Your backyard oasis looks like an absolute paradise—it must be because of the palm tree! You can bring even more of a tropical flair to your yard by planting other species at its base. But before you begin, you should know there are several species that you must NOT plant under your palm tree!
Palm trees grow best in warm climates. They also have a delicate balance of nitrogen and potassium requirements. This means many plants, including pansies, violets, snapdragons, nemesia, diascia, petunias, grass, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, collards, and kale, do not grow well under palm trees.
Let’s talk about what palm trees need to thrive and why some plants just will not get along with your palm. But first, is a palm tree even the type of plant we thought it was?
Is A Palm Tree Even Considered a Tree?
A palm tree is more closely related to grass than it is to other species of trees!
The inside of a palm tree trunk is made of spongy, flexible material that enables it to withstand powerful windstorms. Instead of growing outward branches, it produces long leaves that come from a central bud.
Contrast that with what we would traditionally consider a “tree”: an inflexible, wooden trunk with branches and leaves.
Palm leaves are called “fronds”. Fronds grow in a ring-like pattern around the center, similar to how petals form on a flower.
As a palm tree grows taller and new fronds erupt from the top of the tree, the fronds on the bottom will die. This creates a layer of dead leaves along the trunk known as a “frond skirt”.
Unlike the leaves on a deciduous tree, which drop once autumn arrives, a palm tree’s frond skirt will remain in place unless it is cut away.
(Contact a professional if you would like to remove the frond skirt from your palm tree because it can be deceptively heavy!)
If palms are so different from traditional trees, why do we call them trees?
It helps to remember that scientists and specialists in other trades will frequently categorize objects differently from one another. Let’s use tomatoes as an example.
A scientist would consider a tomato to be a fruit because it is the seed-bearing part of the plant. A chef, on the other hand, would call a tomato a vegetable due to how it pairs with savory dishes.
Both definitions are correct: it just depends on the purpose of the category.
Palms are considered trees because that is the role they play in our yards, gardens, landscaping, and the wild.
Palm trees are tall and provide shade and beauty. They help prevent soil erosion with their roots. Palm trees also turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and can live for decades if treated correctly.
Just like any other tree, it would be a shame to leave the space underneath it empty. Just don’t make the mistake of settling for any old plant!
What Does A Palm Tree Need To Grow Successfully?
Plants that grow underneath a palm tree must not interfere with what the palm needs to be healthy: the proper amount of water, neutral soil pH, correct nutrient balances, and temperatures above 40º F.
Water: Just as with other species of trees, there are many subspecies, or types, of palm trees. Some are adapted to climates with less water (such as a desert) while others crave constant humidity and more frequent rainfall.
One thing they all have in common is a need for the proper amount of water. Make sure neighboring plants are not stealing it!
The type of soil can also affect how often you water. Sandy soils do not hold on to moisture in the same way that clay-based soils do, meaning that you would need to water more often.
Keep in mind too that the soil needs to dry out in between waterings for a palm tree to be healthy. The roots create a large anchor by forming into the shape of a ball in dry soil. This is one of a palm tree’s secrets to surviving hurricanes!
If you’re curious about growing palm trees in the desert, learn more here: 12 Trees That Can Grow In The Desert (And How They Do It)
Soil pH: Palm trees do best with neutral soil, meaning a reading that is between 6.5-7.5 on a pH scale. You will need to test your soil to know the pH for certain. Although some outliers can handle extremes, palm trees generally prefer soil that is neither too acidic nor too alkaline.
Learn more about acid and alkaline soil here: What pH Level Do Trees Actually Like For Best Growth?
Nutrient Balances: Just like you need the proper nutrients to grow big and strong, so does your palm tree! The University of Florida identified the most common palm tree nutrient problems as (1) potassium deficiency and (2) nitrogen overdose.
You will likely need to fertilize your palm tree to keep it in its best health. There are several ways you can accomplish this.
Miracle-Gro Shake ‘N Feed Palm Plant Food is available in 8-pound bags. One application will feed your palm tree for up to three months! This plant food is specially formulated to balance a palm tree’s high potassium need and lower nitrogen appetite.
Another method is to use Jobe’s Fern & Palm Fertilizer Spikes, which come in packs of 30. The number of spikes you stick into the ground around the tree depends on the size of your palm tree.
(Bigger tree= more fertilizer needed!) It’s recommended that you replace the spikes every 60 days.
Temperatures: It’s not a coincidence that you only see palm trees in warmer climates. Palms cannot tolerate freezing temperatures for long periods.
What Is The Coldest Temperature A Palm Tree Can Tolerate?
Researchers from Columbia University have determined the absolute “boundary line” of where palm trees can reproduce in the wild is if the average temperature of the area’s coldest month is above 36°F.
This can lead to some unexpected, odd, and even humorous situations. For instance, palm trees have been spotted at the base of the Swiss Alps!
Yes, those famous, snow-covered mountains! Scientists have found that the temperature in those spots rarely dips below freezing, so palm trees can propagate. (How did they get to the Alps? They originated from an “escaped” potted plant.)
The theory is that more and more places will be able to grow palm trees successfully as the climate changes.
For more information about growing palm trees in colder areas, check out our article: Here’s Why You Can’t Grow Tropical Palm Trees In New York
Research published in Scientific Report Journal describing global fossil distribution can even give us a glimpse of what ancient climates were like. Since most species of palm tree struggle with temperatures below 40° F (5° C), the presence of palm tree fossils is powerful evidence of a mild winter.
In general, palm trees prefer USDA Hardiness Zones of 8-13 (although individual species may vary). These are places where the temperature rarely (if ever) falls below 32° in the winter.
If the climate is right, palm trees will grow there. That’s why you’ll find them in the United States in places like Arizona, California, Florida, and Louisiana.
Even Utah, which boasts of “The Greatest Snow on Earth” on its license plate, has palm trees growing in the southern part of the state!
Learn more about growing palm trees in unexpected places in our piece: 5 Reasons New Orleans Has Palm Trees (Plus Growing Tips)
What NOT To Grow Under Your Palm Tree
Now that we understand a palm tree’s preferences regarding water, soil pH, nutrients, and temperature, let’s talk about what plants will interfere with these balances. Here are 17 plants NOT to plant under a palm tree.
The University of Florida recommends these little flowers to residents as a placeholder in their garden when the weather gets cold. They are not recommended for hot weather.
Generally, pansies prefer much cooler temperatures than your palm tree will want. Choose a flower from a more tropical location for a happier tree.
“Roses are red
Violets are blue.
If you want a happy palm
This plant will not do!”
Like pansies, violets prefer cooler temperatures. If your yard has the warm temperatures your palm tree likes, then sadly, violets will not do well in your yard.
Snapdragons are a classic in flower gardens all over the world. However, they are not a classic friend to palm trees. Snapdragons wilt when the temperature gets too hot.
If you want a cottage-style flower garden, placing it underneath your palm tree is the wrong location.
This flower, nicknamed “Cape Snapdragon”, is native to South Africa and is gaining popularity in North America. Don’t be tricked into thinking the yellow color means heat, summer, and warmth, though.
Nemesia is a springtime bedding plant and prefers cooler temperatures.
Diascia is a cousin of Nemesia and Snapdragons. I suppose you could say cold blood runs in the family because diascia is yet another flower that finds a balmy tropical paradise to be too warm.
Even if the temperature didn’t matter, palm trees and diascia still wouldn’t get along. Diascia prefers more acidic soil than a palm tree will tolerate.
Petunias are another classic flower that you will find in flower gardens from North to South. They love warm weather.
So why don’t petunias get along with palm trees? Probably because petunias do well in rough places.
Part of why petunias are so popular is because they can easily grow in poor, acidic soils. Most palm trees prefer something close to the middle of the pH scale.
I know, I know. You’ve seen grass growing under a palm tree. Perhaps there’s even grass growing under your palm tree right now. Maybe it even appears to be fine. But hear me out—growing grass underneath your palm tree is horrific for the health of the tree.
Grass requires high levels of nitrogen to be healthy. This is simply too much for your palm tree to handle.
In fact, it’s recommended that you use different fertilizers on your palm tree than you would use on your grass. Consider removing the sod from under your palm tree and replacing it with plants that would make better companions to your tree.
Broccoli loves soil with high nitrogen levels. As you may recall, one of the most common nutritional issues in palm trees is nitrogen overdose. Broccoli and palm trees have opposite nitrogen needs.
In addition, broccoli does better with cooler temperatures. The part of the broccoli that we eat is the flower buds. Broccoli is harvested before the flowers bloom. If broccoli gets too warm, it will “bolt”, or flower, rendering it useless for eating. It’s better to keep broccoli and palm trees in different gardens.
Cabbage is a hardy, cool-season crop. It comes in many colors and can look decorative (even though it is primarily grown for food).
Aside from their temperature differences though, cabbage and palm trees have different nutritional needs. Cabbage needs high levels of nitrogen to grow healthy. Plant it elsewhere.
Turnips are a root vegetable that people seem rather polarized about: they either love it or they hate it. As far as turnips are concerned, palm trees stand firmly in the “hate” category.
First of all, turnips grow underground. This would harm your palm tree’s root system similarly to carrots and potatoes. Turnips also have high nitrogen needs. This would render the soil desolate to the palm tree.
Collards are the loose leaf cousins of cabbage. They are also a palm tree’s worst nightmare. You see, collards and palm trees have completely different nitrogen and temperature needs.
Collards need high nitrogen and cooler temperatures. As you can probably imagine, your palm tree would wilt under these conditions.
To make it worse, however, collards also have high potassium requirements. This is the same nutrient palm trees already have a risk of being deficient in. This is a terrible combination.
Kale might be trendy to put in smoothies, but it’s a terrible mix to plant it under palm trees.
Kale lives in cool temperatures, has high nitrogen needs, and will steal all the potassium from the soil (leaving none for your palm tree). Try a different plant.
Potatoes prefer acidic soil, but that’s not the only area in which they will clash with the neutral soil-loving palm tree. Palm trees have shallow roots that are extremely close to the surface of the dirt.
Potatoes form tubers deep in the ground. If the potatoes take root, it will harm the fragile roots of your palm.
Potatoes also require high nitrogen levels, something that would hurt your palm tree. Pass the potatoes, please!
Just like a palm tree, carrots enjoy neutral soil. However, carrots face a similar predicament to potatoes. Since carrots must grow deep into the earth to form a healthy crop, they cannot grow in the tangled web of surface-level roots under a palm tree.
Plant your carrots in a spot where they have enough room.
Lettuce is a cool weather crop. It prefers to grow in temperatures that would cause a palm tree to grow poorly. In addition, lettuce needs direct sunlight to form its leaves correctly.
The filtered light from under a palm tree will not be sufficient for the lettuce to grow properly.
It might sound kind of silly to plant a tree under a tree, but layering shorter and taller trees is something that naturally happens in a forest. It can look beautiful in your yard, too! Why not plant an apple tree under your palm tree?
The biggest conflict is that apple trees and palm trees both need high amounts of potassium. This nutritional competition would end badly for both trees.
In addition, many people prefer to eat crisp apples. Unless apples have gone through a period of frost before harvest, they are often mushy. The best apples grow in cooler climates, not the tropical areas palm trees grow in.
Trees aren’t necessarily an awful choice, though! If you’re interested in planting another palm tree in your garden, check out how to do it correctly in our piece: 10 Best Steps For Transporting Palm Trees (And How To Do It)
If you’ve ever gone raspberry picking, it can feel like heaven to pop a juicy, sweet red berry in your mouth on a hot summer’s day. Why not plant some raspberry bushes under your palm tree?
Sadly, like many fruits, raspberry plants need high levels of potassium. This nutrient is already scarce for palm trees. Planting raspberries underneath your palm tree would cause it harm because of potassium deficiency.
What Can I Put Under My Palm Tree?
Here are some plants that will flourish when planted alongside your palm tree: 9 Beautiful Plants To Put Under Your Palm Tree
Aside from planting other greenery, some people wonder if it’s okay to put sand or soil around the base of their palm tree.
If you are hoping to incorporate a flat, even surface of sand or soil, there’s nothing inherently harmful to your palm tree. This leaves the proper amount of space between the roots and the surface.
The problem comes when individuals form a mound or pile of soil at the base of their palm. Adding even ½” of additional soil to an existing tree can upset its root system.
Another hazardous choice is to surround your palm tree with rocks or gravel. This can increase the temperature of the ground and damage a palm tree’s root system.
Stick with organic materials such as mulch and keep them at ground level. If you choose to add some foliage, stay away from the 17 plants listed above and you can’t go wrong!
Aronsohn, M. D. N. (2018, March 23). Palm trees are spreading northward. how far will they go? State of the Planet.
Moore, R. J. (2008). Growing Palms. Volume 52(4).
Reichgelt, T., West, C.K. & Greenwood, D.R. The relation between global palm distribution and climate. Sci Rep 8, 4721 (2018).
Smith, Kevin T. 2013. Do you believe in palm trees? Landscape Hawaii. January|February 2013: 14-16.