The Plant Doctor: Even in winter’s cold, palm trees can grow

By Harvey Goodman

Palms in the winter???

My thoughts exactly. Palm trees and banana trees seem to be ideally suited for tropical environs such as Florida. The combination of temperature, humidity and ample rain are idyllic for what many gardeners consider a rather delicate plant.

There are many species of palm plants sold in nurseries, but almost always in the houseplant section. The thought of leaving these fragile beauties out of doors during our winter season would be interpreted as a sign of herbal insanity.

To the rescue enters Steven Rosenthal of Bayside — a dental technician with a flare for growing the unusual in a very atypical environment. I learned about Steve’s hobby indirectly from a letter he sent to me about the agricultural zone in our area. In the letter he indicated that he has been successful in growing several species of palm that were hardy enough to survive the winter season.

Taking advantage of his extended hospitality, I visited his urban garden, and discovered indeed that one is very capable of providing an accommodating ecosystem for palms, even in the Northeast.

You begin by selecting a hardy palm. How hardy is hardy? The question poses some real difficulty in answering, primarily because there are several different kinds of cold that a plant can experience. To name but a few — gradual, sudden, dry, wet, windy, brief protracted. Regardless of the type of cold, there are several guidelines that you may wish to adopt when attempting to set up a palm garden.

Choose a sheltered spot if you can. Steve selected several locations that were close to the building, thus shielding the plants from wind, excessive sun and other less than desirable environmental conditions.

South facing is best. The warmer conditions, some 10 to 15 degrees warmer than a northern exposure, will benefit the plant.

Be prepared to cover the plants with a Hessian or any old basket in the event of a sudden cold snap. The blankets can then be removed once the cold weather has subsided.

Plants should not be planted outside until the roots have filled a 5 or 6-inch pot. This is best accomplished in a greenhouse or indoors.

Before purchasing a palm, ask the nursery if they have been hardened. Palms, even the ones recommended which have been kept in a greenhouse, will probably not survive a drastic change in temperature.

The ground around the base of the plant should be covered to a depth of a foot or more with some kind of mulch: dead leaves, wood chips, chipped bark. Mulching will prevent the ground from freezing. Small palms can be completely covered during the winter. A blanket of dead leaves can provide adequate protection from the elements. Apparently, palms can survive a few weeks without sunlight. However, remove a portion of the leaf cover whenever the weather becomes tolerable.

Semi-permanent structures made of wood and polythene can provide protection for sensitive palms in even the most difficult winters. The structure is usually composed on timber covered with a double layer of polythene, one stapled to the inside of the frame, the other to the outside. A sloping top will allow rainwater or snow to be shed.

Hardy bananas, most of which may be too large to cover completely, can be treated this way: Simply cut the leaves off, leaving a few inches of stalk. Then wrap the whole thing with a blanket.

Steve’s garden lists these plants:

Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum Hystrix)

Kumadn Palm ( Trachycarpus Takil)

Banana Yucca (Yucca Baccata)

Weeping Yucca (Yucca Recurvifolia)

Hardy Banana (Musa Basjoo)

Steve’s garden includes Gardenia, and several species of Canna.

Let me know of you want to speak to Steve or visit his garden. Forward your name and telephone number to me along with your request. I will provide Steve with the information, and he will contact you directly.

Questions or comments on gardening and plant care can be addressed to: The Plant Doctor/o Queens Publishing Corp., 41-02 Bell Blvd., Bayside, NY 11361 or e-mail Harvey.Goodman@att.net.

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