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Palms spring in Sacramento, even with the cold

Video: Tour Neil Miner's cold-hardy palm garden

Palm tree collector Neil Miner introduces gardeners to his cold-hardy palms growing in Elverta near Sacramento, Calif. Interviewed by Debbie Arrington, The Sacramento Bee.
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Palm tree collector Neil Miner introduces gardeners to his cold-hardy palms growing in Elverta near Sacramento, Calif. Interviewed by Debbie Arrington, The Sacramento Bee.

In a subdivision on the edge of farmland north of Sacramento, Neil Miner created his own oasis.

Everywhere he looks, interesting and intriguing palms unfurl their sturdy fronds. Catching the Delta breeze, fan-shaped leaves stretch out in many shades of green, from palest silver blue to radiant emerald. Among the palms, desert plants form living starbursts and spiky contrast to the graceful trees overhead.

This is Miner’s idea of paradise.

“When I sit outside, it’s like I’m on vacation,” he said. “I’m surrounded by all this beauty.”

Vacations in tropical climates from Malaysia to Mexico inspired Miner to get into palms. A Sacramento native, he fell in love with these exotic plants and decided he would devote his backyard to experimentation. He wanted to see what he could grow here.

“I love to travel,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, and I became fascinated with them. They just look so cool.”

His 1.3-acre Elverta landscape is studded with tropical rarities and desert wonders he collected from around the world.

For several years, Miner operated his own palm specialty nursery while working as a guard at Folsom Prison.

“It was just too much work,” he said. “I couldn’t do both at the same time, so I put the palms on hold.”

Now retired, he plans to reopen his Great Valley Palms nursery next year.

“This is my retirement project, a work in progress,” Miner said as he toured his unique garden. “I don’t understand why more people don’t grow palms in Sacramento. Obviously, they love it here.”

As gardeners become more water-conscience, interest in palms is growing, say California gardening and nursery experts. So much so that the University of California’s cooperative extension added a section on palms to its recently updated “California Master Gardener Handbook.”

More than 2,600 species of palms grow in tropical, semi-tropical and other warm climates worldwide. The challenge comes in matching the right palm with a particular garden.

“Every palm has its own needs,” Miner said. “There are some palms that grow in downtown Sacramento that I can’t grow here, just 15 miles away. (In the city), all the buildings, streets and sidewalk form a heat island and keep the palms warmer.”

Miner’s palms have withstood stern winter tests. After several years of growing palms in Antelope, he started planting this Elverta garden eight years ago.

“I know for a fact that these palms can survive 18 degrees,” he said.

Native to South America, pindo palms (Butia capitata) rank among the world’s most popular palms for their graceful arcing leaves that look like gigantic green feathers. Nicknamed jelly palm, pindos bear fruit that tastes and looks like loquats.

Another South American import, Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis) bear their own unusual fruit: coquitos.

“They’re like little coconuts,” Miner said, as he broke open the walnut-size dark brown shell with a hammer. “They taste just like coconut, too.”

The slow-growing tree also resembles its close Hawaiian cousins. The biggest difference?

“You can’t grow coconut palms in Sacramento; they won’t survive one winter,” Miner said. “But these Chilean trees can really take the cold.”

The drawback – or another positive – is their ultra-slow growth. Young trees look like a mass of palm leaves sprouting from almost ground level. Chilean wine palms take almost 20 years to form their adult main trunk and reach a 20-foot height. But then, their elephant gray trunks start growing vertically – as much as a foot a year.

Topping out at about 80 feet, several century-old Chilean wine palms dot landscapes throughout Northern California, including an impressive specimen in Capitol Park.

Most familiar in Sacramento is the fast-growing Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta). It’s spread by birds, who love its fruit and seeds. Drought- and salt-tolerant, these popular palms grow several feet a year and can reach 100 feet.

“There’s only one native palm to California and that’s the California fan palm,” Miner said. “It looks similar to the Mexican fan palm (its close cousin), but grows slower.”

2,600Species of palms that grow worldwide

While most gardeners think of palms growing along a tropical beach, many species are native to unexpected locations.

“The Bolivian mountain coconut palm grows at 8,000 to 10,000 feet elevation in dry, dusty valleys,” Miner said. “The Mazari palm is native to mountains in Iraq. It has the most beautiful silver-blue leaves and really loves our summer heat, but it can also really take the cold.”

Other winter-hardy palms such as the mule palm are hybrid crosses of other cold-tolerant species.

The key to their Sacramento survival is winter hardiness. That comes once the palms are established in the ground, Miner noted. They still tend to be vulnerable to cold while in containers.

Contrary to their tropical look, many palms can be an eye-catching addition to water-wise gardens.

“They look so lush, but actually they are pretty low-water,” Miner said. “I water all my trees by hand. I tend to water them twice a week in summer, because that’s when they’re growing – they need that water. But in winter, they go months without water.”

Slow, deep irrigation encourages palms to send down deeper roots. That also gives them a stronger foothold.

“The only thing that will kill them is too much water,” Miner said. “You don’t want to plant them in a soggy location.”

Otherwise, palms need little maintenance or care, he said. To promote growth, Miner feeds his trees basic balanced fertilizer three times a year: April, June and August.

Palms thrive in clay soil, he added. “That’s one thing we have a lot of here – clay soil. But it holds moisture and nutrients; that’s perfect for palms.”

Miner’s advice for would-be palm gardeners: Plan ahead.

“They get so big, you’ve got to think ahead (and envision) just how big these trees will grow,” he said. “That’s the mistake most people make; they buy small palms and plant them all close together. But most palms won’t stay small. You could end up with a bunch of 100-foot trees.”

Debbie Arrington: (916) 321-1075, @debarrington

More on palms

To arrange a visit to Neil Miner’s palm garden: greatvalleypalms@comcast.net

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