Fairchild’s tropical garden column

Growing a green thumb


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Not everyone is born with a green thumb. For most, it takes more than intrinsic knowledge to make plants happy and keep them healthy. The best way to grow a green thumb is to start with a plant that is easy to maintain, then increasingly work with more difficult plants.

First, it’s important to observe the plant — simply understand its growth. Only then can you start to dabble with requirements such as nutrients, water and habitat.

Palm trees are good species to test out your green thumb because they are slow growers and their health changes over longer periods of time than most garden plants. Basically, it’s harder to kill them — one mistake on your part won’t cause its demise. Since their decline is slow and drawn out, you have a lot of time to change your treatment before they die.

No matter your level of palm expertise, there are palms that you can plant and use to master plant techniques until you have a green thumb.

Before you jump in and start working your green thumb, it is important to know what healthy palms look like and how to maintain them.

A happy palm should look like a lollipop — a full circle of leaves. Many palms are inappropriately trimmed to look like feather dusters. This is extremely ineffective for the palm. Palms store nutrients in green leaves, and cutting them off is like depriving them of their dinner, leaving them hungry and grumpy. You don’t even need to trim the brown leaves. You can choose to let them fall naturally and protect yourself and your palm from removing crucial leaves.

The leaves on a very healthy palm are usually a dark green, although there is some variation with different species. For example, jelly palm and bismarkia palm leaves are naturally a silvery blue shade.

•  Beginners: For those of you who have never taken care of a plant, you should begin by observing palm growth. I recommend the queen palm ( Syagrus romanzoffiana). This palm is widely available horticulturally and very common in the landscape. It does not require much supplemental nutrients (fertilizer) or irrigation. Use the queen palm to start your palm garden. Get accustomed to handling a pole saw or pole clippers to remove brown leaves. Start research on palm fertilizers. Set your sprinkler to water your garden effectively, around the root zone and right at sunrise.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of this palm, add a Chinese fan palm ( Livistona chinensis). These palms are also very common in the landscape and while still a “beginner” palm they are a little more sensitive. In southern Florida, they commonly experience nutrient deficiencies. Try different palm fertilizers to see if there is one that you like best. I recommend a slow release 8-2-12 palm special once a year with both of these palms. But there is a wide selection of fertilizer types and brands to choose from. Each fertilizer feels, smells and acts a little differently. Every gardener has his or her own preference. Keep an eye on your palms and see how they react to the fertilizers and your maintenance regime.

When your queen and fan palms have full, dark green, lollipop crowns you are ready to advance to the next palm level.

Other beginner palm options: Christmas palms, Royal palms, Sabals and Thatch palms.

•  Intermediate: Foxtail palms ( Wodyetia bifurcata) are horticulturally available but are a little more difficult to keep happy. Foxtails are always a bit hungry, and they show their nutrient deficiencies through discoloration in their leaves. A healthy foxtail leaf is dark green, while an unhealthy leaf is yellow, withered and smaller than normal. Planting foxtails on limestone soils will increase the chances of these problems.

Use your fertilizer knowledge from your queen and fan palms on your foxtail palms. They may need more frequent fertilizing — two or even three times a year. You can play with different fertilizers; using ones with extra micronutrients, different release rates and maybe different ratios. There is always ongoing research on palm fertilizer ratios and you can experiment if you are adventurous. Keep in mind that deficiencies take years to fix. Your fertilization regime may be working but big changes in the leaves may take a while to show.

It is important to stay consistent with your fertilization. Stick with a regime for at least one full year, preferably two to three years, before trying something new.

Other intermediate recommendations to advance your fertilizing skills: American oil palms, Licualas and Paurotis palms. Also try getting a deeper blue hue on the leaves of Bismark palms.

•  Advanced: You have gorgeous foxtails growing in your palm garden and fellow gardeners are starting to ask you for help. Congratulations, you have a green thumb. But, just because you have mastered the art of fertilization and watering doesn’t mean you should stop advancing.

The red lipstick palm ( Cyrtostachys renda) is one of the most highly coveted palms. Growing a healthy red lipstick palm outside in southern Florida is like finding the Holy Grail for palm enthusiasts. In order to keep these palms happy outside, you must have the right habitat (warm, sheltered, and wet year round) and precisely the right fertilizer regimen.

These palms are extremely cold-sensitive. The biggest problem most palm enthusiasts have is keeping them warm year round. Palm growers have the most luck cultivating these in green houses. You can also try growing them in sheltered, shallow ponds in southern Florida. Sheltered areas protect them from cold winds and water stays warmer than soil, keeping their roots warmer. With a bit of finesse, it is possible to trick this finicky palm into believing it is in its native Asian peat swamp. With your green thumb and a bit of luck (such as warm winters) you may be able to master growing these tricky palms.

No matter your level of expertise, you too can grow a beautiful and healthy palm garden. Even though I address only palms here, similar techniques can be used for all garden plants. By beginning with plants easy to cultivate, you can slowly increase your own knowledge, propagate more difficult plants and eventually grow a green thumb of your own!

Sara Edelman is palm and cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

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