Palm trees aren’t really trees, but they still need to be pruned! If your South Florida palms need a haircut, trim them the right way. We’re here to explain what you need to know about proper palm tree trimming and how to avoid pruning mistakes that can kill your palms.
All About Palm Pruning
We’ve all seen them – palms that look like partially de-feathered feather dusters. In case you’re wondering, the answer is “no”. No, palms shouldn’t look like that!
In this article, you’ll get the facts on how palms should be pruned so you can keep yours healthy (and looking good!), plus answers to all of your palm trimming questions, including:
- Which palms need trimming and which don’t
- What a “self-cleaning” palm is
- Whether you need to trim self-cleaning palms
- How to properly prune a palm tree
- Palm trimming mistakes to avoid
- How many palm fronds to remove when pruning
- The best time to prune palm trees in South Florida
- How often to trim your palms
- What a properly pruned palm tree should look like – and NOT look like
- Hurricane trimming for palms
- When you can trim your own palms and when it’s best to call in a tree service for palm pruning
Which palms need trimming?
First, find out what kind of palm you have. South Florida has a lot of palm species to choose from! Flowers and fruit are common ways to ID many plants, so if your palm has fruit or flowers, take a photo for reference. If you’re not sure what kind of palm you have, you’ll probably find it on this palm tree identification page.
And check your trees before calling a tree service company, as some types of palms don’t need pruning because they regularly shed their fronds. These types of palm trees are called “self-cleaning” (more on that below).
Common South Florida palm species that don’t need to be trimmed include:
- Roystonea regia, the Royal palm
- Sabal palmetto, the Sabal Palm or Cabbage palm, and the state tree of Florida
- Veitchiamerrillii, the Christmas palm
- Washingtoniarobusta, the Fan palm (may need pruning when young; read below)
Palms that need pruning are those that hang on to their fronds even after the frond has browned and died. While it isn’t strictly required, these dead hangers-on are usually removed for aesthetic reasons, safety concerns, and to keep vermin from making a home in them. Common palm species in South Florida that benefit from regular trimming to remove dead fronds include:
- Coccothirnaxargentata, the Silverpalm
- Cocos nucifera, the Coconut palm
- Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island palm
- Syagrusromanzoffiana, the Queen palm
- Thrinax radiata, the Thatch palm
Do you ever need to prune a self-cleaning palm?
While we call some palms “self-cleaning,” they may still need some attention. The fan palm is a good example.
When it’s young, the fan palm makes a lot of fronds quickly and doesn’t drop them all. As it matures, it produces fronds more slowly and regularly drops them when new fronds emerge. The build-up of dead fronds on young fan palms should be removed, as the skirt-like mass of dry fronds is a favorite place for rats, snakes, and insects to move into. Fortunately, young fan palms are shorter than their mature 80-foot plus height, so removal is easier.
Should you remove flowers and/or fruit from palms?
Some people don’t want palm fruit to remain on their palms and choose to have the flowering and fruiting stalks removed. Before removing these fruiting stalks, remember that birds and bats, as well as pollinators, all enjoy the flowers and fruit. And as it’s birds and bats that eat the insects that we hate, leaving a tasty snack on your palm is a nice thank you.
Of course, don’t leave fruit on your palms if fruit-drop causes issues with safety or mess on the ground, or if vermin are attracted to the fruit. For example, Queen palms produce a lot of fruits that create a huge mess. Plus, the seeds germinate easily, resulting in weeds all over your property. Coconut palms are another tree where you’ll probably want to remove the fruit before they fall and hit someone.
NOTE: For any palm, pruning is a good idea if dead fronds are a fire hazard.
What makes a palm self-cleaning?
The main difference between palms that drop their dead fronds and those that don’t is what’s called a crownshaft. This is the area at the top of the palm trunk where fronds grow. You can usually identify it because of its smooth, waxy-looking surface that lacks the familiar hairy or fibrous look of the trunk.
The crownshaft is where fronds are attached while they’re growing. Like deciduous trees in the fall, self-cleaning palms shed their fronds at the end of their growing cycle. The palm severs the vascular connection that provides water and nutrients, and the frond dries and falls to the ground – usually within 2 to 3 days.
Where do I start pruning my palms?
If you have small palms or dwarf varieties, you can prune off dead fronds from the ground. You’ll need a strong, sharp pruning saw and protective gear for your head, hands, face, and body. Fronds are big and heavy and can cut and scrape you. Some “armed” palm species have dangerous spines that can severely injure you.
Using a pole saw to reach high fronds is impractical, as you lose accuracy with your pruning cuts and you won’t be able to see any damage you may be causing. And using a pole saw while standing beneath a thick skirt of dead fronds is dangerous, as fronds can fall without warning.
When you’re removing fronds, keep your saw blade a couple of inches away from the point where the frond attaches to the main trunk or stem. You don’t want to cut into or tear the main stem, as this leaves an opening for fungal diseases and insects to get in. The short stub left at the point of attachment will dry out and fall eventually.
What should I avoid doing when pruning a palm tree?
An important thing to avoid is damaging your palm’s top shoot, or terminal bud. No matter the age or size of your palm, you want to stay away from this area and remove only fronds on the bottom of the growth area. Because a palm isn’t a true tree, it makes all its growth from its one terminal bud. Cutting off or damaging the bud area can kill the whole palm!
And remember to clean your pruning saw before starting and again between cuts. Any pathogens that may be on your blade will be transferred into your palm when you saw through the stem, or petiole, of a frond. Water with bleach added is one of the most common sanitizing methods for cleaning pruning tools and an easy way to prevent disease transmission.
How many fronds should I remove from my palms?
The first thing to know is that you should remove only dead fronds. Any fronds that are still green should be left in place. Although palms aren’t true trees, their fronds photosynthesize and make energy stores for the palm to grow. Cutting off a living frond reduces the palm’s ability to make food energy, and you want to keep your palms vigorous and healthy.
Fronds that are declining but not dead should generally not be removed as they are important to the health of the palm. Fronds that are yellowing but still alive probably indicate a nutrient deficiency, particularly potassium or magnesium (soils in many parts of South Florida are lacking in these nutrients). Removing still-living fronds prevents those fronds from transferring nutrients to newly developing fronds at the terminal bud.
If you must remove living fronds for safety or because of space limitations, remove no more than 25% of the total amount of foliage. As with trees, removing too much living, photosynthesizing foliage at one time can stress your palm and compromise its overall health.
What should my trimmed palm look like?
For most palms, the ideal shape is a round canopy with green leaves right down to the bottom. Palms are supposed to have round crowns, not feather-duster crowns.
When you remove fronds, keep the overall appearance of the palm in mind. While palms aren’t like spreading shade trees, they can develop large crowns of fronds. Stop removing fronds when the crown of your palm forms a semi-circular shape – the fronds should reach the 9 and 3 o’clock positions (or below), but not any higher.
What about hurricane pruning?
The “hurricane haircut” for palms involves cutting off all but a few of the youngest fronts at the top of the tree, creating a “feather duster” look. It’s often done in the mistaken belief that having fewer leaves will protect the tree when hurricanes hit. But the reality is that palms pruned this way are more likely to break off in storms than ones with a fuller canopy. Without the support of the older leaves below, the few remaining fronds are whipped around by the wind until they snap.
Some people ask to have their palms cut this way so they don’t have to pay for palm trimming as often. Unfortunately, excessive pruning weakens the tree, leading to health issues and decline. In the long term, the tree care costs for the palm will exceed any short-term cost savings.
Although we’ve all seen palms pruned to the point where only a few upright fronds remain, this isn’t a good practice and isn’t what palms should look like.
If you’re told that this type of heavy pruning helps the palm, find someone else to do your pruning!
Why shouldn’t my palms get a “hurricane trim”?
There are several reasons why the excessive pruning of a “hurricane trim” is bad for your palm:
- It removes too much energy-producing foliage
- The palm may be suffering from nutrient deficiency and should be fertilized instead of pruned
- It removes fronds that shelter and protects the all-important terminal bud that produces new fronds. Wind, storms, and freezing weather are all able to damage the terminal bud if it’s too exposed, so leave enough fronds on to form a protective, encircling crown.
- Excessive pruning does not make your palm safer from hurricanes! Palms are designed to be flexible and move with the wind. Their crown is not so dense that wind can’t pass through fronds. Removing a large percentage of fronds does nothing but weaken the palm’s overall health by stressing it.
- As with all trees, every pruning cut is a wound that creates an opportunity for insect pests and disease. The fewer cuts you can make to achieve a well-shaped crown, the better, and the less shock and stress to your palm.
What if my palm is diseased? Should I trim out the diseased parts?
Heavy pruning recommendations are different if you have a diseased palm. In this case, it may be important to remove as many diseased fronds as possible to reduce the volume of diseased foliage or pathogens. This is a job that should be done by professionals who can identify diseases and know what methods to use to mitigate disease transmission.
How often should I prune my palms?
Palm pruning is done primarily for aesthetic reasons so the frequency really depends on whether you like the look of dead fronds on your palm or not. Most people trim their palms once a year, although some businesses may do it more often (e.g., twice a year) to maintain a “neat and tidy” appearance.
If you don’t like dead fronds, you’d ideally prune them off as soon as you notice them. However, that’s just not practical unless the palm is in your own yard and is small enough to easily reach the fronds with common pruning tools.
What’s the best time of year to trim palms in South Florida?
Palms grow year-round in warm climates like South Florida so it doesn’t really matter when they’re pruned; there’s no one time of year that’s better than others.
You may want to prune out dead fronds before hurricane season arrives to minimize the risk of them breaking off and hitting something. But only remove dead fronds; removing live fronds doesn’t make your palm safer in a hurricane.
It’s also better to do any major pruning well before periods of heavy or prolonged rain. Moisture and warm temperatures create ideal conditions for fungal growth. You’ll want any pruning cuts to have a chance to seal before pathogens have a chance to get in.
Among the fungal diseases that can attack palms, Fusarium wilt stands out as one of the most severe. There is no cure or way to control this fungal disease once it finds its way into your palm so prevention is key. Fan palms, Queen palms, and Canary Island palms are examples of palm species that are killed by fusarium wilt.
When should I hire a professional to prune my palms?
Once fronds are out of reach from the ground, you should hire a professional palm trimmer. The risk of injury is too great, and the work is harder than many people think.
Homeowners are known for underestimating the danger and difficulty of tree work they think they can DIY, but the risk is real. Safety reports show that unlicensed, untrained palm trimmers and homeowners die every month from suffocation or being crushed under the weight of heavy palm fronds. Major safety organizations recommend that only workers certified by organizations such as the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) or the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) should perform or supervise palm tree trimming.
Professionals have the equipment, the protective gear, the crew size, and the training needed to do a fast, efficient, and safe job pruning your palms. Plus, they’ll remove all the frond debris when they’re finished. And there’s a lot of debris!
Lifts and cranes are used to inspect palm crowns and to reach high fronds safely. And tree care professionals don’t climb palm trunks with spiked shoes. As with trees, these spikes can injure the trunk of your palm and create openings for the disease.
When you are comparing bids for palm trimming, keep in mind the value of an experienced, professional, and insured crew. While low prices are attractive to everyone, ending up with a badly or excessively pruned palm or a palm that has been infected with a fungal disease from unsanitary tools is not a worthwhile outcome.
South Florida Palm Trimming Services
Your palms, and all your trees, are long-term investments that enhance your garden and increase the value of your property. Treat them well and you’ll enjoy all their benefits for a long time while saving money in the long term.
We’re here to help with any of your tree care needs, including palm pruning, so give us a call. We’ll evaluate your palms and give you sound advice and an honest estimate for proper palm trimming.
Sherlock Tree Company is accredited by the TCIA (we’re one of only a few tree service companies in South Florida who’ve earned accreditation) and has several ISA Certified Arborists on staff so you can be sure palm trimming is done safely and correctly.
Call Sherlock for quality tree services
Whether you're looking for specific tree care services, such as palm trimming, tree removal, or disease treatments, or would like one of our Arborists to examine your trees to identify any issues and recommend options, we're always here for you! Just give us a call at 954-788-4000 to set up an appointment.
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