Seasonal Palm Growing

Nicolas Cock's experiences, trials, hopes and dreams about growing hardy palms.
by Nicholas Cock, Southend on sea, Essex
Chamaerops No.38, published online 31-08-2000

Geonoma weberbaueri, at 2900 m in Ecuador.

Palms in the winter

It‘s been almost 3 years now since I was "bitten by the bug" and took the first step of purchasing my first palm, a Dypsis Lutescens, which was summarily executed due to my lack of experience. I have, however, bounced back since those dark days and can now happily boast almost 100 palms in my collection, of every conceivable shape and size. It was about a year before I found out that there were mad men and women out there growing palms in their gardens, even over the winter. I decided to investigate further, which leads me to where I am today. I have developed the obsession of leaving these poor defenceless plants to the mercy of the weather and carefully recording exactly what effect our winter climate has on them, sometimes with unexpected results.

To start with I was dubious about leaving any palms in the garden--going out and spending a few hundred pounds on plants just to see them zapped into oblivion was not exactly my idea of enjoyable gardening--but once the palmophile comes out in you, you begin to notice palms that have been growing in your neighbourhood, right under your nose, many of them years old, and so I thought to myself, why not? I live in Southend on sea (South Essex riviera!!!) where I personally believe we have the best that the weather has to offer, especially when it comes to palm growing. Our yearly precipitation is the lowest in the UK, we have some of the highest summer temperatures, and winter temperatures don‘t drop too low. This past winter saw an absolute low of -4°C, and we only had to suffer a few nights of below 0 temperatures. Granted we don‘t get the full effect of the Gulf Stream that the South West gets, but, no offence to its people, it‘s too wet there! I feel the River Thames helps keep temperatures a degree or so higher, so I‘m in no rush to move.

Although still a "beginner" by a lot of people‘s accounts, I‘ve learned a tremendous amount over the last couple of years. The question of cold hardiness in palms is one of the subjects that fascinates me the most. The internet and various magazines are crammed full of information regarding hardiness and growing zones that our American cousins seem to covet so much, but I think here in the UK and Europe we have to look at things a different way. Technically where I live is situated in Zone 9 (which means a minimum winter temperature of -1 to -6°C), and being that -5°C is usually our absolute minimum, we feel that we can firmly place ourselves in that zone. However, compare that to another Zone 9 area such as Central and most of Southern Florida, and it doesn‘t take an expert to work out that there is no comparison when it comes to climate. Although Florida can get several degrees of frost overnight, this is usually followed by day temperatures of 15-20°C; in other words, back to the conditions palms are used to growing in.

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