Here's the deal on having a beautifully palm-landscaped yard for not a lot of money: Buy low, maintain high.
There are many places to get relatively inexpensive plants in the Tampa Bay area and, if you are willing to drive a little way (where there's enough land to grow them), they're even cheaper.
Best bets for affordable palms and other tropical treasures:
. Festivals, plant sales, outdoor markets: There's always something going on in the bay area. Keep your eye out for places that are selling trees and plants.
Tip: If it's a multiday festival (and you're not looking for something specific), go the last hours of the last day. Many sellers would rather get rid of their inventory than have to transport them back. You might not get exactly what you want, but what you do get will be healthy and beautiful — and a great bargain.
. Online classifieds — such as tampabay.com/marketplace/ and craigslist.com: Find trees, locations of wholesale lots that sell to the public and even full-grown palms right out of someone's yard that you have to dig, transport and plant yourself. If you have the muscle — and the proper equipment — you'll get quite a bargain on ready-made "mature landscaping."
Tip: There is often room for negotiation when responding to a classified ad, especially if you buy several trees.
. Clearance racks: Almost all big-box plant retailers have a section where they put plants they want to get rid of. Sometimes they're a little ratty-looking, but will perk right up with a little TLC.
Tip: Make sure the markdown is enough that the plant is worth buying. Sometimes the prices are cut so little that for a couple quarters more, you can get a much healthier looking full-price plant.
. Online auction sites — such as eBay: There are many sellers who ship expertly packed seedlings that come ready to plant. If you're willing to wait until they grow, this is a great way to get rare exotic palms. Just make sure the palm is suitable to our growing zone — 9B or 10A — and will grow fast enough for your needs.
Tip: Check the seller's approval rating before you buy. Also, keep those delicate baby palms (they're usually about a foot tall) out of full sun until they get established.
Okay, once you have them, you've got to keep them alive. That's the tricky part. Even the most self-sufficient palms need some lovin' — and lots of water — to get established. We asked a couple Florida palm experts for their advice. They were each passionate about one thing in particular:
. Use the right fertilizer. That was the No. 1 tip from Timothy Broschat, University of Florida professor and palm nutrition expert at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. He has also written and co-written several books, including Your Florida Landscape.
"The most important thing I say is if you can't use the right fertilizer, don't use a fertilizer at all. You're not doing yourself, the palms or the environment any good," he said. And, he added, nothing you can buy at the big boxes is designed for palms no matter what the label says.
Broschat said he spent 20 years developing the right fertilizer for our soils. His Palm and Landscape Fertilizer has an 8-2-12 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) ratio and, although readily available to commercial growers, it can be tough to find for the rest of us. It's distributed through John Deere outlets, but is also available at some small nurseries and garden centers. He also has developed a no-nitrogen, no-phosphorous fertilizer to keep those elements out of the groundwater during the rainy season.
. Don't overprune. That was the single most important palm-care tip from Jane Morse, Pinellas County extension agent.
You know those yellow fronds that you find unsightly and hack off? Well, those fronds are yellow because they are providing nutrients for the new growth. Don't cut them off. If too many of them are yellow, the palm probably has a nutrient deficiency.
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All fired up to go out and beautify your yard? How hard can it be, right?
Well … here's something about Broschat you might want to know.
We asked him what palms he has planted in his own yard.
"I don't plant palms," he said matter-of-factly. "I work with them every day, I know they are not low-maintenance."
So what does he plant?
"Flowering trees. They are colorful and fragrant things."
For those of us who don't work with them every day and love the tropical feel they give our yards, Broschat advised to go for diversity.
"Don't plant all of one kind because one disease or bug infestation could get in and wipe out your whole yard," he said.
Gulp. Good luck.