DALY: Palm trees are not just for the tropics

Recently I visited Savannah and observed many palm trees thriving in the local climate. Along with the stately live oak trees, they line many of the streets and grow in the parks, adding beauty to Georgia's oldest city. Many people wonder if palm trees can grow in our area. Often, when homeowners think of them, images of places with tropical climates, such as Florida and Hawaii, come to mind. However, you do not need to travel long distances to enjoy the beauty of these plants. Some palm trees thrive in our area. They are an excellent addition to the landscape. They are attractive, low maintenance, tolerant of prolonged dry conditions and evergreen.

The critical factor that determines where palms can be grown is cold hardiness. Some can tolerate our cold winters; some will require protection from the cold, while others will perish if exposed to freezing temperatures. Needle palms and windmill palms are the best choices for our climate.

The needle palm is among the hardiest of palms and can tolerate temperatures as low as minus five degrees. They have a slow growth rate and reach a height of six to eight feet at maturity. These palms are a clumpy, low growing understory tree. They have fan-shaped leaves that are deep green on top with a silvery green on the underside. The name is derived from the needle-like spines that grow between the leaf attachments on the stem. The spines are dark colored, quite sharp and can grow to a length of four to ten inches. Needle palms can be used as single specimens or in multiple plantings. They are an excellent choice for sites with limited space and can be planted in containers. The palms prefer partially shaded areas with well drained soils.

Windmill palms have a single slender brown trunk covered with dense fibers resembling burlap. It has a moderate growth rate and can reach a height of 20 to 25 feet. Its leaves are two to three feet across. Like the needle palm, they grow well in most soils but require adequate drainage. Windmill palms prefer full sun to moderate shade. They are attractive when planted in groups but do well as single specimens.

Other palms, such as sabal palms or saw palmettos, can be grown in our area. However, they are not as cold tolerant and could suffer damage when the temperatures drop below 20 degrees. If you plant them, tie the fronds together in bundles and then cover them with burlap or blankets for protection during hard freezes. Make sure the central bud is protected since the new growth originates from this point.

Palm trees are best planted in the early summer when their roots' growth is the greatest. They should be watered deeply and thoroughly. Apply mulch around the root zone to reduce water loss. Palms should be fertilized in the growing season prior to early August. Use a fertilizer that contains both potassium and magnesium since palms are prone to suffer from a deficiency of these nutrients. Broadcast or scatter the fertilizer over the root zone.

Palm trees are not limited to regions with tropical climates. If given proper care, they will thrive and add interest to the home landscape.

Tim Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.