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Mulch or Rocks at the trunk/base of your palm tree


Bill Nanaimo

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mulch is best for the soil and keeping most palms moist where roots zones are only around 18-24" on many palms.

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YouTube https://www.youtube.com/@tntropics - 60+ In-ground 7A palms - (Sabal) minor(7 large + 27 seedling size, 3 dwarf),  brazoria(1) , birmingham(4), etonia (1) louisiana(5), palmetto (1), riverside (1),  (Trachycarpus) fortunei(7), wagnerianus(1),  Rhapidophyllum hystrix(7),  18' Mule-Butia x Syagrus(1),  Blue Butia odorata (1) +Tons of tropical plants.  Recent Yearly Lows -6F, -1F, 12F, 11F, 18F, 16F, 3F, 3F, 6F, 3F, 1F, 16F, 17F, 6F, 8F

 

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I use both hardwood mulch and rocks.  Like @Allen mentioned the hardwood mulch amends the soil and helps retain moisture around the root zone.  Although there's not much evidence to support this, I'm hoping that the large rocks that I put around palms (I removed them from the ground planting - they're all over the yard) will discourage ox beetles from snacking on my smaller palms.  In the past I have already lost a Livistona decora and Acrocomia aculeata from beetle attacks.  In winter the rocks also retain heat from the sun during the day and helps add additional heat to the palm during cold nights.

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Jon Sunder

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Rock / gravel..  Looks better / more natural, doesn't need to be replaced too often..  doesn't wash out during downpours like mulches can.  Doesn't run the risk of introducing potentially harmful pathogens ( from mulch created by grinding up diseased trees ) / harmful to the soil  < and everything else > chemicals ( those who'd use " color enhanced " mulches ) as well

As far as getting organics into the soil? is the reason i'll plant stuff like native annuals / perennials / grasses  below and leave a certain mount of " duff ' that falls from trees / flowering stuff to filter down through the stone and add organics to the soil..  just like in habitat.  When laid at a proper depth, stone/ gravel also helps keep the area around the trunk drier ..yet will retain a good amount of moisture at the root level. Color of the stone used dictates how much heat it can absorb / reflect / retain. Get plenty of Mushrooms / note other beneficial fungi growing in / under the stone layer, esp. when it rains.

Depending on type, stone will also slowly release various micro- nutrients / elements into the soil -over time, lessening < or nearly eliminating > the need to constantly fertilize.. Decaying organics that filter down into the soil also help w/ feeding hungry roots.

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I love when these topics come up, there’s more to growing plants and trees than just putting it in the ground.

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Being that you're in BC, I assume you, like me, could use a little more heat.  Rocks help create a thermal battery, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it after sundown.  I think this aids both the soil/roots and the aerial parts of the plant in absorbing a little more heat.  Rocks also look more natural, and go better aesthetically with palms than mulch.  My Trachycarpus looks OK in mulch but the mulch around my Chamaerops looks horrible, it just doesn't go.  Rocks also last forever, and chickens and other small animals can't mess up rocks, that's why I surround my smaller more tender plants in gravel.  My chickens love to scratch up my mulch on the other hand.  

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I saw a butia on here that was growing so fast within 4 years and its pretty huge and it had rocks around the base so I wonder

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Rocks. Mulch blows away and washes away. Top dressing under rocks, if necessary. 

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I use both rock and wood mulch for different reasons. Ultimately a mulch of some sort should definitely be used if just for moisture retention alone. Everyone has hit on the important points for both, but I would say the best advice for care of any plant in general is how they grow wild in habitat. Mimicking that with some extra care will get things on the right track.

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Here in coastal NC, you won't find a "wild" rock for miles.... So looking natural dosen't apply everywhere.

However, I think the dyed red bark mulch is an abomination!

That said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Perfection to some is a yard full of knockout roses, lollypop Bradford pears, and a bunch of meatball pruned hedges all beautifully edged and mulched with bags and bags of bright red bark. My weedy jungle is their nightmare. Haha

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Rocks don’t look natural in Florida, I love how rocks look in the Appalachian mountains though.  I do have a large faux rock covering my well pump and receive many compliments on it.   I use pine bark and pine straw for mulch in N Florida for my palms.  

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Teddytn makes a great point.  My canopy-shaded Arengas and Chamaedoreas, in understory beds, are mulched, closer to the leaf litter you'd find them growing in naturally.  I also prefer mulch for my bananas so their suckers have an easier time punching up from the ground.  

Rocks may not be natural in your native setting, but growing hand-picked palms in tactical locations probably doesn't look natural either.  Landscaping is an art, which means you must take some artistic liberties.  Even if you're growing boxwood and hollyhock, none of those plants showed up there on their own without human intervention.  So you've got to make some choices.  I guess there are 3 questions to ask yourself - 1.  How does it affect my plant?  2.  Is it practical?  3.  Does it achieve my goal/vision?

Edited by Jesse PNW
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Just speaking about mulch in general I’m a huge fan of wood mulch. I mulch all the palms I grow with wood mulch, except two, 1 being chamaerops humilis, the other washingtonia filifera. These are both in pots but mulched with pea gravel. Why? Because they simply inhabit drier conditions in nature so mimicking the conditions in which they grow in habitat is the best practice for all plants palms included. So all the plants I grow that occur naturally in a forest setting that would accumulate leaf liter get wood mulched. All succulents, cactus, agave and some others get rock mulched, for drainage, keeping the crown of the plant drier. Some plants grow better with more or less organic material as well. Best to take every plant on a case by case.

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The only thing around here that keeps the squirrels from digging up the roots is rocks.   I've had squirrels rip all of my seedlings out of nursery pots and leave them in the sun to die.  I lost a few hundred in one day that way.  And even the adult palms will get root damage from them.  My neighbor breeds them and the city won't do anything about it.

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I use both mulch and rock for all the reasons mentioned above!
;)
Just today, after having returned from a long trip I noticed quite some animal 'activity' on the garden. As for diggers, we have armadillo's, squirrels, rabbits, etc... what was interesting to see is that none of the plants that had a ring of rocks around them were dug up but the areas close around it were heavily tilled. See image of a young Jubaea x Yatay that would have been uprooted were it not for the rocks (the netting construction won't stop diggers and is more intended for deer).  

diggers.jpg

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Mulch. The sun heats up even white rocks scorching hot.

Meg

Palms of Victory I shall wear

Cape Coral (It's Just Paradise)
Florida
Zone 10A on the Isabelle Canal
Elevation: 15 feet

I'd like to be under the sea in an octopus' garden in the shade.

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  • 1 year later...

Hello from Victoria BC. First post here.  Realizing this is an old thread but going to ask anyway.  In Victoria BC, where we have wet and cold winters, wouldn’t the rocks just absorb the cold temps and and chill the ground below further? I see the rocks being helpful in the summer where they would absurd heat and transfer it to the soil but my measly brain tells me it the rocks wouldn’t help here in the winter. Thoughts? Thank you. 

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7 hours ago, Nemsterk01 said:

Hello from Victoria BC. First post here.  Realizing this is an old thread but going to ask anyway.  In Victoria BC, where we have wet and cold winters, wouldn’t the rocks just absorb the cold temps and and chill the ground below further? I see the rocks being helpful in the summer where they would absurd heat and transfer it to the soil but my measly brain tells me it the rocks wouldn’t help here in the winter. Thoughts? Thank you. 

Doubt the rocks would help you much. Not sure if you have hemlock mulch available up there, in New England it’s quite common, and far superior to anything I’ve found in the south east .

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On 1/27/2023 at 7:28 AM, Nemsterk01 said:

Hello from Victoria BC. First post here.  Realizing this is an old thread but going to ask anyway.  In Victoria BC, where we have wet and cold winters, wouldn’t the rocks just absorb the cold temps and and chill the ground below further? I see the rocks being helpful in the summer where they would absurd heat and transfer it to the soil but my measly brain tells me it the rocks wouldn’t help here in the winter. Thoughts? Thank you. 

On the sunny days we do get in the winter, the rocks will absorb the solar radiation from the sun. The effect won’t be nearly as profound as in the summer, but it still works. Darker rocks obviously work better for this. Half my garden is rock mulch and the other half is wood mulch. I use the rocks for my heat-loving palms and trees and it seems to work well for me. 

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Zone 8b, Csb (Warm-summer Mediterranean climate). 1,940 annual sunshine hours 
Annual lows-> 19/20: -5.0C, 20/21: -5.5C, 21/22: -8.3C, 22/23: -9.4C, 23/24: 1.1C (so far!)

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Wood mulch is discouraged in settings that are easily ignited from careless smokers discarded cigarette butts. I've bee using aggregate & lava rock as a mulch, no so much for that reason, but I just prefer it despite the higher cost.

 

Mulch1.jpg.556a0cb525a53ad724a3b761eb47fc90.jpg

 

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16 minutes ago, Las Palmas Norte said:

Wood mulch is discouraged in settings that are easily ignited from careless smokers discarded cigarette butts. I've bee using aggregate & lava rock as a mulch, no so much for that reason, but I just prefer it despite the higher cost.

 

Mulch1.jpg.556a0cb525a53ad724a3b761eb47fc90.jpg

Is that an echeveria bloom??

 

wxBanner?bannertype=wu_clean2day_cond&pw

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Rocks are mulch. There is organic mulching like wood chips and there is mineral mulching like gravel and such. From my experience young palms don't like rocky mulch as much as bigger ones do. I guess that's because before they've established some strong trunk it restricts their ability to do so at least a bit. Also it really looks like palms that come from rocky habitats can handle rocks even at a young age better than other palms. I have a Lava based bed where I grow mostly Californian/Mexican plants. Lava is a regional natural resource here and readily available because of it. It's radiating heat at night because of it's dark colour and it's quite porous which still provides good air exchange. Sabal uresana seems to be a palm that likes this kind of mulching already at a young age:

Capture.PNG.9bf3c00aef5a0b9f8b1f4710d11b5b89.PNG

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I'll chime in again here because I have quite a bit of both types, rock and wood mulch.  Over the years the wood mulch areas have developed much better soil and are the only way to deal with beds where you may want densely planted beds.  The rock areas I cuss at every time I want to move or plant something there because it is such a pita moving all the rocks back and forth.  But if you don't plan to have many plants and/or want a more desertscape look rocks are fine.  Rocks are great if you don't plan on updating or moving plants for many years.  BUT I enjoy the dense planted tropical beds a lot which are not possible with rock.

aug 2021 tropicals2.jpg

aug 2021 tropicals3.jpg

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YouTube https://www.youtube.com/@tntropics - 60+ In-ground 7A palms - (Sabal) minor(7 large + 27 seedling size, 3 dwarf),  brazoria(1) , birmingham(4), etonia (1) louisiana(5), palmetto (1), riverside (1),  (Trachycarpus) fortunei(7), wagnerianus(1),  Rhapidophyllum hystrix(7),  18' Mule-Butia x Syagrus(1),  Blue Butia odorata (1) +Tons of tropical plants.  Recent Yearly Lows -6F, -1F, 12F, 11F, 18F, 16F, 3F, 3F, 6F, 3F, 1F, 16F, 17F, 6F, 8F

 

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I have both mulch and river rock.

River rock areas do a great job of retaining moisture in summer believe it or not.  And those beds are always the first to defrost after a deep freeze.

Mulch does help improve the soil over time.

I like both for different reasons.

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6 hours ago, Chester B said:

I like both for different reasons.

Absolutely, I agree.  

Some palms like Queen Palms have weak roots and can topple over or be uprooted in wind storms.  Also CIDP's and Jubaea have large leaf canopies which are like sails in strong winds.  I have seen a few CIDP's in Brookings begin to lean after weeks of heavy rain followed by very strong winds.  Rocks piled around the base can help to stabilize like ballast.  I put a couple ton of rocks under and around my Jubaea when they started trunking, because I was worried about them toppling in strong winds.  If the look of rocks is undesired, they can be covered with thin layer of soil.   

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i like both. I have an area in the front yard that has mulch around my large sabal mexicana, then rocks around another sabal mexicana and mexican fan in the backyard. My windmill i have mulch around

Youtube - Okpalms 

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I like both as well however I choose mulch for a few reasons in my area.  We do get freezes in winter (high 8b) down to 15F sometimes and rocks would hold cold temperatures a lot longer , the same with hot temperatures.  It isn't perfectly balanced it goes from one extreme to the other.  Mulch is just in between it also gives the soil ( none colored) the right nutrients.  There's nothing wrong with rocks at all  just have different benefits to it. 

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Rocks vs mulch after the skiff of snow we had last night. Easy to see which one radiates more heat. 
AAEE71B0-18D3-41B6-A657-8D5768B5D5C4.thumb.jpeg.61493592186d4ab4c1383afca3bf6fc1.jpeg

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Zone 8b, Csb (Warm-summer Mediterranean climate). 1,940 annual sunshine hours 
Annual lows-> 19/20: -5.0C, 20/21: -5.5C, 21/22: -8.3C, 22/23: -9.4C, 23/24: 1.1C (so far!)

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1 hour ago, ShadyDan said:

Rocks vs mulch after the skiff of snow we had last night. Easy to see which one radiates more heat. 
AAEE71B0-18D3-41B6-A657-8D5768B5D5C4.thumb.jpeg.61493592186d4ab4c1383afca3bf6fc1.jpeg

If under that snow was red lava rock, you would see the same thing. Choose your rocks wisely(mass).

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9 hours ago, jwitt said:

If under that snow was red lava rock, you would see the same thing. Choose your rocks wisely(mass).

9 hours ago, jwitt said:

If under that snow was red lava rock, you would see the same thing. Choose your rocks wisely(mass).

 

9 hours ago, jwitt said:

If under that snow was red lava rock, you would see the same thing. Choose 

Mulch works like an insulation and between rocks and organic mulch such as bark, cedar etc it's the better choice hands down this is what everyone recommends where freezes occur it also helps to regulate soil temperature better which means a certain layer of organic mulch keeps roots from freezing or in the summer from overheating another benefit to it is giving the soil a better ph level . It's also proven that plants with mulch grow twice as fast. Like I said before there's nothing wrong with rocks but any plant will benefit more from organic mulch than rocks that's not my opinion it's a fact you can read in every article on Google mulch vs rocks.  The reason there's no snow on your rocks is simply as you mention heat radiation.  Rocks heat and cool a lot faster . Don't get blinded by not seeing snow on your rocks. I'll give you an example.  I used to live in a colder climate where snow and ice occurred almost every year. The roofs with the better insulation kept the heat inside,  snow was all on top of the roof. Not insulated roofs were clear from snow. 

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On 1/27/2023 at 3:28 PM, Nemsterk01 said:

Hello from Victoria BC. First post here.  Realizing this is an old thread but going to ask anyway.  In Victoria BC, where we have wet and cold winters, wouldn’t the rocks just absorb the cold temps and and chill the ground below further? I see the rocks being helpful in the summer where they would absurd heat and transfer it to the soil but my measly brain tells me it the rocks wouldn’t help here in the winter. Thoughts? Thank you. 

They would work, but not much in BC's winters. In climates where the days are warm and they can get cold nights rocks work really well at releasing the heat at night. In BC in the winter though on a sunny day they'd still radiate a slight amount of heat around the palm. The reason they might be better than mulch though is in you're wet cold winter's the rocks might keep the soil  drier, which is better for most palms than cold wet soil.

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2 hours ago, MarcusH said:

 

Mulch works like an insulation and between rocks and organic mulch such as bark, cedar etc it's the better choice hands down this is what everyone recommends where freezes occur it also helps to regulate soil temperature better which means a certain layer of organic mulch keeps roots from freezing or in the summer from overheating another benefit to it is giving the soil a better ph level . It's also proven that plants with mulch grow twice as fast. Like I said before there's nothing wrong with rocks but any plant will benefit more from organic mulch than rocks that's not my opinion it's a fact you can read in every article on Google mulch vs rocks.  The reason there's no snow on your rocks is simply as you mention heat radiation.  Rocks heat and cool a lot faster . Don't get blinded by not seeing snow on your rocks. I'll give you an example.  I used to live in a colder climate where snow and ice occurred almost every year. The roofs with the better insulation kept the heat inside,  snow was all on top of the roof. Not insulated roofs were clear from snow. 

Sorry for not being clear. Red lava rock(darker) will retain snow longer than river rock of a much lighter color. 

Sorry, but rocks were used to grow cotton in a climate with less than 160 day growing season, and probably is a reason for settling of the SW US by the Spanish.  

Probably won't find that info on Google tho. 

What is really interesting tho is what happens to a white rock at 24f regarding thermal radiation.  Very, very important if using rocks to warm the soil! That is easily googled. If you know, you know!

I was not comparing rocks to mulch. Sorry for the confusion.

Not sure I would what to amend the soil using mulch for a filifera which prefers a soil pH of 9.2 . But, that's me. 

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Like I said there's nothing wrong with adding rocks around the base of your palm trunk it won't do any harm or anything it's better than putting nothing on it and I agree it looks very good as well.  Filifera feels best in soil level from 6.1 to 9.1 ph numbers vary only by 0.5ph on the internet depending on what website you go to but this is your rule of thumb. You're also right .  Lava rocks prevent soil erosion and it's also porous they can absorb and slowly release excess water over time I haven't think about that yet 🤔.  Good idea. 

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I would think a layer of mulch would hold a lot ground heat under it.  Look how good a small pile of mulch did on my small S. minor in the beginning 2 minutes of this video.  This was in -1F/-17C with 88 hours under freezing and one day with a HIGH of 11F/-11C.  You can see how in various parts I used mulch to protect the palms

 

Edited by Allen
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YouTube https://www.youtube.com/@tntropics - 60+ In-ground 7A palms - (Sabal) minor(7 large + 27 seedling size, 3 dwarf),  brazoria(1) , birmingham(4), etonia (1) louisiana(5), palmetto (1), riverside (1),  (Trachycarpus) fortunei(7), wagnerianus(1),  Rhapidophyllum hystrix(7),  18' Mule-Butia x Syagrus(1),  Blue Butia odorata (1) +Tons of tropical plants.  Recent Yearly Lows -6F, -1F, 12F, 11F, 18F, 16F, 3F, 3F, 6F, 3F, 1F, 16F, 17F, 6F, 8F

 

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Mulch regulates soil temperature better keeps it warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Works like a perfect insulation with 2 to 3 inches layer for best results.  Choosing the right mulch is another factor.  

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5 hours ago, jwitt said:

Sorry for not being clear. Red lava rock(darker) will retain snow longer than river rock of a much lighter color. 

Sorry, but rocks were used to grow cotton in a climate with less than 160 day growing season, and probably is a reason for settling of the SW US by the Spanish.  

Probably won't find that info on Google tho. 

What is really interesting tho is what happens to a white rock at 24f regarding thermal radiation.  Very, very important if using rocks to warm the soil! That is easily googled. If you know, you know!

I was not comparing rocks to mulch. Sorry for the confusion.

Not sure I would what to amend the soil using mulch for a filifera which prefers a soil pH of 9.2 . But, that's me. 

Actually, darker rock ( Inc. Red lava / cinder ) will warm up / melt snow faster than light colored stone like certain light toned, high quartz bearing Granites / Basalts, and light colored Lime/ mudstone, or White Marble chips < by far the ugliest gravel mulch option on earth, imo, lol >

As for the overall debate,  as I have said numerous times over the years when this discussion crops up ..Ain't no one going around spreading woody chips across the hills out in nature..  if plants survive without it in nature,  they dont need it in the garden. 

Best organic "mulch" is the bounty of free leaves and spent flowers, etc that are shed by everything in the yard each year, left on the ground to decompose and enrich the soil.  

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