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What to do with palm fronds, the stubborn garden waste that defies composting

What to do with palm fronds, the stubborn garden waste that defies composting
Dead, dry palm fronds litter the banks of Echo Park Lake after heavy winds near downtown Los Angeles in November, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

So palm trees are a little like family here in Southern California.

Of course we love them. They are woven into our lives like freeways, infusing our skylines with a willowy grace. But like most loved ones, they’re often a royal pain in the … compost. Because they don’t. Compost, that is.

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“Palm stuff just never breaks down,” said Manuel Gomez, superintendent for the city of Los Angeles’ Department of Solid Waste Resources.

Which is kind of the problem, because as every SoCal resident knows, palm trees shed, and we’re not talking gentle fluffs of fur. Those glistening leaves on high turn into huge withered fronds when they fall to the ground, with thorns, messy seeds and enough heft to break a windshield or flatten a passerby.

And when we have the sort of Santa Ana winds we’ve just had, those hulking fronds litter sidewalks, roads, roofs and yards, dangling precariously from wires and trees like withered ornaments on a sad Christmas tree.

Most SoCal municipalities will pick up piles of fronds for free at least once or twice a year, if residents request the service and put them in a pile.

But then what, La La Land? We can yank out our lawns, drive electric cars and compost till the cows come home, but how are we going to keep mountains of palm fronds from filling our dumps?

The state’s goal is to keep all organic matter out of landfills, “but palm fronds are super tough, in every single way,” said Robert Horowitz, an organics unit supervisor at CalRecycle, the state agency that oversees all things waste-related.

“On the one hand, they’re kind of an amazing material … you could retrofit busted-out beach umbrellas with palm fronds and they would probably last forever. But they’re also chipper killers. They damage grinding machines because they’re just too fibrous.”

Seeds are another big problem, says Gomez. Most green waste facilities make mulches and soil amendments, such as the city’s TOPGRO products, which it distributes free to gardeners and farmers. But when they tried to add palm waste, users rebelled.

“Palms have seeds that do not die,” Gomez said. “Even if they’re composted for a full 60 days, we kill everything else but the palm seeds. People want to nourish their soil. They don’t want to grow palms.”

So what to do? It’s complicated.

Dead fronds fly off a tall Mexican Fan Palm during high winds in Northridge in December, 1996
Dead fronds fly off a tall Mexican Fan Palm during high winds in Northridge in December, 1996 (Irfan Khan)

First, some history

Riverside was actually the first SoCal city to use palms as street trees, when it planted a double row of tall, skinny Mexican fan palms along its famous Victoria Avenue in the 1920s, said Robert Filiar, urban forester manager for the city of Riverside. The 85-square-mile city now has more than 150,000 street trees, he said, including 25,000 palms.

Separate and save

If your waste company allows it, one or two palm fronds can be crammed in your green bin (wear gloves to avoid their thorns!). But for a pile, call your city hall to get them carted for free. If you mix them with other yard trimmings and drive them to the dump, be prepared to pay nearly double the green waste rates. Rates vary, but it costs a minimum of $37 to dump yard trimmings in the green waste facility at the Scholl Canyon Landfill near Glendale. If fronds are mixed in, you’ll be sent to the landfill, where the starting base fee is $58, said John Chung, supervising engineer for the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.

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Fronds are a bigger headache for professionals. West Coast Arborists, for instance, contracts with more than 200 cities in California to trim municipal trees, said Andy Trotter, vice president of field operations. Palm fronds make up just a small percentage of their overall waste, but their disposal “is the most expensive part of our waste stream.” That’s because the company chips most of its nonpalm branches and dumps them at composting sites for free or very low cost. Landfills, on the other hand, charge $35 to $50 a ton for dumping palm fronds, Trotter said, and trucks typically carry 3 to 10 tons.

Talk about invasive

Palms don’t need much encouragement to grow — just a little moisture and they’re off, said Keith Condon, deputy forester for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “They’re very invasive, especially in riparian areas, and they can really increase the fire danger in those areas, because they ignite pretty readily. Embers that blow from a high source tend to travel further, so imagine palm fronds on fire, blowing through the air, and landing on somebody’s roof.”

The familiar row of tall skinny palms turn into giant sparklers during a fire, sending embers flying here in the Lilac Fire in Bonsall in December, 2017
The familiar row of tall skinny palms turn into giant sparklers during a fire, sending embers flying here in the Lilac Fire in Bonsall in December, 2017 (Gina Ferazzi)

Trim from above, never below

It’s safest to use a boom truck to trim palm trees from above, says Condon. Every year, one or two people are killed or seriously injured by trying to trim a skirt of fronds from below, he said. “People climb up the tree with a chainsaw and start to cut those lower fronds off, and the weight causes the fronds to collapse around them. One frond isn’t that heavy, but when you have hundreds, potentially with bird nests or rat nests inside them, that creates a lot of weight and people basically get crushed and can’t breathe.”

A (paltry) couple of options

Dried palm frond stalks make great kindling (if you have the patience to strip off the leaves and cut them into smaller sticks). But palm grower Jim Parks has made a business out of chipping fronds and mixing them with dates to create livestock feed. Parks said he got the idea when he saw cows nibbling on palm fronds. Now his business, Palm Silage, has a patent-pending grinding plant in Phoenix and another near his home in Thermal, near Coachella. He wants to install more around Los Angeles, but many trimmers still make the drive to Thermal, he said, because he charges just $50 a truckload for fronds, versus the $150 to $500 the same trucks would pay for dumping in a landfill.

The process could change the lives of poor farmers all over the world, he said, using unwanted palm fronds to feed livestock in water-starved lands.

And maybe rehabilitate a pesky icon here at home.

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