild one. So I decided to give it a try, and known to be a fast grower made things more interesting. I also, after reading the article, "Pot Planting" by Don Tollefson POT PLANTED IT! Watering could have given me a problem, so before the hole was back filled I pushed a short length of piping about two centimetres in diameter down on the inside of the pot, and made this flush with the soil surface so it couldn't be seen. A hose can be left trickling into the pipe whenever the plant needs watering. I know that the ideal size was a rootbound five gallon, and the Phoenix must have been a rootbound fifteen or twenty gallon, (sixty one centimetres in diameter pot) but if this method helps to limit shock then I'm going to give it a try. Due to pressure from 'her indoors' a number of seedlings were also planted out, (pot planted) a Trithrinax campestris in a one gallon pot, Wallichia densiflora a fifty centimetre high specimen, Trachycarpus martianus, T. oreophilus, T. latisectus, T nanus, Caryota himalaya, Dypsis decipiens and a Ceroxylon ventricosum The Dypsis and Caryota have been protected all year by a glass cold frame with a removable lid. I made this by sticking four panels of glass together with silicone. The idea was taken from Don's "post planting techniques".

For sun and temperature we had a bad summer, four hot days in May the maximum recorded 31 deg. C. and there was two or three days in August. The rest, cloudy skies and rain with temperatures lying in the early to mid twenties. Now in December the minimum temperature so far has been -3 deg C. for several nights. The lowest I've recorded during the last three years has been -6.5 deg C. Usually cold spells last about two weeks in the middle of winter hovering around freezing, we may get three or four spells a year which decrease in duration and severity. But then there's the EXTREMES!

The gravel mulch I believe has made a HUGE difference in establishing my plants. Not just the palms, everything has grown faster for longer this year. The T. wag flowered in March, followed a month later by T. fortunei, I lost count of the leaves produced. The thickest and tallest calms produced up to date on the bamboo, the largest fronds produced on the tree ferns, smaller ferns such as Blechnum nudum and discolour grew ok without mulch but with it have grown incredibly well. The Chamaerops, including var. cerifera have flowered this year and growing very well, the largest trunk on the green one has grown twenty five centimetres in three years. Chamaedorea radicalis looks fantastic, flowering for the first time this year, microspadix suckering and flowering this year. Rhapidophyllum a slow grower but looks healthy, the first one planted producing new suckers. I'm very pleased with my Butia capitata which produces almost one leaf through the winter and five more in summer, growing at its best in August.

As you know in its first winter the leaves on my Trithrinax acanthocoma were burnt by frost and damaged by the wind, it's been moved twice with the result of only growing three leaves this year.

A hole was found in the small trunk of my Brahea armata after purchase, it was just below the soil surface about 2.5 cm wide and 2.5 cm deep containing dry decaying tissue and insects that would be expected in such a place. This isn't going to survive its first winter I thought. Advised to clean the hole I scraped everything out until reaching live solid tissue, then sprayed in lots of fungicide and gave it a good powdering for the insects. Before planting it in the way described earlier I filled the hole with a substance called Arbitax, this is used to coat exposed wood after pruning but can be mixed with sand to fill cavities. No ill effects so far, four new leaves the first year and SIX the second.

The large 'pot planted' Phoenix canariensis had no sudden surge of growth this summer which was disappointing, the crown holds four new emerging leaves at once which had only little movement The unknown Phoenix started to move at the end of the year with two new leaves much stiffer than the previous As expected slow growth from my Jubaea, a lovely palm producing two new leaves a year. ...can't wait for next year!

Perseverance has paid off with my Sabal minor as the leaves appear to be a little more frost resistant and the plant grows two new leaves a year not one. Deciding to group plant this palm should give a better effect as it only carries four good leaves.

The seedlings, T. martianus (five centimetre trunk) The nursery grown leaves are damaged and are looking untidy the two leaves produced outside this year look great. T. latisectus three leaf seedling, all leaves grown this year outside, -3 deg. and not a scratch! T. oreophilus seedling three leaves a year again no damage, the new leaves are surprisingly stiff twenty five centimetres long and two centimetres wide, thank goodness its changing in appearance I thought that Martin Gibbons had sold me T. miscanthus by mistake (joke). T. nanus a two leaf seedling planted amongst grass and no frost damage. Ceroxylon ventricosum suffered after the first frosts and now the centre has pulled out. All the leaves brown and shrivelled on Wallichia densiflora and the protected Caryota 'himalaya', however, they both feel firm and I'm hoping that they'll be growing back in the summer, especially the Caryota I know its not the smartest thing to do, planting seedlings outside but I was hoping it would be a little stronger. Maybe the leaves were weak, I did have problems with red spider mite on both plants, trying a number of different chemicals including malathion which seemed to have no effect. How does a seedling of, for example Caryota 'himalaya' survive its first winter frosts in its natural habitat? On a good note the Dypsis decipiens was untouched by -3 deg C. under its glass cold frame, and suffered only very minor damage unprotected for one night at the same temperature. What pleased me the most is the absolutely unprotected Trithrinax campestris, grown two leaves outside during summer and suffered no damage whatsoever. ..so far!

I had to adjust the Plantex bags this year, before only having two layers of Plantex We've now sewn on the inside a layer of "Envirofleece 60" which is a strong heavy grade polypropylene fleece. So far the fronds on the Dicksonia's have been untouched by -3 deg C. Let me remind you again the only palms protected during the worst weather are Butia capitata, Brahea armata, Jubaea chilensis, Trithrinax acanthocoma, and Phoenix. The leaves on the Chamaerops are only tied, with two layers of Plantex wrapped loosely around.

To end, I thank Martin Gibbons, a pioneer who has achieved what most of us only dream about. Travelling the world discovering new and lost species and bringing them back for us to try in the comfort of our homes and gardens. Making it possible for many people to share an interest and learn from each other, none of which would have been so easy without such a person.

 

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