GARDENING : Palm Is Nursery's Fair-Weather Frond


It doesn't get much more Southern Californian than this. Tucked away on 2 acres in the foothills of east Orange is an oasis of swaying palm trees, where the slightest breeze produces the quiet rustle of fronds brushing against one another.

This is where Richard Vining chose to establish his nursery, Superior Palms, which specializes in the growing of palms.

"I've always liked them," Vining said of the thousands of trees growing in his nursery. "I got interested in pygmy date palms back in '64 and I've been caring and growing palm trees ever since."

Vining spends his days as a construction engineer. He became interested in palms in the early '60s while working with the supervisor of a nursery in Santa Ana.

"The owner gave me some tips on plants, and that really sparked my interest," he said. "Even today, I still specialize in pygmy date palms--the same kind I started out with long ago. Palms are a real specialty item, and I don't think they'll ever go out of style--at least not here."

Ironically, most palms aren't native to California. Most were transported from Southeast Asia, South America, or such places as Madagascar. However, palms acclimate rapidly, and the Southern California weather conditions permit them to prosper once they are established.

Vining spends most of his free time tending to the plants in his nursery and feeding the handful of quail that stop by in the morning to visit.

"Sometimes my job gets a little stressful, and working out here with lots of palm trees is very peaceful and quiet," he said. "That's why I like them . . . and I think that's what appeals to other people as well."

Homeowners whose property is near the nursery have told Vining they appreciate the proximity of the trees.

"One guy said he can see the trees from his window," Vining said. "He calls it his oasis."

As a wholesale grower, Vining sells the trees to nurseries, landscapers and installers. Today, his business is busier than ever with an increased interest in the stately trees.

"Some people think all this current interest in palms is a trend, but the truth is, palms have been around this area for quite some time," he said. "If you look at some the buildings and streets around, you'll see some very tall palms. Old photos of the Orange County Courthouse show lots of Queen Palms around it back then.

"This fascination with palms is nothing new. And if you know how long it takes a palm to grow, you'll know many of the trees have been here awhile."

So how long does it take a palm to grow?

Of course that depends on the type of palm (and there are just under 3,000 varieties), as well as the location. While palms can grow quickly in the tropics where rain falls all year, in Southern California, most are considered relatively slow-growing.

Queen palms grow fastest; Sago palms are among the slowest. But on an average, most palm trees take about 12 years to grow 15 feet--about a foot a year. That, of course, is assuming that they are being cared for properly.

"Actually, most palms are pretty low-maintenance once they're established," Vining said. "That's probably another reasons why folks like them. You do need to fertilize them and see that they get water, but in comparison to other trees and plants, they're pretty easy. They're also relatively pest-free."

Vining recommends "feeding" a palm about every month or two during the summer.

"I'd fertilize in April, May, July, August and September then stop," he said. "You want to harden off the roots before winter. You don't want palms growing in the winter because of the colder temperatures. Remember, these trees are used to heat, so if they're dormant during the cooler months, that's fine."

However, that doesn't mean palm owners are off the hook once fall arrives. Vining cautions palm owners to avoid the "burns" that sometimes appear on palm fronds when frost crystals form on the leaves.

"In Orange County, we are susceptible to frost, especially in the mornings," Vining said. "Sometimes if you walk around a palm you can see dry yellow or brown marks. They almost look like burns. This occurs when frost settles on the fronds and then the sun burns the crystals off. Over time, this can dehydrate the tree. I try to get out early in the morning and spray off the crystals before the sun can melt them."

Yet, for the most part, palms do very well in Southern California.

"Southern California is a rare environment," Vining said. "Almost all varieties of palms can be grown out here, and 90% of them do very well. Once they're acclimated to the dry weather and lack of humidity, there are rarely problems. We have people who grow palms from all parts of the world because they tend to do well here."

Their tough, hard leaves often serve to keep the hot Santa Ana winds from drying them out. According to Vining, once the palm has been established in the ground, it is fairly drought resistant.

"Palms have a mass of roots that tend to stay closer to the surface so the water doesn't have to sink down too far," he said. "Yet you can plant them fairly close to sidewalks or streets without having to worry about them pushing up through the concrete."

Aside from their practical nature, Vining believes most people like palms because they associate the tall trees with peace and quiet.

"The slightest breeze makes them rustle, and it's a comforting, peaceful sound," he said. "Everyone is so busy and in such a hurry that hearing the wind blowing through palm trees is very soothing and calming."

Vining usually plants palms together in groups of two or three, of varying sizes.

"People like to group them around water, whether it's a pool, spa or fountain," he said. "They provide a nice backdrop. And if they're in different sizes, you see lots of long, lacy foliage."

Vining estimates that 90% of the palms he sells end up in private residences. Some owners get so attached to the trees, that if they move, they pack up the palms along with the furniture.

"Because of their root mass, they tend to be easier to move than other trees," Vining said. "Since they grow slowly, some people just keep them in boxes if they're expecting to move in a year or two. The truth is, it's often less expensive to move a palm than it is to buy a new one."

Depending on the variety and size of the tree, customers can plan on spending anywhere from $20 for a tree in a 5-gallon container to $800 for a tall, older tree. Vining's most popular trees are in 15-gallon containers and average about $65 each. At this stage, they are 12 to 18 inches thick at the trunk.

"I figure a tree in a 15-gallon container is about 5 years old," Vining said. "That's about the time it takes me to grow it from a seedling."

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