The Sabal genus of palms has approximately 14 species, give or take a few. Some have trunks and some have little or none that are visible. This is important to distinguish when transplanting Sabals. Secondly, there are two ways to transplant a Sabal. One way is very easy and produces great results almost every time and the other is quite difficult.
The easy way of transplanting a Sabal is by obtaining pot grown specimens. It will have to have been grown essentially from seed in a pot and it will take several years for it to obtain decent size. There is very little transplant shock when transferring the Sabal to a permanent home in the ground. The roots are largely undisturbed and as such, the palm can focus its energies on foliage growth rather than root reconstruction. Pot grown Sabals can be transplanted at basically any age, including when they are trunkless. This is significant as a trunkless Sabal has almost no sugar storage for root regeneration and death is a near guarantee if it is cut from the ground rather than pot grown.
So, what kind of Sabal are you transplanting? If you have a trunked Sabal, such as Sabal palmetto or Sabal mexicana, you have two options. Pot growing is an absolute must if you wish to plant a Sabal that will almost never trunk above ground, for the reasons stated above. Sabal minor, Sabal etonia, or others that take a while to trunk such as Sabal ‘Birmingham’ or Sabal ‘Louisiana’. Trying to transplant a field grown variety of the above palms without a visible trunk is a fool’s errand and will almost never be successful. However, if you are looking to transplant a trunked Sabal, you have a second option. Field grown Sabals can be dug and moved to a new location provided that they have several feet of trunk. The rule is that a minimum of 6 feet of trunk is necessary. After the palm is dug from the ground, generally any root strands that are damaged will die. It is nearly impossible to save the majority of the root system on a Sabal, no matter how valiant your efforts are.
It is possible to transplant a Sabal with less than 6 feet of trunk down to about 3 feet but specifically intense care will be necessary. Even a Sabal with 6 feet or more can be lost if proper attention is not given in the months following the transplant process.
First of all, do not plant a Sabal when the temperatures are less than 60s or 70s for highs and low 50s at night. This is the minimum and really, if you can be patient, a day/night temp average of 80/60 is far better. Sabals are subtropical palms and need heat to grow. Specifically they need heat at the root system to grow well. Cold roots will make the palm lethargic, regardless of the air temperatures. In Memphis TN, this means April and May are the best months for planting. Freezes are not a threat after March and the average temperatures are in the required range for Sabal growth. In locales north of Memphis, May to June would be ideal. Outside of nearly tropical or truly tropical areas, do not plant a Sabal past July as the palm needs enough time to establish itself before winter. Places south of Memphis, toward the Gulf Coast can plant Sabals in March. In central and southern Florida and southern Texas, Sabals can be transplanted at any time of year.
So, you’ve put your new Sabal in the ground at a decent time of year in late spring or early summer. Now what? Don’t walk away and expect the palm to take care of itself! Sabals need to be pampered like a celebrity lap dog for their first season in the ground.
If you planted a pot grown Sabal, water it once per day in the morning for the first month, unless you get a decently hard rain. Watering in the morning has a slight benefit for the palm. It will have all day for the water to heat up with the roots, then the ground remains warm throughout the night. If you water in the evening, the water will cool the roots of the palm down and you will lose growth time as the sun won’t be able to reheat the palm until the following day. Basically, you get more growth time by watering in the morning. After a month of this, you can slow down the watering to every other day (again holding off when you get substantial rainfall). Going into the third and fourth month, two or three times per week is sufficient unless temperatures are in the high 90s or over 100.
With a field dug Sabal, you won’t get by so easily. Immediately after planting the palm, soak the site thoroughly until it is soaking wet. Do not leave the palm dry in the ground, no matter what the nursery or palm transplanting company you hired says. Also make sure that the Sabal does not have more than a handful of emerging fronds. They need to be “hurricane cut” as shown below which is where most of the fronds are removed before transplanting.
For the first three months, do not let your new Sabal dry out at any point. Watering two to three times per day for the first month is absolutely necessary, even when it rains. Going into the third month, you can cut back watering to once per day in the morning. Continue watering once per day into the fourth month unless you get a solid rain event. By the fifth month, which should be late summer in Memphis and similar climates, you can cut back to watering once or twice per week. Going into the first of November, stop watering the palm altogether. The palm cannot do much growth in colder weather in our climate, so there is no need to drown it.
When you water your palm in the first few months after transplanting, wet down the trunk during each watering, but please note that you should avoid putting water directly into the bud area of the Sabal. Do not run a hose into the area where new frond spears emerge. In the initial months, doing this will cause bud rot and can kill your palm. If you do suspect that this is happening, use a copper based fungicide and spray it into the bud area. Wait at least a week or two before applying it again if you need to. Personally, I have never had to do it more than once on a rot distressed palm.
With a field dug palm, you should begin noticing slight growth after about two months, then more speedy and steady growth after three to four months. You can expect three or four new fronds before fall, sometimes more depending on the health of the palm and the amount of care you give it.
Warning – Do not fertilize your field dug Sabal at any point during the first year in the ground. If you have a palm transplanting company install the palm for you, do not allow them to fertilize the palm either. All you need the first year is water and heat. By late summer, when your new Sabal is starting to grow at a good pace, do not fall for the temptation to fertilize it. You will do far more harm than good as your palm is still not healthy enough. The palm roots are recovering and can’t handle the extra jolt.
I have seen far too many people transplant Sabals and promptly abandon them to nature to handle. Remember that nature does not transplant palms, so there is no “natural” regular rainfall amount that will be enough for your new Sabal. Water, water, water!
Here is an example of a Sabal that was left to the elements after being transplanted. It receives no water except for the occasional rain event. In Memphis, this can mean weeks at a time with no water, and often during extreme heat spells. This Sabal was put in the ground very early in the year and had all summer 2015 to establish itself. However, because the owners do not water it, the palm looks essentially the same as the day it was planted. This is an incredible waste of money and waste of a palm that had great potential. It has barely limped along for the last couple of years and will not survive.
So take care of your transplanted Sabal and you will enjoy it for a long time!