Growing Palms in Darwin

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Growing Palms in Darwin

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Figure 1. A palm lined runway.

In Darwin it's local knowledge that you can establish a full-blown garden with mature plants and palms within four years of initial planting. I'd even go as far to say that you could just about plant a dead Having been born in Adelaide my fondness for palms resulted from visiting a family friend's block in Humpty Doo, Northern Territory which is about 40km south from Darwin City. On a 7 acre block my friend has planted My block is not quite that large, in fact it's only 600m including the house, but the house is positioned well enough that I could plant around it with room to spare." Now, firstly I must admit that I'm no horticulturist but I like to think that I've got some local knowledge about how to plant and get results." In fact it"s so easy in Darwin that unless you run Darwin"s soil is generally very poor." It"s rocky, imbedded with limestone and coffee rock and generally during the dry it"s similar to southern soils that I have experienced that remain concrete-like during summer and boggy during the rainy periods." My bare space of paradise was just that, a space of dirt and spear grass." Normally, one would be trucking in loads of topsoil and gypsum but I have to admit that I've done neither and have grown Local nurseries have the usual run-of-the-mill varieties that just about everyone mass plants in their gardens, but if you search around hard enough you"ll find nurseries tucked away in the rural area that have exotic palm varieties and that"s exactly what I was after and the price savings I'm a firm believer that nature does not have a rule that you have to dig holes two metres apart when planting." I've never seen palms in a rainforest spaced out to a plan and I wasn"t going to follow this rule." Admittedly, I did have to space some varieties apart due to their expected trunk size in years to come obviously, but it I wanted a canopy to establish quickly so my under story varieties wouldn"t be destroyed by the sun when

Growing Palms:

As one would expect palms are generally tropical in their habitat albeit several varieties and so growing them in Darwin is quite easy." Initially all I have ever done is dig a decent sized hole using the $5 plant and $5 hole rule." Most palms in Darwin are sold in 200mm pots with larger Everyone has their own ideas on how to landscape and if you yard is flat and boring you can experiment with scope and rocks to get that 'just right" look." Many folk in Darwin use Bali as their theme in the garden and to good effect." Because so many plants thrive in Darwin it"s very satisfying to watch young seedlings grow to maturity over a very short space of As far as when to plant, I never plant during the height of the monsoon season." The monsoon brings with it long rain periods and squalls." I"ve tried to plant in the height of the monsoon thinking that this would be the ideal time to plant, but I found that the deeper I dug the hole out the more if filled up with water seeping up through I've found that success is not with kindness but with a bit of neglect." I planted the majority of my palms during the dry season." I sought palms that were at least 1-2 metres in height (that"s generally the 200mm potted ones) and made sure they were healthy and During the dry season we only average the odd shower so waiting for rain to promote growth is not on the agenda." Most avid gardeners would top dress with loam, organic fertilizer and the like and most certainly that's recommended, but I just wanted my garden in All I have ever done was to dig large holes, fill the hole with a handful of organic palm fertilizer rich in potash, a splash of water and stick the plant in and backfill." This doesn"t sound very professional, but palms are hardy souls and if you give them enough root ball space they"ll take off." I've seen my palms become hardier because I've made them struggle a little and didn"t baby sit them during their growing After planting out I covered the entire beds with a thick leaf/woody mulch, a type of forest mulch which is roughly the mulching of local trees from the council and garden blend organic soil which good landscape suppliers sell that is rich in organic matter." I top dress with this because it adds the nutrients back into the soil and before long the original soil underneath is teaming with worms, therefore oxygenating and fertilizing at the same time."I've found that after five years my soil is very dark and granular and has many worms."Compared to what it was when I first I tend to water the trunks with the hose for a few minutes and wash down the crowns (as far as I can reach!)." This works two ways, in aiding the humidity around the drip line and keeping the crownshafts free of dust and pests and aiding moisture after a hot days in I installed an irrigation system to aid the laborious task of hand watering so many plants and this aids in creating humidity because these levels are only around 30% during the dry." Average temperatures are around 30-33c during the dry, but during the wet the averages are 33-35c with 70-90% humidity, the latter being most unbearable for Because Darwin only has two seasons it"s very easy to predict when your plants will start their growth spurt and it"s typically not during the dry!" Palms generally in the dry will quite happy grow albeit slowly and as locals like to quip 'survive and not die" so long as the water is kept up to them." Once the onset of the buildup arrives around October/November then things really kick into high gear." The fronds become greener, they"re more upright and growth is really beyond words." It Fertilizing in Darwin is very important." As previously mentioned, the soil here is not that flash and needs a good kick." I fertilize my palms every three or so months with blends from the company, Tropigro." I just use handfuls around the base of the palms and spread it liberally." This company is local and they have years of knowledge Lightning believe it or not can either help or kill your palms." Of course a direct strike will knock out several in one hit, but lightning actually charges the atmosphere and soil with all sorts of minerals that the plants take up, so the lightning storms are a

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Figure 3. Veitchia joannis

Palms to Plant and Where:

Understory plants and smaller shade loving palms should be planted at the same time as your larger palms." You don"t want these plants competing for water later on and quite honestly you"ll have to dig around many surface roots emitting from your larger palms in order to dig a hole next to the trunk." You may not have a shady canopy at first, but if you"ve planted enough palms their fronds will at least create 'Shade only" plants and palms are just that - for the shade!" If you're going to plant shade loving palms in Darwin give them protection." Leave a sizable space in your garden bed for later planting that way you"ll have the canopy in place." I've made the mistake of buying a really healthy, decent sized semi-shade palm and didn"t think ahead and had it fry in two weeks and just drop dead from exposure." Certainly a Do not under any circumstances plant shade loving palms, (for example Licuala grandis) as out-in-the-open specimens in Darwin." Our sun is extremely harsh on young palms and I've seen new home owners mass plant these particular palms spaced out 2 metres apart (of course!) and watched them within a two week period just commit suicide." So sad for the owner and it"s really them not having enough knowledge about the variety and probably listening to bad advice." Sure they look great There are some varieties that shouldn"t be planted too close to swimming pools, cars or entertainment areas." The Territory"s native palm, Carpentaria acuminata are graceful palms but do fruit profusely and many locals have a patch of Carpentaria lawn or additional garden bed below these palms of hundreds of tiny seedlings." Their dried berries are the bane of the lawnmower and windows and dogs are their targets." Added to that, local fruit bats love the fruit and will converge in them and defecate all over the place which is Large palm varieties which are very common in Darwin are Roystonea regia or Cuban Royal Palms." Wonderful examples with dark green crownshafts and shapely concrete-white trunks." One hazard being that when the old fronds self-clean and drop off they crash to the ground with a thud and usually without warning." As you"d expect, a palm that grows up to 20 metres would expect to have large fronds and they can be Aiphanes or Coyure Palms are fascinating but somewhat dangerous to have next to entertainment areas." Although specifically exotic palms and a wonderful conversation piece, you don"t want these things too close to human contact." Being covered in fine spines, they are somewhat dangerous to Roystonea oleracea or Caribbean Royal Palm/West Indian Royal Palm:" Personally my all time favorite because of its size - growing to 30 metres - but don"t plant them too close to anything because as you can imagine the trunk will be quite tall and you don"t want one of these crashing down onto the outdoor bar area during a cyclone." At least give them some room

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Figure 4. Phoenicophorium borsigianum
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Figure 2. Roscheria melanochaetes
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Figure 5. A healthy Verschaffeltia splendida

What Look Do You Want?

The fantastic thing about palms is that you can see in advance what your tropical rainforest will look like years before they"ve even matured!." Because they are so predicable in the way they grow, you"ll know Absolutely, positively do not plant one single palm smack bang in the middle of the front yard or back yard all by itself." Not only will it look like you"ve got a telegraph pole stuck in the yard, but it just doesn"t fit with nature!" Palms are happiest when they"re I personally have avoided planting in rows and just put them where they"ll look the best and compliment each other." Different shaped fronds, trunks, sizes and colours add to the rainforest feel and give a sense of perspective and colour, even if it is all green but some palm varieties have orange, red, or stilt trunks." That's the My garden comprises only four native Carpentaria palms and the rest are either exotic and well known varieties." They include:" Archontophoenix alexandrae, Raphis, Aiphanes aculeata, Wodyetia bifurcata, Areca catechu, Caryota cumingii, Cocus nucifera, Cyrtostachys renda, Dictyosperma album, Roystonea oleracea, Ptychosperma elegans, Ptychosperma macarthurii, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, Dypsis decipiens, Dypsis decaryi, Dypsis leptocheilos, Phoenicophorium borsigianum (my treasures!), Veitchia arecina, There are a few others but quite honestly I"ve forgotten their names although being exotics." Pelagodoxa henryana is the one palm that I dream to grow as it is one of the world"s rarest palms." A nursery some years ago closed down here and sold a two metre young palm of this variety for only $70." They"re worth around $2000 that young Generally because of the lack of available land within Darwin to build anew most homes have established gardens." Those that don"t are a gardener"s canvas." Palm prices are so affordable you could buy $500 worth of palms and have your plot transformed with a weekend"s digging." Exotic palm varieties are readily available in Darwin if you know what to look for and quite often I walk through the botanic gardens here with my palm book in hand highlighting the species I'm after and seeing Most commercial nurseries don"t stock exotics and if they do will charge like a wounded bull." I spend the extra 10 minutes to travel to the rural nurseries and there you"ll find what you're after." They are sun hardened and really are fantastic value." My Seychelles Island stilt palms (Verschaffeltia splendida) were only $22 each and they were a The best advice I can give anyone in Darwin looking for palms is to go to the rural nurseries during the end of the wet and pick up a bargain." Not only have the palms been exposed to all the elements but they"ve doubled in size for the same price from what they were three months previous." One particular rural nursery here actually relocates some of their own garden specimens to the pot and they look

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Figure 6. A nice planting of Verschaffeltia splendida


Some varieties attract grasshoppers more than most." Christmas Palms or Manila Palms (Adonidia merrillii) I have found seem to be on the menu for these pests and until they get established after a few years they tend to be chewed on regularly." Over watering really hasn"t been a problem, although commonsense prevails." Palms during the dry will thrive if watered regularly and it"s noticeable when the wet comes and some palms seem I have had only small infestations of mealy bugs with some plants, not necessarily palms more so with It"s important to rid the infested plants of the little pests as they can quickly transfer to other plants if not destroyed, either that, prune the plant right back and treat with Mould is not uncommon, but this is generally found at ground level due to the amount of moisture around the plants during the monsoon periods." With little or no sun for several days the garden beds stay wet and there's no sunlight to dry things out, but this has not appeared to have any detrimental affect on my own plants." It"s generally a given because there's lots of garden insects that will feed on it so I see it I hope my no-frills way of gardening gives some hope to those planting out for the first time in Darwin." I've grown palms in Adelaide with a little more care, but took the same "no baby sitting approach"." Let them struggle a little to toughen them up and you"ll be rewarded with healthy, strong palms." Palms aren't generally fussy about what soil they"re put in, so long as there's water and some type of

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Figure 7. A growing Aiphanes aculeata

Contributed by:

Mike O'Neill, Darwin, Northern Territory (Text and Figures 1-7).

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