Palm Pruning Protocols

Photo: Getty Images

Since palm trees and landscapes around pools go hand-in-hand, I would like to talk about the importance of palm pruning. Let me start with a simple question — when was the last time you pruned yours? You may have just shrugged and thought, "I didn't know they needed to be pruned!"

Sadly, the average palm tree in the Houston area is being pruned incorrectly ... or, in many cases, not at all. There's also the misguided notion that something called the "hurricane cut" (below) should be applied to palms in preparation for hurricane season. That idea could actually lead to a tree's death, not to mention increase the possibility of the tree causing major damage to your home during a storm.

The hurricane cut involves pruning palms so severely that only a few green fronds are left at the top of the plant, within the 10-2 o'clock or 11-1 o'clock position. Some people also think that applying the hurricane cut will mean they won't have to prune their palms so often. They may also believe that the cut keeps their home safe from flying palm fronds during a storm. Both notions are simply not true.

The hurricane cut is also a good litmus test to see if a tree pruner or landscaper actually knows what they're doing - if they recommend such a pruning, keep them as far away from your palm trees as possible. Experts in the palm industry have research that shows most palms are quite capable of holding up to tropical-force winds without man's interference, unlike un-pruned oaks. Another reason to leave green palm fronds between the 9 and 3 o'clock positions is that they supply the tree's nutrients — the more you have, the healthier for the tree.

Sago Palm

There are a couple of exceptions to the palm experts' rule that says never prune a green frond. If it's rubbing against the house or another structure and can become a pathway for rodents and insects, it should be removed. And it's okay to prune a green frond hanging below the 9-3 o'clock position.

Now, I want to pause here for those homeowners and landscapers who argue that they've been zealously pruning sago palms for years without any negative effects. Well, let's be precise — sagos are not true palms. In fact, they're known botanically as cycads.

On the flip-side of over-pruning palm owners are those who haven't pruned since … well, since Hurricane Ike did it for them. Just drive around and notice how many palm trees have browning or severely yellowing fronds that should be pruned.

For years, I've read all sorts of gardening and landscaping books that say palms are supposed to add a regal or classy look to landscapes. And, if cared for properly, I can see why. However, there are some palms trees in our area that couldn't look trashier. With simple pruning, they could all look remarkably better.

One reason people often give for failing to prune their palms is cost. While I'm all for hiring professional tree companies to handle significantly tall trees, the average palm can be pruned by a homeowner or property owner with a ladder and a hacksaw or some big ol' loppers. Sure a chainsaw works quicker, but not everyone has one or wants to invest in one.

And while I'm dispensing do-it-yourself advice, don't just try to pull out a dead frond. Doing so can create a cavity in the trunk where moisture can collect and create fungal diseases, or make pockets for insect infestations or rodents. The basic rule of thumb is to leave at least a two-inch petiole (also called a boot) on the trunk. When the petioles become loose, you can remove them by hand. But if they can't be removed without tools, leave them alone.

Some that say that palm trees should only be pruned in the spring. I'm thinking positively, though, and feel we're are officially done with the winter that won't quit. However, please check for two things before any palm pruning job.

  1. Investigate to see if there are any bird nests among the fronds.
  2. If you wait until later in the year, check for wasp nests as well.

If your palms are tall, a tree company with a cherry picker is really the only smart answer. Climbing spikes are extremely damaging to the trunk of a tree, and those wounds may spread diseases since the same spikes are used from tree to tree.

Finally, palms should never be topped, or have the crown cut off. The crown will not grow back on a shorter trunk, and the tree will not branch. Instead, the tree will just die.

Sponsored Content

Sponsored Content