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Selecting Palms for New Zealand Gardens

Selecting palms for your garden can be a difficult process for the uninitiated. Nowadays there’s a good variety of different types of palms on the market and with New Zealand’s wide variations in climate a palm that thrives in one location won’t necessarily grow well in another.

Selecting the right palm trees for your garden can also be a big decision. Mature palm trees are expensive to produce so selling prices – especially for rare and in-demand species – can be in the hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars. No one wants to find that the beautiful palm trees they purchased last year are now tatty and damaged (or worse still, dead) after a winter of strong winds and chilly nights.

Here we discuss a range of considerations when selecting palm trees including the look you wish to create, your local climate, different forms of palm tree and how to identify a healthy palm tree.

Foremost in selecting the right palm trees for your property one should consider the purpose they’ll serve. Are they to be used to create a dream garden or to add value to your property? Will the palm trees be the predominant planting or a focal point? Are they intended to stand above other plants or to provide screening from neighbours or the street?

Also, consider the effort you wish to go to in maintaining the palm trees. In particular, will you regularly fertilise and trim your plants, or do they need to be tough enough to withstand neglect and still look good? Certainly some palm trees will benefit from a good trim after winter whilst others can be left to care for themselves.

An early consideration, and one linked to the look you wish to create, is the type of palm trees. Palm trees come in a range of forms from feather-leafed, fan and fishtail through clustering and solitary to light and heavy as well as tall and short. Each form, when planted with the right companion plants, helps to support a particular look from tropical to Mediterranean, traditional to contemporary.

One of the most important considerations is where the palm will be sited; indoors or outside. Whilst many palm trees may be housed indoors not all with thrive in such conditions.

Similarly, not all palms need excessive space. Many are quite diminutive and are perfectly suited to small gardens and patios.

Likewise there are some huge palms that grow well in New Zealand.

Perhaps the most obvious, and in many ways most important, consideration is the local climate. New Zealand’s climate varies from warm to cool temperate with a strong maritime influence, hints of a Mediterranean climate on the east coast of the North Island and practically sub-Antarctic in southernmost parts of the South Island. Wind and rain are a regular feature as is frost in many parts during the winter.

With such wide variation in climate it’s hardly surprising that palms which thrive in one region may well struggle in another. This isn’t just due to temperature differences and the prevalence of frosts but also because of rainfall and humidity.

Whilst climatic considerations are a major determinant of what may be successfully grown in different parts of the country so are local conditions – for better or worse. In particular, strong prevailing winds and poor drainage may hamper successful growing.

Not all palm trees are adversely affected by winds but there are definitely species to avoid. In particular, feather-leafed palms where strong, drying winds can result in dried leaflets and a scruffy appearance.

Often worse are salt-laden, sea winds which particularly affect palms originating from gentler rainforest locations. Again, not all palms are affected by such winds with some palm trees positively thriving on beachfronts.

Contrary to popular belief not all palm trees perform best in full sun. In fact for every species that enjoys hot, sunny conditions it seems another does better in moist, shady conditions.

Our complete listing of plants for sale provides details on their unique requirements for successful growing.

Having used the above resources to select suitable palm trees for your garden we now turn to practical considerations such as size, cost and how to recognise a good quality palm tree.

Palm trees can usually be acquired in a range of sizes, from small plants under one metre tall to large plants of 5m or more. For most people however typical palm trees for indoors or outside will likely range from under one metre for short, solid species to around 2.5m for taller growing species. Since palm trees vary in terms of their overall shape (short and fat versus tall and skinny) it’s not always easy to describe a palm tree based upon one characteristic alone. Two important measures are bag volume and total height.

For any given species the larger the palm the more expensive it’ll be. Thus there’s a trade-off between size and price. Furthermore, not everyone wants to either wait for years for a small palm tree to become a significant feature or go to great expense hiring equipment and labour to move giant palm trees. For this reason much of what we sell tends to be in the mid-range: solid enough to withstand being transported and planted, big enough to make an impression yet not so large as to be unwieldy or too expensive.

When buying palm trees consider how much of an impression they’ll make in your garden. Take a few bamboo stakes and mark out just how tall the plants will need to be. As a guide, we find that for ‘solid’ species (for example Butia and Phoenix) anything under one metre tall (total height) just won’t be noticed after it’s been planted. For ‘thin’ species with narrower trunks you’ll probably need to buy something around two metres tall (perhaps 1.5m as an absolute minimum) for it to have any impact in your planting. Remember also that if you are purchasing a palm tree from a nursery it’ll be sitting in a pot (and possibly on a slightly raised platform) so when planted it’ll look considerably less impressive.

Once planted and if well maintained most palm trees grow relatively quickly. Providing you’re starting with a reasonable sized plant you’ll generally find that after a couple of years you’ll have an established garden with semi-mature palm trees.

When it comes to prices it’s not so easy to provide general guidance. Not only does the size of the plant make a difference but so does the species. Some palms are easy to source, quick to grow and easy to maintain. Others are quite the opposite with many requiring 15 years or more before they are suitable for sale. For this reason prices can vary considerably between different species. As a guide we’d suggest allowing between $250 and $400 for most solid, mid-sized palms as described above. Certainly there are plenty of exceptions either way and paying from $500 to $1000 for a medium-sized specimen palm tree is not at all unreasonable.

Having decided upon the species, sizes, and price you wish to pay it’s now a matter of selecting the palms themselves. Here we present some useful guidance on how to recognise a good quality palm tree.

Begin with the trunk. It should be of uniform diameter and free from scars and damage caused by moving equipment. Some species do show narrowing towards the top of the trunk, but it should not be excessively pronounced. The trunk should also be sturdy enough to withstand strong winds. The fronds should be healthy looking with signs of one or more new fronds emerging. The root-ball should be sufficiently large for the palm but avoid disproportionately large bags which suggest recent re-potting.

In particular be wary of the following:

Skinny palms which look in perfect health. These are likely to be greenhouse grown and not hardened off (a process which can take several years). Such palms are prone to snapping in moderate winds and even when protected may take some years to look good.

Palms that have been field-grown (planted in the ground then dug up and sold). This isn’t to say that this practice is inherently wrong but be sure that the palm you’re buying has had time to recover and put on new growth or is a species that transplants well.

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