Teen hopes palms take hold in Ketchikan yard

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

KETCHIKAN (AP) Daniel Potts, 13, somewhat new to the world of gardening, turned an academic eye to a small Majesty palm tree growing outside his family's house near Refuge Cove last Thursday.

''I've got to get some fertilizer for it,'' he said. ''I didn't acclimate it or anything and the leaves are starting to turn yellowish.''

The tree is just one of several thigh-high palms scattered around the terraced garden. Up on the deck, Daniel is growing dozens of other small palms and seedlings in containers.

Tinted fresh-from-Florida-green, the plants conjure a tropical paradise: Mexican Fan palm, Windmill, Queen palm.

''I'm sure those three down there, the Windmill palms, I'm sure that those will make it,'' he said. ''They're native to northern China and it gets snow and stuff in the winter.''

Daniel, an eighth-grader at the Ketchikan Christian Academy, started growing the palms about a month ago for fun, he said.

''I just kept thinking how cool it would be if I could get palm trees going in Alaska,'' he said. ''I was telling my friends about it. They didn't think it could be done, so I went out and decided to try it.''

Daniel's father, Mike Potts, said the family is taking the project in stride. The Pottses used to live in California and Daniel was disappointed when they didn't move back, Mike said.

''He wants to turn Ketchikan into California north,'' Mike Potts said. ''We kind of think it's cool because we haven't had any hand in it. And it keeps him out of trouble.''

Daniel, who keeps a surfboard in his bedroom, has taken the palm project seriously. He read through his father's old gardening books, surfed the Internet and talked to gardeners at nurseries in Florida. He's building a greenhouse in the garage and trying to germinate palm seeds. He sold a couple of palm tree seedlings over eBay to a man in Utah, he said.

Palm trees, while certainly unusual, aren't unheard of in Southeast Alaska. Jerry Snelling, a master gardener from Sitka, planted three palm trees outside the Sitka Pioneers Home about 10 years ago. Two have survived.

Snelling retired as the home's gardener last summer after 30 years on the job.

''We had a fellow from San Diego who came up with Elderhostel and was staying at Sheldon Jackson College,'' he said. ''He was a big enthusiast of palms and said he'd send me up a palm tree.''

He covered the palm plants for protection for the first few winters. He also planted them right next to the warm concrete building in a bright, sunny spot.

''They're not what people might think of, a Coconut palm. It's not that type of tree,'' he said. ''It's more like a bush.''

Jim Douglas, a resource development and youth agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Juneau, said palm trees elsewhere encounter freezing temperatures on occasion, but Southeast Alaska presents other challenges. They might grow for a while, but they'll eventually get zapped unless you can protect them, he said.

Would-be Southeast palm growers should try to keep the trees out of the wind and protect them during the winter, Douglas said. Putting the trees in Sitka directly next to a building was a good idea, he said.

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