Monday, August 31, 2015

Rescued Butterfly Bush

Freshly transplanted Butterfly Bush

One of the things we love to do when we visit the 'big box' home improvement stores towards the end of a season is to look for the bargains.  It's the best time to buy 'seasonal' stuff that you know you'll use next year anyway.  Most of my gardening tools that we've bought new (most of our tools are actually either my grandma's or are from thrift stores) were from sales like that.  It's part of making gardening financially sustainable. 

Even better is when we find plants languishing on the 'clearance' racks.  The poor things! We are sorely tempted to buy the whole rack of them, but usually manage to restrain ourselves to getting the ones that look like they are more likely to survive after a little TLC.  In this case, we found a shrub with very few broken branches, a well developed main stem, no signs of disease (such as weeping bark, weird growths or galls etc) and dry, but relatively well developed leaves.  This one also had only a couple of previous flowers on it which is good in this case as a profusion of flowers tends to indicate that the plant is really stressed and attempting to ensure the survival of its kind by throwing all of its remaining resources into seed production. This process of looking the plant over critically is kind of like triage for plants. 

This season, one of the plants we've rescued is this Butterfly bush
Buddleia davidii.  It's a perennial that will die back to the root crown after a hard freeze and then grow back up the next spring to be about two or three feet tall, assuming of course that they have adequate root reserves.  If the plant is under-watered and stressed the growing season before it freezes, it will just die.  If we don't have any hard freezes during the winter (which sometimes happens here) it will continue to grow and get to be a bigger plant.  Though they start out small when we buy them, these are true shrubs and can get to be around 15 feet tall and about 10 feet wide if people don't prune them to death and if they are planted in a good spot with protection from North winds yet still enough room between the trunk and the nearest hard, immobile structure or walkway to grow.  With perennial plants, a good deal of thought put into where and how it is planted will give you a healthy plant. Lack of planning gives you either a dead plant in the near future or a headache of a plant that is always 'in the way'.  

This little gal that we've rescued has the start of a true trunk with a layer of grey, corkey, shredded bark, so she's probably two to three years old as it takes a while for the bark to develop.  She'll probably start sprouting new stems from the base at some point, which we'll let her do.  We hate to prune plants up to fit some preconceived idea of what they should be rather than what they naturally are.

This plant is developing a true trunk but may sprout from the base later

Butterfly bush has striking, dark green leaves with silvery bottoms, thanks to a thick coating of short wax 'hairs' on the abaxial side of the leaf blades. The leaves are small, thin, lanceolate and entire with slightly serrate margins.  They are one of those plants that are lovely to have around as they don't drop their leaves very often and when they do, the leaves are so small that they don't tempt people to rake them up.  It's namesake comes from the beautiful purple (sometimes white) clusters of tiny flowers.  The flowers are tubular with four tiny petals at the fringes of the tube.  Hummingbirds, butterflies and other flying, nectar sucking critters love these flowers, so hopefully, this plant will act as a natural humming bird and butterfly feeder and we'll start seeing more of those lovelies in our yard again.  At our previous residence, we had Salvia bush growing nearby which is also a great plant for these creatures to feed on. 
Remnants of a previous flower stalk

Hopefully, ours will have flowers like this on it someday

We found this plant in a tiny little pot that was barely big enough for it, as evidenced by all the roots that were starting to emerge from the soil in the top of the pot and to circle the bottom of the inside of the pot.  When we transplanted her, we gently broke those circling roots up and pruned the tips of them off to encourage them to start growing outwards into the soil-less media that we put in the current pot.  We chose soil-less media because that was what was in the pot that we bought.  It's best to try to minimize barriers created by sudden changes in soil texture and structure when transplanting as water doesn't travel very well from one type of soil into another type that is quite different from it.  When that happens, you wind up with lots of water in the pot, but a dry rootball.  The pot that we transplanted it into is large enough that it can stay in there until the bush is recovered from the shock of the poor treatment it was getting at the store and from being transplanted. She'll also benefit from being in the shade of a little palm tree Washingtonia filifera on the East side of the house until she's a bit bigger and stronger.

Later on, when the shrub begins to grow larger and the branches start hanging over the edge of the pot, we'll consider locations to plant it.  There's a good spot for it along the North end of the West facing wall where it will get partial shade from the house and nearby oleanders in the afternoon and it will get protection from the North wind in winter.  We'll never put planting stakes on her as we've learned that trees and shrubs actually grow stronger and more stable without them, especially if you don't prune all the lower branches off in a misguided attempt to 'train' it into being a miniature, mature looking tree.  We may build a raised bed for it at that time so that we can give it amended soil and plenty of rooting space more easily.  That will be an interesting adventure that we're looking forward to sharing with you on here.  

Noisy Vents Are 'Exhausting'

A dirty, noisy exhaust vent

When was the last time you turned on the exhaust vents in your ceilings?  "What exhaust vents?" you say.  Take a look at the ceiling of each room in your building.  Depending on how your HVAC system (heating, venting and air conditioning) was installed, you'll see anywhere from one to several little vents up there.  Unless your heating and air conditioning comes up from the floor (as ours does), you'll find all of the vents up there.  In the bathrooms and maybe even the laundry room or kitchen, you may also find another vent that doesn't blow air when the AC is on.  That's your exhaust vent. 

There should be a switch somewhere in that room that doesn't turn on a light when you flip it.  Go ahead and flip it on.  If you hear a gentle wooshing sound, that's good. That is the exhaust vent doing its job right.  On the other hand, if it sounds a bit more like your vacuum cleaner or worse yet, the garbage disposal in your sink, that's bad! The only thing worse is if it makes no sound at all. That means you need to call an electrician to come and see if the thing is even wired up properly and then if the thing works at all.  I have actually heard of people moving into a brand new home only to find out that some things, such as these vents or the exhaust vent over their stoves, weren't even wired up.  If you don't find a vent at all, you need to contact that electrician (maybe even a carpenter if there's no vent pipe at all) to install one.

"What do I need an exhaust for?" you ask.  Exhaust vents (sometimes known as 'fart fans') help to draw unpleasant odors out of a room. They are especially helpful in rooms without windows as bathrooms and laundry rooms often are.  If none of the windows in your building are open-able, there should be an exhaust vent in every room. 

Humidity isn't something that one thinks of worrying about when you live in the desert, but even here it can cause problems if it becomes excessive after everybody in the family has taken a shower especially.  Warm, sunless, humid environments, such as your bathroom, are great habitat for all sorts of fungi.  Mildew, that weird smell that damp stuff gets if it's been sitting around too long, is caused by fungi.  You can even get mold on the inside of your bathroom cabinets, bottom of your sink and surfaces of your toilette and tub/shower, even the back side of the wall board or 'sheet rock' in your bathroom over time if the room is never aired out.   

Exhaust vents also help to draw hot air out of rooms thus making them cooler.  As the warm air rises, it isn't trapped against the ceiling where it can then circulate back down to where people are if there is an exhaust vent to draw that hot air out.  Some designers call this concept a 'heat chimney' and are starting to install large ones in some of the more eco friendly buildings.  The buildings at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas are a prime example of how heat chimneys, in concert with ceiling fans and great insulation of walls and ceilings can cool buildings without hardly ever having to run air conditioners at all.  Even in our little modular home, we find that we don't have to run the AC as often if the exhaust fans and ceiling fans (adjusted so that they draw air up rather than blow air down) are on all day.  Those little motors that run them use much less electricity than the compressor for the AC does that's for sure. 

Maybe you know where your exhaust vents are, but don't use them any more than you absolutely have to because the things are so noisy that the annoying sound is stressful, even mentally exhausting to listen to.  If that's the case, it's past time they were cleaned.  Let's look at how to do that.

Once the cover is off, you can get to the actual vent

The first thing you have to do is reach the ceiling safely.  Find a sturdy ladder (one that won't make you shake like a leaf once you get up there) that is tall enough that you can stand on the second, better yet third, step from the top and still reach the vent without having to stretch your arms to their extreme and position it so that you won't be leaning over backward or too far forward to reach the vent.  If you don't own such a ladder, borrow one from somebody or buy one. Don't risk your safety by cobbling something together or stacking stuff on top of each other. 

Now that you are up there, remove the decorative/protective plate that covers the vent. Each manufacturer seems to need to have their own way of doing it.  If you aren't sure how to get it off, look it up in the manufacturer's manual.  Most likely, you won't have the physical manual there, but you can usually look it up on their website by doing a search for the manufacturer adding in terms such as 'exhaust fan' and 'manual' along with it.  This Broan exhaust fan has a weird wire hanging system that took a bit to figure out without breaking it. 


Be sure to shut off the wall switch then unplug the fan unit before doing anything else!

As soon as you get the cover off, unplug the power cord to the fan!  Sure, the wall switch is in the 'off' position, but it never hurts to be absolutely sure when it comes to dealing with electricity and things that spin really really fast.  Not worth the risk of getting hurt.  Unexpected, bad things like accidents are just that: unexpected.  The exhaust fan can't hurt you though if it isn't getting any power.

Get the big stuff with a vacuum cleaner
Then, get the harder to reach stuff with a pipe cleaner

The tools of choice are a vacuum (the most powerful one you have) with all of its extensions, the crevice tool and the brush tool followed by a sturdy pipe cleaner.  Be gentle with these things and don't hit any part of the housing or fan too hard.  If it won't come off with the vacuum attachments without smacking the housing with it, switch to the pipe cleaner and use back and forth motions as if you were brushing your teeth.  We want this thing clean, but not broken. 

Get in all the crevices on the front and back

This Pipe Cleaner made short work of the vent cover

Now, use the pipe cleaner to get in all those little cracks and crevices on the vent cover. Be sure to do both the front and back of it.  Not only will it look nice, but most importantly, the air will flow more efficiently into the exhaust.  The fan can not work its magic if the vent slots are plugged. That goes for lots of things including floor fans, AC air return panels, even the cooling vents on TVs, computers and the ones in your car (don't forget under the hood!)
Now that it's all clean, make sure the wall switch is still in the off position and then plug the fan back in

Take one last look to make sure it's all clean.  Don't forget to get up in there with the pipe cleaner. Up in side the housing is where the air has to flow to get out of the house.  Then, make sure the wall switch is in the 'off' position.  Once you are sure, plug the fan cord back into the socket in the fan housing and put the cover back on. 

All done! Now it will look nice and do its job more quietly

To look at it, it may seem like we haven't done anything much, but when you flip the switch, you should now only hear a nice 'swoosh' of air.  Your room will now be cooler, less humid and less stinky.  It's not just the big, flashy things we do for our spaces, but also the little, rarely noticed things that make a big difference. The difference may even show up as lower utility bills. 

If it still makes an awful noise, now it's time to call in backup and get an electrician. You many have to replace the exhaust fan.  Letting it run in a plugged up, dirty condition for too long can ruin the motor.  Hopefully, though, these cleaning tips will be all you need to do and will keep your exhaust vent or 'fart fan' running for a long time yet. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Control. Control! You must learn control! - Yoda

Anger, aggression....the Dark Side are they.....

Felt in the Force a disturbance, did I.  I went outside this balmy, cool 80 degree morning, which is downright pleasant by Las Vegas standards, to carry out my daily morning ritual of enjoying our garden and making sure that nothing needed special attention.  Every day, I check the soil for adequate moisture, the mulch and soaker hoses to see if they need re-arranged (our neighborhood cats love to redecorate the yard at night) and the plants to see if they are reasonably healthy depending on the species and where they are in their life cycle. 

Usually, when I examine our surprise pumpkin vine, I notice a little insect damage, heat stress and general aging of the older parts of the vine and think little of it.  It's what one can expect when a plant of this type is nearing the end of its life cycle and is starting to focus on fruit production.  It is still getting a few new leaves and flowers, but they are fewer and farther between.  I had long ago learned that plants do not have to look 'Better Homes and Gardens' Coverplant perfect in order to be pleasing....or so I thought. 

For some reason this morning, the insect damage on the pumpkin seemed so much worse than before. Bad enough, in my eyes, to jeopardize the nearly ripe pumpkin featured in my previous blog post. 

The oldest leaves are being eaten alive!

All I could see in that moment was the damage and ooh! I had to find the culprits and make them pay! 

There they are!

But what were they?  Even in my fit of righteous indignation, I still had the presence of mind to go to my trusty home-built computer and look it up.  According to University of California - Davis' Integrated Pest Management website (a great resource, be sure to bookmark it!) A list of critters that love pumpkin as much as we humans do 

This miscreant was a Squash Bug (Not the most inspired name, but it'll do) AKA Anasa tristis.  To quote the site they are

"0.63 inch long, grayish or yellowish brown, flat-backed, and somewhat speckled, often with a dense covering of black hairs. Edges of the abdomen are orange or orange and brown striped. Nymphs are pale green to almost white."

A moment of translation may be in order.  the 'abdomen' is the last segment of an insect, that is, the South end of a Northbound bug.  'Nymphs' in this case are not fairy tale creatures, but rather the younger versions of an insect. In some species, the nymph stage looks noticeably different from the adult stage other than just being smaller.  Knowing what the young look like can help you spot an infestation sooner than waiting for adults to show up before you can recognize the critter. 

That was what I was seeing alright.  To confirm, they had a lovely little mug shot of some adult versions along with another shot of the wilty result of the damage they cause as they suck your plants' leaves dry.

Leaves on the left starting to wilt from damage. Note also the grayish nymphs taking a break from wreaking havoc on these leaves.
So, now I knew who my nemesis was, but what to do about him? UC-Davis' IPM page doesn't have anything very comforting to say for this momentarily impatient gardener:

"  In spring, search for squash bugs hidden under debris, near buildings and in perennial plants in the garden. Inspect young plants daily for signs of egg masses, mating adults, or wilting. Place wooden boards throughout the garden and check under them every morning, then destroy any squash bugs found...."

"Squash bugs are difficult to kill using insecticides because egg masses, nymphs, and bugs are often hidden near the crown of the plant and difficult to reach with sprays.

"Several insecticides are available that are less toxic (note it does not say harmless) to the environment including products containing soaps and oils such as neem oil, horticultural oil, and canola oil. These soaps and oils are most effective on the smallest nymphs, but good penetration throughout the canopy is essential so that nymphs under the leaves and deep within plants will be covered. Other more toxic pesticides are also registered for use on squash bugs; however, these materials should be used with caution because of negative impacts on bees and beneficial insects such as predators and parasites that help to keep other pest insects and mites in check. In addition, they are not likely to give better control than handpicking combined with softer chemicals. "
So, at this point where I had let so many of the Squash Bugs become adults and so much damage was already done, it was too late to waste my time and money on such things as Neem oil and insecticidal soaps since those, and even the 'harder chemicals' only work on the nymphs and only when you can get to the bottom side of every leaf and bit of debris in the garden.  The shade cloth, logs and soaker hose that I had placed in my raised bed earlier this Summer to create a cooler, moister microclimate so that the little pumpkin and other plants could survive the dry heat was now working against me!  Oh well, that's how it goes. 

That leaves just 'hand picked' and that's what I ran back out to the garden to start doing with abandon!  

I wetted down the entire raised bed of  plants with water (I'm fresh out of canola oil as I rarely fry anything) to flush the bugs out from hiding and started squishing! It's not for the squeamish as green goo gushed forth from them each time I smashed one.  Sometimes, I folded them up in the leaf they were on and squeezed the whole thing, other times I used my bare hands.  On the bigger, nastier looking ones, I resorted to using my handy dandy fencing pliers that my mentor at the NRCS gave me years ago, saying "If you have a pair of these along with what you've learned, you are equipped to do a lot of our work." 

 When I couldn't find anymore that I could catch (they are adept at crawling out of the way and at falling off their perch when you aren't fast enough).  I took a break....then realized that what I was doing was wrong.  Not only was it futile, since I couldn't possibly find every Squash Bug, nor especially ever find all of their tiny eggs, but also because the vine was just about done doing its duty anyway.  It has almost completely ripened the only pumpkin that is likely to survive the dry heat of my yard (others had started, but had shriveled up right on the vine from the heat), so what's the point of postponing the inevitable? 

Even if the Squash Bugs had never shown up, the vine would eventually shrivel up when the cold Autumn winds froze it anyway.  Moreover, the pulp in this pumpkin that I'm so worried about is destined to wind up in a pie.  The rest is destined to first be a jack-o-lantern, and then to be mulch for the seeds inside it....provided that it survives long enough to be picked.  Either way, it's going to die and turn back into the nutrients from whence it came eventually.

"Death is a natural part of life.....Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not, miss them do not" - Yoda 

If I am going to commit to being an 'organic' and 'Earth friendly' gardener, shouldn't I be much more careful about how I attempt to exercise the powers at my disposal?  Sure, I could spray the whole raised bed with pesticides ('organic' or not) and try to wipe them out...all of them.  But there's no guarantee that I'd actually get all of them. In the meantime, I would be risking poisoning the very fruits that I hope to someday eat from the plants.  I'd certainly be killing any beneficial insects that happen to prey on the bugs I'm so worried about for a living.  Even though my squishing tirade didn't kill all the Squash Bugs, if I do have any predatory insects in my bed, they'll have slimmer pickin's for a while.  They might even move on and leave my bed altogether if their prey population drops too much.

It would be easier to spray than to squish, but then if I spray my own vegetables for bugs, why bother growing them at all? Why not just buy them all from the store? All of those are sprayed too. Even the allegedly 'organic' ones are probably sprayed at least with Neem oil (which isn't totally benign either and even has warning labels) otherwise, how could they send so many lovely looking fruits and veggies to the store? They can't possibly be turning most of their crop into compost since picky customers won't buy insect or disease 'damaged' produce...can they? 

I could give into the Dark Side every morning and squish bugs until my hands were sticky with their fluids, but I'd still never get them all and I'd feel just as bad as I do when I pull 'weeds' from a bed.  Who am I to say whether this plant or that bug is 'bad' or 'doesn't belong'?  If we get carried away with pest control, are we really being 'green' or just being 'green-ish' when it suits our purposes? 

As Yoda says, we must learn control.  Control of our own egos, emotions and short shortsightedness.  Something to think about for me and for all of us.

The leaves on my pumpkin vine may not look so pristine anymore, but my pumpkin is still growing. So are the peppers on this neighboring plant in the foreground (which the experts tell me the Squash Bugs won't eat anyway, just hide in). That's what matters, right?

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Touch of Autumn in August

We've got a pumpkin ready for autumn decor! How'd this happen? Here's the story in reverse.
When I knew for sure this wasn't going to be a squash :)

Hey! Here's a fruit! Note the soaker hose. It's coiled throughout the raised bed for even watering.
It's Blooming! Aren't they pretty? I hear they are yummy too.
From a "Weed" in the flowerbed to this! Is it Summer Squash?
It all started out looking like this. This is another one popping up in another pot.

If all continues to go well (our pumpkin vine is facing challenges from aphids, leafcutters and etc. now, but that's the breaks when you garden organically.  We try to remove insect eggs and larvae by hand, but you can't get them all.), we'll have our own little pumpkin for a tiny jack-o-lantern!  Raising your own plants from seed is fun. Give it a try.  If you have, drop us a line below about how it went along with any questions you may have about growing plants from seed. 

Speaking of surprise plants, here's an update from my last post: the top ear of corn is starting to fill out and the silks are fully elongated.  It's like waiting for Christmas morning, the anticipation of seeing how well the cob has been pollinated.  Each plump kernel will be a female flower on the cob that was pollinated.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Accidental Corn Farmer

This corn plant showed up volunteer!
The tassle has opened
One of two ears emerging

You just imagine my surprise when I came back from vacation this summer to find this growing in my raised bed!  I didn't even know that corn kernels had fallen into the bed, but at least one must have.  Now, we've got a corn plant growing in our little garden in Las Vegas.  This picture on top was taken three weeks ago.  Now, it has tassels on it (the male flowers) and the start of two ears (the female flowers)!  We may wind up with an ear or two of corn by fall.  It's been fun to watch this plant grow from a seedling to an almost mature plant over the course of a couple months.  Good thing I know what corn seedlings look like and didn't mistake it for some species of turf grass.  I didn't get a good picture of it when it was smaller but corn seedlings look like this next picture below that I found online. 

What adventures with surprise or volunteer plants have you had?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fun Plant of the Day: Gooseberries!

These goosberries are ready to eat!
gooseberries grow in brambles and are wild in some places
They grow thorny canes with distinctive leaves

They have tiny pinkish green flowers
 Gooseberries are members of the currant family and are widespread in Europe and parts of North America. There are two main strains of wild ones: Ribes hirtellum (which is native to America) and Ribes grossularia (from the Causcaus Mountains and Northern Africa). Most of what we buy today are hybrids of the two.  Where I grew up in Nebraska, many homesteads, or places where the pioneers settled, have brambles of gooseberries growing wild long after the inhabitants of the homestead have gone. 

The fruits are soft, slightly sweet when ripe and so juicy!  They are excellent in desserts of any kind, but are mostly used in pies, tarts and such. Most gooseberries are harvested while they are still green and then sugar or honey is added to the dessert to help cut their sharp tartness.  They can be more tart than cranberries when green but are still plump and juicy. When you can manage to find ones that have fully ripened and are purple in the late summer / early fall, they are even good right off the stem. 

Gooseberry anything is so hard to find in Las Vegas that I always look forward to looking for them when I visit my parent's ranch in Nebraska.  Once in a great while, DuPar's at the Golden Gate Casino has gooseberry pie, but that's the only place I've seen it.  If you've seen gooseberry desserts elsewhere in Las Vegas, let me know.  Another option is to buy canned or frozen gooseberries if you can find them and make your own dessert.  Here's one:

  • 4 cups gooseberries (fresh, frozen or canned can be used)*
  • 3/4 cup sugar (better yet, replace with 3/4 cup honey)*#
  • 1/4 all purpose flour (unbleached if you can get it)*
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter*
  • Pastry for double-crust pie (or already refrigerated pie crust) (Mom's 'secret' crust recipe adds cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of sugar to the dough for a crust with actual flavor)

    *May need a bit more than this at altitudes above 3,500 ft as many of us in the Southwest are.

    #May need less of this if you can get actually ripe, purple berries

  • Stem and wash gooseberries. Put in large mixing bowl. Combine sugar/honey, flour and salt in a smaller mixing bowl.
  • Add sugar/honey mixture to berries, then toss gently to coat the fruit. (if you use canned berries you can skip this step as they are already in syrup)
  • Fill a pastry-lined nine-inch pie plate with the gooseberry mixture; dot with butter. Adjust top crust. Seal and flute the edge with a fork. Make four slits in top of crust. Baste the crust with a butter and salt wash for a really golden brown crust. Cover crust with foil if desired.
  • Bake at 375 degrees F for 20 minutes (possibly longer if you live at elevations above 3,500 feet)
  • Remove foil and bake another 25 minutes or until golden brown.
  • Cool on a wire rack. (Cover with a tea cloth since we are in a low humidity environment here in the Southwest)

    If you have any recipes for gooseberries, please share them below.

They grow great in Nebraska, and further Northeast because they have cold winters with mild summers.  They can be grown with great care in the Southwest, but do best in areas of high elevation if you don't want to have to tend to them too much.  Here in Las Vegas, I would have to grow them as houseplants so that I could provide the shade, humidity and water they need.  They may survive outside in dappled full shade if they are near a water feature such as a waterfall or fountain, but they would have to be in containers to provide the well-drained slightly acidic soils that they are used to.  It could be a bit like trying to raise ferns here.  I'm sorely tempted to try it though as I so love the fruit that gooseberry brambles produce.

I've heard from folks at the Nevada Cooperative Extension Office that blackberries and boysenberries can be grown in Southern Nevada with enough irrigation and shade, but they didn't have any information about gooseberries.  If I decide to try it, I'll keep you posted on what happens.


Friday, August 7, 2015

What is a Palm and How Do We Care For Them?

Unpruned but healthy Mexican Fan Palm Washingtonia robusta at Fullerton Arboretum, CA

Areas around the world with a Mediterranean climate such as The Middle East, Florida, The Caribbean Islands and even places in the American Southwest have both native and introduced species of palms that grow well.  Las Vegas and Palm Springs are especially well-known for having palm lined streets and palms in many landscapes.  These popular plants are often referred to as 'trees' but they don't really grow nor behave much like most of the trees we are familiar with.  What are they and how do we take care of them?  We're going to briefly discuss those two questions in this blog post. 

This information is based on personal experience as well as discussions with teachers at the College of Southern Nevada's Ornamental Horticulture Department and University Research Extension Service circulars from both The University of Nevada Reno and The University of Florida. The extension services of these and a few other universities have even more detailed information about palms than we are going to go into here.  We encourage you to look into it if you are interested in learning more.  We can also discuss these topics in depth in the comments section if you would like.

First, what is a palm really?  There are two families of plants that are commonly called 'palm trees': Palmae and Cycadaceae.  Most are in the Palmae family, but at least one commonly planted 'palm' in the Southwest is in the Cycadaceae: the Sago 'palm' Cycas revoluta.  

Female (in background) and Male (in foreground) Sago Palms (Cycas revoluta)

Both palms and cycads are dioecious meaning that there are separate plants in each species: one being female and the other male.  You have to have a male plant nearby for the wind to carry its pollen to the female plants if you want fertilized fruit.  Some species of palms have edible berries or dates as long as they come from fertilized flowers.  This is beneficial to landscape designers since if you don't want to deal with the fruits falling on the ground, you can plant a male of the species.  On the other hand, if the people who will be near the plant the most have hayfever, you can plant the female plant instead to reduce the pollen count around the property.  Most of these plants do not flower until they are several years old, the exact age varying among species and depending on the health of the plant.  You can also prune off the flower stalks before they start dropping pollen or fruit without hurting the plant.  Removing flowers is harmless.  Removing leaves is harmful.  

Neither palms nor cycads are true trees.  They have significant differences in their anatomy and their behavior from what most real trees are like.  Palms are more closely related to grasses than to pines or deciduous trees and have anatomy somewhat similar to grasses although they are not anywhere near as tolerant of being pruned or cut as most grasses are.  Cycads are more closely related to pine trees in that they have a similar sort of flower structure as other gymnosperms (broadleaf plants that do not produce showy flowers).  Most trees will recover rather quickly from being pruned, even severely cut however palms and cycad species either recover extremely slowly or not at all depending on where the cuts happen. 

The most critical difference between palms and cycads versus most other plants we are familiar with is how they grow.  Both have their primary growing point at the very top of the plant.  If the buds at the top of the main stem are removed or killed (by frost, sun scald, pesticides, insect damage etc.) the plant will never recover from it and will be stunted at best, or begin to decline and die rather quickly at worst.  They cannot sprout at the base of their trunks as many trees can in response to damage.  They also lack true bark.  What some call the bark on these plants are just overlapping leaf bases and a porous material similar to what you see in the middle of a grass stem.  If this is damaged, it never scabs over and leaves wounds that make the plant more susceptible to insects and disease. 

Most species of palms also start very short and stay that way for many years as their trunk diameter gradually increases.  Once the trunk has reached the maximum diameter for the species (also depending on the plant's health), the trunk will begin to grow taller.  When the palm has reached its maximum height for its species (groups of palm species are capable of achieving different heights with species such as California Date Palm and Canary Island Date Palm being among the tallest at around 60 feet tall and pigmy palms such as
Phoenix roebelenii and Sago palms that only get about eight feet tall at the most), it will begin to age and decline, living less than 100 years in most cases.  The shortest species, tend to be multi-trunked and spread out more, so they need more square footage of clearance where they are planted. Trying to prune a multi-trunked species so that it looks single trunked is a huge mistake and will make the palm fall apart as it grows bigger.  Almost all palm species should have at the very least 10 to 20 feet of space or more between the mature sized trunk and traffic areas, power lines etc. to avoid having to prune them because they are 'in the way'.  Never plant a palm or cycad right up against any solid object such as a wall, fence, sidewalk etc. or you are asking for trouble later on. 

There are two main appearances of palms: 'Feather' and 'Fan'.  The feather types have leaves that look like a bird's feather since they are so deeply lobed that they appear to have hundreds of long, narrow 'leaves' growing out from the central axis of the leaf in a sort of herringbone pattern.  Fan palms look more like the palm of a persons hand or ceiling fan with wide leaves that appear to be almost completely entire with lobes of varying length (depending on the species) extending beyond the solid part almost like little fingers from a persons hand.  The solid part usually looks corrugated like a piece of tin or carboard.  All types of palms produce strong, stringy material from the leaf margins with the strings being longer or more abundant on some species than others.  California Fan Palm Washingtonia filifera, for example, has so many of these threads that it is how it got its name.

Fan Palm leaf style vs Feather style

California Fan Palm Washingtonia filifera with its threads

In general, the feather type palms tend to do better in full sun than the fan palms do here in the Southwest, so it does make a difference which type you plant in certain locations.  It especially matters what exact species you plant as some species get much bigger, height or width, than others. 

recommend Pygmy Phoenix roebelinii and Sago 'palms' for most residential purposes in Las Vegas as they don't get very tall and are easier to care for than the palms that get huge.  If you have the room and want a really hardy palm California Fan Palm Washingtonia filifera which is actually native to the Southwest and grows wild in oasis in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts.  The younger of a plant you get, the better it will survive the transplanting process and the healthier it may be later on.  It is sometimes easier to tell what sex the plant is once it is several years old. 

Palms should be planted in the late spring, after the last hard freeze, but way before temperatures start getting up into the 100's.  It is a myth that palms establish best when it is really hot.  They should be watered almost daily as they get established, but only need water occasionally once the root system has anchored in. When they are watered, it is important that they are irrigated long enough for water to moisten the soil down to the bottom of the rootball.  Light watering will leave them drought stressed.  However, that does not mean that they will tolerate saturated soil for long. They need to be planted in soil that drains quickly such as a fine sand or loamy sand.  They do best with irrigation water that soaks into the soil around the root zone of the trunk (from the trunk out several feet, depending on the species and age) rather than having water sprayed at them. In fact, our high pH water can actually cause salt damage to the trunks and leaves of palms when it is sprayed.  

Palms also need a lot of Potassium (K) and usually need it supplied by a low Nitrogen (N), low Phosphorous (P) but high Potassium fertilizer.  Over-supplying Nitrogen and Phosphorous runs the risk of polluting the ground water since the soil needs to be fast draining and over-fertilizing will not benefit the plant.  Potassium deficiency is the leading cause of most of the poor performance we see in palms.  Having leaves that droop, turn brown and 'need' pruned off (they never need pruned off as long as humans don't decide that they have to be) every year is a sure sign that the palm is lacking K and maybe other nutrients. It is also probably not getting enough water either. 

Most palm species have leaves that live three to five years at least, and as long as 10 years when the plant is really healthy.  Also, the 'dead' leaves are beneficial to the plant as they provide physical support to the younger leaves above them; protect the trunk from temperature extremes; and gradually release their nutrients back to the rest of the plant as long as they are still attached.  In fact, yearly pruning can lead to chronic K deficiencies that actually wind up causing even more rapid leaf drop and shortening the palm's lifespan. 

Some palm species hang on to their old leaves longer than others but all of them will shed the leaf when it is totally drained of mobile nutrients and has dried out completely.  Some shed dry leaves a few at a time over a very long time period, like evergreen trees do, while others will shed several all at once.  How clean you feel the area around your palm must be is something to consider when picking a palm species to plant.  If you are a neat freak or have others around you who dictate that nothing can stay on the ground, it's best to either not plant a palm at all, or to pick species that produce very little fruit, the smallest fruit, drop leaves less often and, if you can get them, the male of the species.  That species usually winds up being the Sago 'palm' as it has tiny berries, delicate leaves and drops them very seldom.