By Zahra Nasir
It is heartening that so many readers have requested information on date cultivation as, for those residents in the south of the country, this productive palm is an eminently sensible addition to any garden and should, in my humble opinion, be far more widely grown in both urban and rural locations.
Pakistan is, some of you may be surprised to know, listed amongst the highest date-producing countries in the world although, so far, produce is mainly for the local market only and is limited to fresh and dried dates with, from time to time, a small amount of date jam coming to the market. Commercial date growers have not yet ventured into producing date syrup or date paste which are both extremely marketable commodities and are something which home growers could easily do.
Date palms do best in hot, dry heat but are being successfully cultivated in both coastal and inland areas of Sindh and are especially suited to the Makran coastal region of Balochistan where, as well as producing the familiar dates, they also provide fronds for building material, for weaving, for animal nutrition and, this is of high importance, can be widely utilised for holding sand dunes in place.
The most saline tolerant of all fruit producing trees, date palms enjoy sandy soil which must be well-drained. Irrigation, with fresh water — even if this water is brackish — is essential for the palms to flourish and fruit.
Date palms can be cultivated from seed or from offshoots taken from a female palm: Both male and female trees are necessary for cross pollination and for the female tree to fruit. Growing from seed can be problematic as 50pc seedlings may be males. Cultivating from offshoots is a far better and quicker way of ensuring that you get productive female trees although, for obvious reasons, a male tree (one male date palm to 15 to 20 females is recommended) is also required. Guaranteed fruit set needs hand pollination which is carried out by brushing the open female flowers with male ones at exactly the right time although, if this is not your idea of fun, you can take a chance on leaving it up to nature!
Young date palms, of locally suitable varieties and growing to different heights and spreads, can be found in some nurseries now and, as planting distance also varies from variety to variety, you need to ask for guidance at the time of purchase. Otherwise, as a general rule and if you cannot identify the species, a planting distance of six to nine metres apart is recommended as this allows for intercropping with other plants.
The planting hole is best prepared six to eight weeks in advance. It should be dug approximately a metre deep; 50pc of the excavated earth should be mixed with a generous amount of sand, organic compost and wood ash/ash obtained from burning date palm fronds if you can get it and then kept ready for use when the sapling is put in. The remaining 50pc of earth can be utilised elsewhere in the garden. After planting, the sapling should be generously watered every single evening for at least two weeks to help the roots get over the shock of transplantation. Date saplings can be transplanted all year round and a layer of mulch applied around them after putting them in to their new home will reduce water evaporation from the soil and help to increase the rate of success.
Feeding of organically grown date palms is an ongoing process and mulching with animal manure and other organic material, at least every four months, is most beneficial.
Dates begin fruiting anytime from the age of five to eight years as a rule — this varies from variety to variety — and can continue being productive for as long as 100 years although, after the age of about 80, they may fruit less than in previous years.
Despite the often high humidity in Karachi and adjoining areas, some readers have been successfully growing dates for many years and have not, as far as I am aware, experienced any serious problems with fungal diseases which is one of the reasons I recommend that, if you possibly can do so, give growing date palms a try. Aside from their obvious and very well-known nutritional value, date palms are very attractive trees which are highly beneficial for the environment as a whole and, as they are perfectly at home in saline soil and saline water conditions, they really are not just a historical species but are definitely a tree of the future too.
Published on: 08/18/2013