On a recent trip to St. Croix, my wife found herself taken with the palm trees that blanket the island. Now, it evokes images of beach vacations and exotic locations anytime she sees this. And so, I’ve been looking into the possibility of planting palm trees in our backyard.
But the clay soil we have is an important consideration. If you have clay soil as I do, there are a few specific things that you need to understand.
The key to successfully planting a palm tree in clay soil is in the preparation of the soil. Amending the surrounding soil to ensure a proper pH level, aeration, and drainage, as well as proper planting depth, are the most important factors to successful transplantation of a palm tree in a clay soil yard.
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All plants, including Palm Trees, are picky about where you plant them. Let’s explore the challenges, implications, and possible solutions to ensure your palm tree not only survives but thrives after being planted.
Where to Begin?
Before we even deal with the clay soil, keep in mind that this may not be the only issue you are facing when planning to plant a palm tree.
The first consideration is where you live. Every Palm has a slightly different tolerance for cold. When you look at a Palm Tree, the sales information should include its USDA Hardiness Zone. Then you check to see if your region lies within that area. If not, you will need to research a Palm that could thrive in your yard. If you live in an area where cold temperatures get into the 20s, you can look to Saw Palmettos, Sago Palms, and European Fan Palms as options.
Palm Trees prefer light soils with good drainage. Sandy loam is the best foundation for Palms because it supports root growth.
I think you can see where I’m going with this…
Planting a Palm Tree in clay soil can be very challenging. The reason for this is that clay soil does not drain well without significant amendment.
There is a simple way of checking your soil drainage. Just dig a hole in the area where you envision your Palm Tree. Fill it with water. Once it completely drains the first time, fill it again. This time, take note of how long it takes for the water to absorb into the soil. You want a relatively fast rate so the Palm’s roots don’t drown.
If you are having problems with clay soil drainage, click here to read what I’ve been doing to significantly improve my clay soil lawn.
Palm Trees prefer an alkaline range of 5.5 to 7.5. How do you know this? There are commercially available soil pH tests. Also, many areas have local educational cooperatives who will check your soil for free, or reasonable prices. There are ways of adjusting your soil’s pH, but you will need to monitor the soil regularly for changes.
Finally, you have to think about placement. Will your palm need full light or partial? Does it need substantial space between it and other plants or trees? Your gardening center can answer these questions for you insuring greater satisfaction and success.
An Expert’s Recommendations On Planting Palm Trees In Clay Soil
Warren’s Southern Gardens in Kingwood, Texas knows all too well the challenges that clay soil can pose when it comes to gardens, plants, and trees. They provide expert guidance and advice for their customers.
Diane Bulanowski, a representative from the company, was kind enough to offer helpful insight into a successful palm tree planting for homeowners with clay soil.
Diane recommends planting the palm tree “using a mixture of native soil, compost, and expanded shale”. Expanded shale helps to aerate the clay and quite frankly, was not something I had thought of using. In the case of palm trees, she recommended using liberal amounts of expanded shale in the soil mixture. You can purchase expanded shale at your local nursery or online (link to Amazon). But shipping prices are often high so buying locally is a good choice if you going to need a lot.
Incorporating compost into the mix will improve the texture, quality, and nutrient content of the soil. We’ve written previously on the pros and cons of homemade compost vs bagged options, but either will serve this purpose so it’s really a matter of availability and convenience.
What’s really important is that you are not simply planting the palm tree into the clay soil and calling it done. You are preparing and conditioning the surrounding soil to provide a nurturing environment for the tree to thrive.
Click here to read our articles on composting and learn how easy it is to make your own!
When planting, Diane recommends setting the root collar at or slightly above the soil’s natural grade. She cites planting the tree too deeply as “the leading cause of unsuccessful new tree plantings”. She also cautions to handle the tree by the root ball, not the trunk.
As a final tip, Diane recommends planting slightly higher than the natural grade. This will allow for settling. The root flare will be exposed if the depth of planting is correct.
Special thanks to Diane at Warren’s Southern Gardens. You can visit their website by clicking here.
Planting A Palm Tree Step By Step
Below are generally accepted guidelines for planting a palm tree. I have included incorporation of our soil mix in step 4.
1. Create a hole as deep as the root ball and three times as wide.
2. Remove the Palm from its container. If it gets stuck, use gardening shears to cut it out. Loosen the root ball by gently squeezing the sides.
3. Put the Palm into the hole so that the root ball edge sets about 2” above ground level.
4. Once centered in the hole, fill in your amended soil mix evenly around the roots. Tap it down as you go.
5. At the halfway point, soak the soil then continue filling the hole until it nears the top of the root ball. You do not want to cover this completely.
6. Deeply water the hole again. If you wish, add a root simulator to your water. It supports healthy root development.
7. Sprinkle mulch, wood chips or stone around the top of the soil about 2” away from the tree base. Make this 2” deep and add to it annually.
Below is a walkthrough of the planting process from This Old House. They are backfilling with the same native soil but obviously, they aren’t dealing with the clay soil challenges. In any case, there is some interesting discussion prior to the planting which begins around 5:00 minutes in.
Care & Keeping for a Palm Tree
Once you planted the Palm Tree in clay soil, there’s still work to be done. Initially, unless you get significant rain, water your Palm two times a week. The soil should never completely dry out, but don’t soak it. After 6-months you can water twice a month.
Remember that clay soil can become tightly compacted and retain water longer than other soil types, so it’s good practice to check the moisture level of the soil while your palm tree is newly planted.
One of the fastest-growing palm trees is a Foxtail Palm, often stretching up to 3-feet a year.
It’s also a good idea to test your soil regularly. Every six months use a soil nutrient test kit like this one (link to Amazon). Palm Trees require potassium, magnesium, and manganese (source). You’ll be fertilizing quarterly but you still want to keep an eye on these nutrient levels in case an increase in a specific nutrient is needed.
It’s important to note that the potassium required by palm trees is often not sufficient in common lawn fertilizers, so don’t try to save a dollar using what you already have on hand (source). Stick with a fertilizer formulated especially for palm trees.
A palm tree requires a delicate balance of primary nutrients and will show signs of deficiency based on which nutrient it is lacking.
Magnesium Deficiency – If you notice yellowing around the edges of the older leaves but the newer leaves are still bright green, it likely that your palm tree is deficient in magnesium (source).
Potassium Deficiency – Often characterized by yellowish spots on the leaves, potassium deficiency is one of the most common nutritional imbalances of palm trees. The spots can actually appear translucent when viewed from underneath. A deficiency may also present as dying tips on the leaves (source).
Preventing Nutritional Deficiencies
Proper fertilization is the key to preventing deficiency issues with palm trees. Palms should be fertilized quarterly using a mixture that includes slow-release nitrogen. This fertilizer from Palmgain (link will take you to Amazon) is the recommended formula for use on palm trees by the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension.
Helps & Hints
- Hardy Palms grow as far north as Zone 6 (-10F low temperature in winter). These include the Needle Palm, Windmill Palm, and Dwarf Palmetto.
- It is often easier to buy a more mature Palm Tree as it won’t be as sensitive to the planting and watering process as a young one.
- Brace your palm, protecting it from high winds. These supports improve root anchoring. 2X4s work well, equally spaced around the Palm with the top edges wrapped in burlap. If storms are a big issue in your area, add metal bands or another type of tie vertically around the wooden anchors. Nail these ONLY into the anchors, not the Palm Tree itself.
- If your Palm Tree leaves lower or turns yellow/brown, it may not be a nutritional deficiency. It may simply need more water. Try this first.
- When dead fronds appear, prune them, cutting as close to the trunk as possible. Make sure there is NO GREEN left on it.
- Protect your palm from cold winter winds using a windbreak. You can also drape a blanket over the base of the Palm for heat retention.
Planting a palm tree in clay soil does present challenges, but they not insurmountable. I’m entertaining adding a couple of palms around my pool and if I do I’ll be sure to share that experience. I recommend consulting with a subject matter expert in your area before planting. They will have knowledge of the clay soil that you are working in and can offer specific recommendations unique to your situation.
Authors note: Warren’s Southern Gardens provided excellent insight and suggestions and we appreciate their assistance. If I have misspoken on any point in this article, those errors are mine and mine alone.
Palm Tree Symbol and Meaning
In the Near East and the Mediterranean, a Palm branch represents triumph, peace, and victory. In Mesopotamia, it was a sacred plant that stood for immortality, sacred marriage, and fertility (particularly the Date Palm). Greeks use Palm Fronds for celebrating winning athletes, and Christians brought Palm Branches out to greet Jesus when he entered Jerusalem.
An Assyrian myth tells us that Palm Trees connect the Heavens and the Earth. Egyptians carried Palms for funeral processions as an icon of the soul’s immortal nature. Alchemists saw the Palm Tree as the perfect embodiment of masculine and feminine characteristics in balance.
Did you know…
Words associated with the Palm Tree include truth, health, resurrection, purposefulness, and honor.