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Canopy Trees and Palms

by Dan Walton

Space permitting, plant canopy trees in your homescape. Use large trees to provide shade and “green living mass”. Plant large trees where there is enough space for them to develop an anchoring root system at least 25ft from your home or other impervious structures. Large trees have spreading root systems which, in the case of live oaks, may cover an area ten times the tree canopy. Without adequate space to grow, they may be short-lived and unthrifty. Without sufficient anchoring space they may topple in heavy winds particularly in wet, saturated soils.

If you have only a small property, think about planting palms in clusters. Palms differ structurally from trees such as oaks and pines, and some folks argue that they are not trees. They are “grass-like” with fibrous root systems. As a consequence, you can plant palms where space is at a premium. They can be planted within 8 to 10 feet of your home and they will thrive. Plant them in clusters for a naturalized look rather than singly or in matching pairs or rows. A cluster (three, five, seven plants) will actually produce "mass" and shade in a limited space within a year or two.

The two most commonly planted palms in this area are the Sabal Palm (Cabbage Palm) and the Queen Palm. The Sabal Palm, native to Florida and the State Tree of both Florida and South Carolina, is actually the most common tree in Sarasota County. They can be grown in acid or alkaline soils and don’t need to be fertilized. They can tolerate dry sandy soils without watering once they are established and can withstand salt spray. These attributes make them ideal for coastal. They are cold hardy and may be the most hurricane-resistant tree we have. Sabal Palms are usually collected from existing stands and require 6 to 10 feet of clear trunk in order to be transplanted successfully. Palms that are staked, planted and guaranteed will each cost between $160 to $200. Sabal Palms will often germinate in unmowed areas around your house. Although it will take up to ten years to have a palm with a clear trunk you can enjoy the attractive foliage of the juvenile palm in the meantime.

The Queen Palm, a native of Brazil, is popular because it is relatively inexpensive, grows rapidly and has attractive fronds. Unlike the Sabal Palm, however, Queen Palms, as well as other non-native palms, are not suited for the alkaline soils that are prevalent in much of this area. When they are planted in alkaline soils they require regular applications of fertilizer high in potassium and containing magnesium and other minor elements. Failure to fertilize can lead to fronds that are a sickly yellow and have frazzled looking edges. Unfortunately, you can see too many Queen Palms in our area in this condition. A slow release fertilizer should be used, otherwise much of the fertilizer will be wasted and end up in Sarasota Bay via the ground water.

For a truly natural look plant clusters of palms, particularly Sabal palms, around your major canopy tree. They can also be used to frame entryways and other architecturally interesting aspects of homes. Sabal Palms give the real Florida "tropical" look.

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