For those who read the pages of Permaculture News regularly, you may have stumbled upon an article or two by me, and if that were anytime recently, then more than likely there will have been some part of that article devoted to my newfound fascination and appreciation for palm fronds, specifically those of the cohune palm, which is native to my current, likely permanent, location of Central America. But, the following information could be applied to fronds of palms far in wide. Simply put, I’m finding them to be amongst the most useful plants to have around for in the garden, for eco-construction, and simply as a plentiful resource with which to experiment.
1. Palm Thatch Roofs
This is my number one favorite (and perhaps the most obvious) because I’ve noticed that palm thatch roofs are useful from the beginning to the bitter end of their life. They are simple to make, as easy as tying the fronds to a round timber frame, moving from the bottom to the top. The roofs work great for things like compost bins, chicken coops, garden sheds, and—with a bit more attention—homes. They can last quite a few years, after which they can be taken down, used in the garden, and replaced easily from the same source of palm fronds.
2. Long-wearing Mulch
What I really like about old palm thatch roofs is that they make wonderful palm thatch mulch. Over the years, the roofs collect debris from falling leaves, as well as break down themselves, so that when they come down, the palm part of the roof can be chopped up to make some great mulch (and the round timber used to make or repair raised beds). Otherwise, this can be done directly from frond to garden by stripping the frond of individual leaves and chopping those up with a mulcher or lawnmower.
3. Hugelkultur Bulk
For those with an abundance of fallen fronds, as can easily be the case where cohune palms grow, the gigantic leaves can be collected for use in hugelkultur garden beds. While not as hardy as chunks of wood, fronds can take several years to breakdown (hence the long lasting roofs), and in certain climates, they are much easier to come by than wood and layer nicely with dry (or autumn) season leaves. Or, they can also be used as the stuffing between logs in a typically constructed hugelkultur.
4. Filling Swales Paths
Another way of taking advantage of the slow decomposition is to use fronds to fill swale paths with organic material. They’ll help with creating plenty of space for water, but they’ll also be long-standing enough to cover over with whatever material—nut shells, gravel, leaves, sand—is going to be the actual pathway. The paths can eventually be dug up for compost-y palm mulch to be spread out in the garden or beneath trees in the food forest.
5. Biodegradable Shade Cloth
I saw this innovative way of using what’s available at a local school in Belize. Building a kitchen garden, they constructed small stands out of sticks, the stands then used to hold palm fronds over their planting rows. In the heat of dry season, this protected the tiny seedlings from drying up in the super strong sun. As the leaves dried up, the sun could get through a little more, just as the plants needed. Once their cabbages were mature, they took the shades down. It would have been an ideal time to convert them into a bit of mulch.
6. Garden Fencing
While working at an inn/cacao farm, I had an ongoing battle with free-roaming fowl, and it quickly led to me fencing in the garden. However, chicken wire was not always readily available, nor do I particularly like to use it. I came up with a fence design that combined nitrogen-fixing, living fence posts with palm fronds, for a completely natural and long-wearing fence from easily accessed resources. Basically, the fronds can be tied horizontally. The leaves create a nearly impermeable—a true deterrent, at the very least—wall for birds and other animals. The thicker parts of the spines of the fronds could be substituted for posts in a more temporary structure.
The good part about a palm frond garden fence is that it can also work as pretty effective wind break for young or low-lying plants and bushes. My fence was about three or four feet high and potentially provided a great weather shelter, even though wind was not a particular problem I was facing. Were it, however, such as on sea front property, it might be possible to use more fronds, making a thicker fence, to thwart those salty breezes away from the garden. To me, that seems a great thought for utilizing nearby resources (what some view as an irritating issue to deal with: fallen fronds) to fix a serious problem in the garden.
8. Woven Crafts
Locally in Belize, the most popular basket-weaving material is from a common palm plant called jipi japa, and the material makes for not just splendid, multi-color baskets (done by using different parts of the plant) but also for hats and artisanal crafts, like animal figurines. Though my wife and I have not yet begun our own exploration into basket weaving, we also see real potential in making fruit and vegetable baskets and possible shelving out of the similarly abundant cahune palm. The point is that palm fronds, being both durable and malleable, make for a great weaving resource.
9. Garden Stakes
And, if we are stripping the leaves from the fronds to weave baskets, we would most certainly be left with an abundance of palm spines to put to good use. Firstly, they are certainly sturdy enough to use as garden stakes (or temporary trellises) for climbing bean, cucumber and tomato plants. Once the frond spines have lost their vigor, they can be tossed into the garden or beneath a tree for some rough compost or even used as a border or weight for keeping other mulch in place.
10. Fuel for Fire
Another option for the spine of the frond is using it as a firewood. Once we are situated on our own property, we hope to utilize rocket stoves and cob ovens for our cooking, and palm fronds can be one of many sustainable sources of small-diameter clean burning biomass for our cooking needs. The large chunks can be dried and saved for the oven, while smaller pieces should do nicely for feeding the rocket fuel.