Gardening: Dreaming of a tropical paradise

WHAT is it about palms that makes you instantly go all, well, tropical. You see them swaying in the breeze and you imagine yourself sitting on white sand, wearing boardshorts or a kaftan, watching sailboats and windsurfers go by. Or maybe you picture yourself enjoying a picnic, with champagne and roast chicken, as the thick green fronds of the palm sway overhead. Then a coconut falls and ... back to reality!

My friend, green thumb Leon Coventry, and I were pondering palms the other day and the merits of having them in the garden. They can look terrific by a pool, or make a real statement at the entrance to your home.

Because we live in a generally subtropical climate it is possible to grow quite a variety of palms out of doors and some varieties inside the house in containers, says Leon, although you wouldn't be sitting under the latter.

A row of palms at Bangalow Primary School make a striking statement.
A row of palms at Bangalow Primary School make a striking statement. Helen Hawkes

The best planting time is from October, when the ground starts warming up. So now is the right time to get to a nursery and consider what type of palm you want and where you're going to put it.

Make sure you are religious about height and width (just how big will that palm get?) and remember that the days of cocos palms or syagrus romanzoffiana are gone: This single-stemmed feather palm, which grows to about 12m and is known for its bunches of orange-yellow fruits, is now regarded as a weed of national significance.

A quick bit of botanical knowledge to impress your friends, if your palm alone doesn't do it: All palms are a woody monocotyledon of the family Arecaceae. They have several different types of foliage - circular leaf, a pinnate leaf, a broad, simple leaf, and several juvenile palms have red leaves. The yellow flame thrower palm, or chambeyronia macrocarpa var.hookeri, from New Caledonia, has a leaf that is almost fire engine red while areca vestiara has a bright orange leaf base.

These days it's all about golden canes or dypsis lutescens from Madagascar; Bangalow palms or archontophoenix cunninghamiana, which have a violet flower and red fruits but aren't named after Bangalow; Alexander palm or archontophoenix alexandrae, a palm native to Queensland and New South Wales and naturalised in Hawaii; and fox tails or wodyetia bifurcates, so called because their fronds resemble a fox's tail. The last are super tough and do well in pots. Bangalows, which will grow to about 25m, are similar to Alexander palms although thinner in the trunk and green on the underside of the fronds, whereas the Alexander palm has a silver tint to the underside of its fronds.

"Like all garden plants they require all those basics we talk about - light, air movement, water, fertiliser and a richly-composted ground to grow in," says Leon. "Like most things we grow, mulching around your palm pays dividends and keeps the base moist.

"Growing palms is fun, so give it a go."

Plant a palm

  • Having removed the palm from its plastic pot, dig your hole a good 100mm all round the size of the root ball.
  • Dig 200mm below the root ball depth.
  • Put a few handfuls of composted chook poo in the hole bottom and mix in some high nitrogen lawn fertiliserin with the chook poo.
  • Put a layer of loam on top of the fertiliser mix so that standing the palm on this brings the base of the palm to ground level.
  • Start filling around the root ball with some loam.
  • At about 50mm from the top of the hole put in some more chook poo and fertiliser and run water into the hole and make mud pies.
  • Top up soil to the base of the palm and a little above.
  • Put a nice ring of lawn cuttings around the palm then sprinkle your lawn fertiliser on it before watering it all again.
  • Every fortnight disperse dolomite on the lawn cuttings, then fertiliser the next week. Always water well.

Source: Leon Coventry

Indoor palms

THERE are a number of smaller palms suitable for that alfresco area, says Leon.

"Parlour, cascade and cane palms - short to tallish - are easy for indoors in pots," he says. "Rhapis are nice, too, but grow a little bigger than the others and the same with the Lord Howe Island palm also known as the kentia palm."

Indoor palms need water and feeding as our garden ones do but not at the same rate.

They Indoor palms can be subject to mealie bugs, that white fluffy stuff at the frond base. Your local nursery stocks products to keep these under control.

You can hear Leon Coventry on Paradise FM 10.19 every Saturday morning.

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