How to Care For Palm Trees Indoors & Outdoors: A Complete Guide
Looking to plant some palm trees either in your garden, around your home, or perhaps even consider one as an indoor plant? In this guide, you'll learn all you need to know about how to care for palms, no matter the type! You'll learn about their watering requirements, hardiness zones, soil types, pruning needs, and more!
Palm trees add the perfect tropical touch to a landscape. Their tall, slender trunks and feather-like fronds, which sway gently in the breeze, create the illusion of a beach setting. Sadly, not all areas are endowed with tropical soil; you may need to learn a thing or two about growing and taking care of them.
Proper palm tree care varies depending on the type grown, the location (indoors or outdoors), and the climate. People living in the northern regions, for example, need to grow particular varieties like the cabbage palm and Chinese palm trees and provide special care.
Before looking at how to care for palm trees, we explain the process of selecting a young one and the best place to plant it. In the following guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about their care, both indoors and outdoors.
Choosing a Suitable Variety
As highlighted earlier, palm tree care begins with the proper selection of a species. There are tropical, subtropical, desert species and those that grow in cold-weather regions like Alaska.
Other varieties thrive in moist and dark environments, while others do well in hot climates. Here are popular varieties and where to grow them:
The Best Varieties for Warm Climates
These varieties tolerate heat as most of them are from desert climates or warm Mediterranean climates. They include:
- Date palms: This variety is excellent for commercial use. In the United States, it thrives in sheltered in regions located within USDA zone 8 like California, Nevada, and Arizona
- King Palm: This kind is best grown in warm climates and moderately humid; too much humidity can burn their leaves and cause them to develop brown spots. King Palms also grow pretty fast, hence being best for outdoor use.
- Parlor Palm: This variety is ideal for regions within zones 9-10, i.e. areas with temperatures of -6.7C- 4.4 C. The Parlor Palm doesn’t grow as fast; hence it is great for the indoors.
- Windmill palm: This variety is also great for indoor use because of its slow growth. It’s fan-shaped, has green fronds, and the trunk looks like it has been covered in burlap. This palm thrives best in USDA zones 8-11 (-6.7 C – 10 C)
The Best Varieties for Cold Climates
While most palms thrive in hot areas, some species can tolerate low temperatures. They include:
- Cabbage palm: This is a smaller variety that has a single trunk from where large leaves emerge. It thrives in areas with temperatures of 10-15 C
- Chinese fan palm: This kind is ideal for USDA zones 8-10. It grows slowly and is great for the indoors as a houseplant
- Lady palm: It’s also known as the bamboo palm that grows as a small shrubby evergreen palm. This shade-loving species has fan-shaped leaves and can withstand temperatures of up to 18 C
Buying a Young Tree
Once you have identified the best variety for your region, the next step is to visit the store to purchase a new palm. You want to choose a healthy plant to ensure it thrives. An already stressed or sickly palm makes it difficult to nurture. Signs of an unhealthy tree include:
- Spotted, yellowing, or brown fronds
- If the tree has outgrown the container
- Damaged portions of the trunk
- Signs of insects
If you are planning to grow your palm for indoor use, it’s best to buy seed and plant it in a pot. Unlike Pothos Varieties, palm tree seeds are readily available in flowering trees and seed catalogs, but you can also purchase them from a store.
After choosing the desired palm tree, the next step is to select the appropriate location for planting it. Some seedling stores provide tags that explain the tree’s characteristics and growing requirements. It will highlight:
- The best light conditions
- Whether it has smooth or thorny fronds
- Its height and width
- Whether it has multiple trunks
This information is critical because it determines where and how you position the tree. For example, placing trees that grow multiple trunks close together can deprive them of sufficient nutrients and space. Palm varieties like the Bismarckia Nobilis need lots of space to extend.
Similarly, palms with moderate height but have long fronds also need sufficient space to grow. If using palms for landscaping purposes only, it’s best to consider the aesthetics too.
Planting tropicals and sub-tropicals together, for example, creates visual diversity. A pro tip is to place them on the side of the stone pathways to create a natural canopy.
Knowing the features of young palms also allows you to manipulate them to your advantage. Bangalow palms, for example, are taller than other varieties andlook great when planted behind tropical-looking plants.
While you can plant palms year-round, a study conducted by the University of Florida found that the summer season is the best time to plant them, specifically in Florida. The season has frequent rains reducing the number of times you need to water the trees.
However, cultivators still need to ensure all other requirements are met because palms have unique soil, lighting, temperature, and moisture requirements. Let’s look at each factor.
Palm trees thrive in tropical areas with sandy loam soil. Since not all areas have this type of soil, it’s important to ensure the planting area has the following soil characteristics:
- Soil nutrition: Sandy soils are often potassium-deficient due to leaching. Consider asking an arborist to evaluate all the nutrients to determine if it’s potassium deficient. If so, it’s best to add fertilizer.
- Soil drainage: It also affects the health of your trees. Yards with a high water table or poor water drainage might not be the best because they cause roots to rot. If it is the case, consider mounding the soil to help it maintain a healthy water line. A mixture of organic matter and sandy loam help create a mound that absorbs the excess water.
- Soil PH: Landscape palms thrive in slightly acidic soil. If you aren’t sure about the soil PH, perform a soil test and adjust it to optimize the nutrient availability.
The lighting requirements differ based on the palm you want to plant. Palms that thrive in extremely hot conditions, for example, can’t thrive if planted in shady areas. And if the palm thrives in dark places and is planted in direct sunlight, the leaves burn and brown until they die.
Most palms are native to hot climates, but those grown in mountainous regions need temperatures as low as 40 or 50 F. Knowing the tree variety you’re planting is critical to determining the ideal temperature for its growth.
This is another feature whose requirements depend on the type of palm you’re growing. Palms from desert areas, for example, need to be irrigated once a week, while those from mountainous regions need more moisture, sometimes watering them up to five times a week.
Site Preparation for Planting
Adequate preparation is critical to ensuring your palm thrives wherever it’s planted. Here are steps to guide you:
- Remove all the weed and grass from the area. Be sure to clear an area large enough to keep the lawn equipment from bumping into the trunk.
- Loosen the soil by digging down at least two feet into the soil. The premise is to remove any rocks and clumps to assist the root system in spreading out.
- Dig a wide hole, place the palm’s root ball into the hole, and add/remove the soil. Avoid planting the tree deeper than it was growing and ensure it’s at the same level as the surrounding soil. If planted too deep, the root ball may sink once the soil settles from the weight of the water.
- Then fill the hole with soil (halfway) and water it. The dampness helps settle the soil and remove air pockets.
- Add more soil and ensure the tree isn’t too deep. You may also add a three-inch layer of mulch around the tree as long as it is four inches away from the trunk. If the mulch is spread too close to the trunk, it becomes a breeding area for pests and disease, which can affect the tree.
- Water the area again and ensure the roots are saturated
Planting Palms Indoors
- Choose a suitable container for growing the tree. A 3-5 gallon pot with adequate drainage at the bottom is the best
- If growing it from a seed, place it four inches within a thin layer of soil to sprout. Ensure it gets adequate moisture and warmth to facilitate the process.
- The seed should sprout after two or more months, depending on the variety
- Move the plant to a place with adequate light, add fertilizer, and water it
- Transplant it to a larger pot after it develops sets of leaves.
- Once the tree is pot-bound, transplant it to a larger pot. Instinctively palm trees grown indoors still want to become full-grown trees, but you can slow down growth by ensuring they are pot-bound.
When transplanting the tree, it’s essential to keep the soil moderately moist; not soggy. Excessively wet soil becomes a breeding ground for diseases. Also, ensure the tree is at the same depth it was growing in the original container. Planting too deep creates undue stress on the tree.
You should also choose the potting soil carefully too. While indoor palms aren’t picky, ensure the soil is a loose, porous mix. A combination of leaf mold, peat moss, and shredded bark may come in handy.
Alternatively, buy cactus and palm soil mix, which is specifically designed for growing palm trees. And if you’re one of those people who forget to irrigate plants, it’s best to add peat moss to the potting soil to retain moisture.
How To Care For Palm Trees
Learning how to care for palms requires fairly consistent basic care to keep them healthy and attractive. There are basic steps you’ll need to take in order to ensure your palms enjoy a long, full, and healthy lifespan. The most basic steps include:
The biggest task after planting a palm is to ensure it has sufficient water. Inadequate water can affect its growth, and too much water causes the roots to rot. You may need to water the plant daily depending on the soil, its ability to hold moisture, and the climate.
One of the best things about palms, is their lower watering requirements. They are popular in many Xeriscape Landscape designs as a result of their hardiness and limited water needs.
The rule of thumb is to irrigate deeply, so the water penetrates the roots. The frequency of irrigation reduces as the plant grows. For example, palms aged 1-2 years need 3-4 applications every week while 3-4-year-old trees require 2-3 water applications weekly.
Apart from watering, palms need occasional fertilizer application (3-4 times a year) to boost their growth. However, giving the tree 2-4 weeks to acclimate before applying the fertilizer is essential. The fertilizer should contain all important elements, including nitrogen (2 parts), potassium (three parts), magnesium (one part), and phosphorus (one part).
For indoor trees, it’s best to avoid synthetic fertilizers because they can damage the plant; instead, use organic fertilizer. Fortunately, there are lots of options for organic fertilizers specially designed for indoor trees. Be sure to apply the product during its active growing period, i.e., during summer and spring.
This is one step many people overlook, yet is critical to keeping tree palms neat and safe. Most palm varieties have large fronds which die and fall off as new ones develop. While the dead fronds aren’t detrimental to the tree’s health, an excessive number can lead to magnesium or potassium deficiency. Other reasons for pruning palms are:
- To improve the appearance of the palms.
- To enhance safety. Dead and dying fronds attach weakly to some palms and can cause harm when they fall off tall trees.
- To remove fruit clusters, especially in public areas where falling flower debris can get messy and hazardous. This is true for palms that generate lots of seedlings near the plant.
- To remove sprouts from the base of the trunk.
Indoor palms should be pruned too to maintain their shape and keep them neat. Like outdoor trees, the idea is to remove old palm leaves that turn brown or yellow with age.
If only one or two leaves have turned brown and new foliage is still growing, the brown tips are natural and shouldn’t cause concern. However, if you must prune them to maintain the lovely green foliage, here’s how to do it:
- Gather the supplies (pruning shears or sharp scissors, paper towel, rubbing alcohol)
- Wipe the blades of the pruning shears with alcohol and moisten them with water before cutting to prevent tissue damage
- Cut the leaves that are entirely yellow or brown at the base. If only a part of the leaf is yellow or brown, cut the affected area
Different palm tree varieties have varying sensitivity to cold. While some can handle cold weather for short periods, others get damaged when temperatures hit 45 F. If you have a cold-sensitive palm, it’s best to plant it in a warm microclimate, e.g., in a sheltered courtyard or behind a windbreak, to protect it from the chilly winter winds.
In the case of indoor palms, it’s best to bring them indoors once the winter season sets in or temperatures fall to 50-55 F. Also, don’t be too hasty to take them out during spring. Wait until all the danger of frost passes. And if the tree is too heavy, cover it with a light sheet or blanket to trap heat inside and keep the plant 4 or 5 degrees warmer.
It is a critical after-care step that ensures the palm tree has ample anchorage as it grows. Bracing is preferred to staking because it doesn’t cause the trunk to tear.
Keep in mind, palm trunks are smooth and often develop smaller root balls when grown outdoors. This means the top is heavier than the lower part and prone to toppling during strong winds. Bracing ensures the trunk is stable until the tree re-establishes sufficient roots to remain anchored. Here’s how to do it:
- Look for 2×4 lumber braces and space them around the palm.
- Place their bottom ends far enough from the palms to ensure they provide adequate support during strong winds.
- Fasten the braces to the palm using burlap around the trunk.
- Secure the braces by nailing the braces into small pieces of wood. Avoid nailing into the palms directly.
- Insert a 2×4 stake into the ground at the bottom of each brace and leave them for a year.
Disease & Pest Protection
Palms are susceptible to disease, and identifying infections early is critical to restoring their health. The diseases affect different parts of the plant, including stems, leaves, and the roots of the palm. Common diseases to look out for include:
- Leaf spots: They can often form under the fronds in the form of small water-soaked spots. The spots increase as the disease spreads and can turn black, brown, or gray. The best way to prevent the disease from spreading is to prune the infected fronds and apply a copper fungicide.
- Ganoderma butt rots: This is a deadly fungal disease that affects both indoor and outdoor palm varieties. It attacks the base and spreads to the woody palm tissue, preventing the tree from transporting water to the stem. Since there are no chemical treatments for the disease, it’s best to remove affected stumps, trunks, and root systems before it spreads.
- False smut: The disease is common in palm trees in areas with high humidity. It causes leaves to develop black wart-like structures on both sides. It’s important to remove the severely affected leaves to prevent the disease from spreading.
- Beetles & Other Insects: Beetles, and scorpions can make their homes inside of cut palm branches. Inspect regularly, and consider natural insect repellents to prevent your tree from infestation.
With proper care, palm trees can transform your garden into a tropical paradise. Learning proper care for palm trees helps keep them healthy and beautiful even when not grown in their natural habitat.