Palm Care 101: How to Keep Your Palms Healthy and Happy

By: Ken Wilson

Palms have been a symbol of peace and serenity for centuries, with their elegant fronds and tropical allure, and are a feature in both indoor and outdoor settings in many American homes. There are over 2600 species of palm, some that thrive in hot, dry conditions, others that prefer cooler, shaded spots. Selecting the right palm for your home is the first step, but it’s vital to learn how to keep them healthy and happy.

The question of how to take care of palm trees involves four issues: the amount of sunlight, how much water and what fertilizers are needed, and the soil conditions required to provide the proper nutrition to the plant. A healthy palm needs then to be kept happy with maintenance and bug control.

Palm Care 101 is the basic formula for keeping your palms in tip-top condition, and most of the rules apply to both indoor and outdoor palms. But with the vast number of palm species, you should consult with your local nursery to fine-tune your program specifically for your local conditions and choice of palm.

How to Keep Your Palm Trees Healthy and Happy

Palms are considered low-maintenance plants, but taking a few simple steps will help them flourish in your home or garden.

Check How Much Light Your Palm Tree Needs

Indoor palms generally don’t need or like direct sunlight and do best with dappled light during the day. Indirect light encourages growth, so place the plant near a window but not in full shade. The Parlor palm, e Lady palm, Chinese fan palm, and Areca palm are four species that thrive without direct sun, while the Coconut palm grown indoors well near windows will live happily given six to eight hours of direct sunlight.

Outdoor palms grow best in full sunlight, but newly planted trees might need some time to get acclimatized and be protected during the hottest part of the day.   This protection can be gradually reduced until the palm is fully established. Some palms grow well in partial shade, such as the Rhapis and Dwarf Palmetto, so they are good choices for a shaded corner of the garden.

Be Careful not to Overwater or Underwater

Watering in the right quantities and frequency is essential for indoor and outdoor palms, whether in-ground or in containers. All palms need supplemental water to stay healthy and happy, but exactly how much water is needed depends on the species, where it’s located, the climate, and the container size if it’s in one.

Palms like moist soil, but overwatering will encourage fungal disease and root rot, so it needs to be avoided at all costs. All palms, whether in containers or soil-planted, do best with deep watering, allowing the water to slowly seep into the ground around the roots rather than spraying the foliage.

Watering this way takes time, so installing an irrigation system might be more convenient. It will allow programmed watering times to minimize evaporation, ideally early in the morning or late afternoon. During the rainy season, you should reduce the additional water you provide to prevent overwatering.

Generally, newly planted palms need watering daily for the first week, reducing to three times a week for the next week or two, and finally, twice a week. If the top two inches of soil is dry in the garden or indoors, it’s a good indication that the plant needs water.

Use Organic Fertilizers to Boost Growth

Soil types differ significantly, from sandy desert to loamy, nutrient-rich or clay. Adding fertilizer, particularly to potted palms, ensures the plant receives the right mix of macro- and micro-nutrients. Palms should be fertilized three times a year: in early spring, mid-summer, and fall.

The ideal organic fertilizer will contain equal amounts of potassium and nitrogen and, in addition, one-third of those amounts of magnesium. Granular fertilizer is fine, but care must be taken not to over-fertilize, and never fertilize on dry soil as both can result in plant burn and even kill the palm. Some other precautions include:

  • Don’t allow dry fertilizer to touch the trunk.
  • Don’t throw fertilizer over the crown of the palm – scatter it evenly under the tree’s canopy.
  • Don’t put fertilizer into the hole when planting a tree – wait 45 days after planting for it to establish the root system.

Check the Soil Condition

Soils can vary, not only from area to area but also from street to street. In California, soil conditions range from desert sand to rich and peaty. Florida, which has more palms than any other state, has many areas with poor soil. So, for your palm trees to stay healthy and happy, it might be necessary to work on getting the soil in your garden into the proper condition before planting.

This could mean adding to the soil equal parts loam, peat, and sand to increase its nutritional content and improve its drainage capability. Getting advice from your local nursery, where there is an expert to test your soil sample, will ensure you add the right constituents. If you’re planting into containers, the ideal mix is equal parts of potting soil, sand, and either peat moss or vermiculite.

Have a Maintenance Program for Your Palms

Once they are established, how do you take care of your palm trees? They are generally low-maintenance and pretty hardy, but to keep them looking good, there are a few things you can do apart from the steps we’ve already covered:

  • Pruning: If you cut the central trunk of a palm, it will die. The only pruning that needs to be done is the removal of dead or dying fronds, as they drain nutrition from the tree. If new shoots appear at the base, they should also be removed for the same reason. Pruning old fronds when transplanting a tree will assist in rehabilitation, so it’s OK to do so, but don’t remove any healthy green ones.
  • Pest control: Some of the bugs that may invade your palm, especially if it’s in a moist, humid setting, include mites, mealybugs, aphids, leaf scale, weevils, and caterpillars. Palms that are healthy and happy are less likely to be infected, but you should inspect them regularly for any sign of these pests. Organic treatments include horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps, which should kill all bugs and their eggs if sprayed onto the fronds.

Final Thoughts

There are four basic ways to take care of palm trees: covering the areas of water, sunlight, fertilizing, and soil conditioning.

Palms are easily maintained; keeping them healthy and happy is much easier than many other plant types. The rewards of having these beautiful plants either in your home or planted in the garden far outweigh the effort involved in caring for them. Enjoy them!

About the author 

Ken Wilson

Long time career in the home services industry from remodeling to patio construction. Currently residing to in SWFL and active contributor to multiple home & garden publications.