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VOL. 37 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 18, 2013

A taste of the tropics for Tennessee lawns

By Tim Ghianni

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A canary date palm towers over the front lawn of a home in Bellevue. The date palm can withstand temperatures to about 16-18 degrees Fahrenheit.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Tropics-loving Nashvillians suffering painful cases of beach-envy will be sorry to learn it’s too late to plant palm trees in the yard this year.

“The planting season for palm trees here is from April until the end of September,” says Jonathan Howlett, 31, Music City’s Johnny Appleseed, of sorts, of the palm tree.

Most avid weekend landscapers probably thought there never was a right time to plant those towering, coastal gems in and around Music City.

It’s not only possible, largely thanks to Howlett, it’s become less unusual to see green fronds swaying in the Tennessee wind as the gentle bite of early autumn forces other trees to begin shedding foliage.

All it takes is a little faith, which is precisely what led this former Virginia Tech Hokie outfielder to launch Nashville Palms – the palm-planting, frond-tending arm of his 4-year-old Covenant Landscaping – in mid-summer.

“I owe everything to God,” says the young man whose faith finds him tending to the soil in Middle Tennessee rather than following his youthful aspirations and skills on major league baseball’s well-cropped, emerald-hued diamonds.

“I had the speed. I had the arm. I had the power. I had the tools and stuff,” he says, reflecting back on his Hokie days.

He also has no regrets that thanks to his own religious convictions and the prayers of his mom, palm-planting rather than the proverbial “cup of coffee” in the bigs became his destiny.

“My mom was praying for me. She thought baseball wasn’t for me,” even when he was winning accolades on the fields of dreams.

This man of deep faith says his mom’s prayers worked and helped, eventually, to point him to the field he’s in now. Fields, plural, really: Middle Tennessee plantations, posh pastures and pool-side patios, where he’s spreading the gospel of palm trees by inserting them into landscaping plans, one frond at a time.

By popular reckoning, a guy would have to possess more than faith to plant tropical trees in Music City USA, where ice storms and even a bit of snow and temperatures in the teens are expected every year, often crippling the city for a week beneath a quarter-inch of snow.

Palms purchased at the warehouse home stores for use on summer decks and patios are discarded after the first burn of frost.

Howlett, though, not only has the passion for palms, he has schooled himself in the types that can grow here, year-after-year, adding touches of tropics to the hardwood-covered landscapes of his Brentwood and Williamson County clientele.

“I just like the beach,” says Howlett, who grew up in the Virginia Beach area, by way of explaining his interest in these trees whose fronds have symbolized victory and even immortality back to ancient times and in religions preceding his own.

For Howlett, each tree that stands firm – or, more likely, sways – in gentle Nashville winds, represents victory and perhaps at least a dash of immortality by carrying touches of summer and tropical hope through long, cold, lonely winters of discontent and death.

“I started in the landscape business four years ago in Nashville, Covenant Landscaping. I started doing some research on palm trees at about the same time.”

What inspired him in his research is what he’d seen back home.

“There’s a guy in Virginia Beach who has been (planting palms) for 14 years. They have the same weather conditions there, except they are on the coast.”

He does admit that coastal planting conditions are better, for the sandy, easily drained soil near the seas must be duplicated here – replacing the generally dense clay and rock beneath Middle Tennessee’s topsoil with a concoction mimicking those coastal soil properties – if a palm is expected to survive.

During his research, he was further encouraged by finding landscapers successfully nurturing palms all the way across the country and as far north as Vancouver, B.C.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are doing it in the Northern Hemisphere now,” he says.

While pondering this puzzling palm proliferation, Howlett decided it was time to branch out from the more mundane, or at least expected, landscaping ideas.

Jonathan Howlett of Nashville Palms describes how to care for a pindo palm, one of several able to survive Tennessee winters and temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“I love palm trees. I thought it was a good idea. I thought: ‘Man, if they can live there (in Canada and Virginia), they can live here. I know if people knew about it, people would like to get them.’

“It gives a different appeal to the landscape. I love them all year long. They stay green all year long. They don’t get brown, like all the other trees, except the evergreens. I thought it would be neat to bring them to Nashville.”

It was another step in his journey of faith, so this year he began proselytizing how a palm or palms would add to the yards of his Covenant Landscaping clientele.

“We’re a full-service landscaping company,” he says of his business located near Lennox Village out toward Nolensville, near the neighborhood where he lives. “We do everything except spray. We leave that to the companies with the big trucks and equipment.”

He and his two-man crew “mainly work in Brentwood and Franklin. We take care of trees, plant, design and installation, lawn maintenance, edging, trimming. We do full-scale landscaping.”

He’d gone into landscaping four years ago, when he realized how unhappy he was in the world of real estate property management and sales, for which he had trained when not roaming the outfields for the Hokies.

Like so many transplants, his guitar and his interest in songwriting helped draw him here. The role of a songwriting troubadour – he writes worship and secular (but “not vulgar”) songs he hopes help heal the soul – is something he’d eventually like to add to his resume.

But he also knows that carhops, waitresses, valet-car jockeys and landscapers before him all have proven that musical success in Nashville, as the great late-20th Century British poet Ringo Starr sang, “don’t come easy.”

Real estate salesman Howlett may not have been in the right profession when he came to Nashville, but he knew quickly he was in the right place.

Not only did his guitar help him feel at home, but the first time he visited church here “a guy I played baseball with in college was there. And a girl I had class in college with was there. … I knew God placed me here, I knew once I encountered them, God had me right where I was supposed to be.”

He rather quickly realized his future was in soil, not sales.

His landscaping business was up and running and successful when he began to see signs that indicated it was time to take the leap of faith that would be necessary if he was going to convince people that palms fit snugly among the area’s hardwoods and hackberries, the magnolias – steel or otherwise – and the maples.

“I’d been wanting to start the palm tree thing. Been researching it, learning about palm trees, talking to people in Florida and Virginia.

“I went to Paris, France, this past winter on a mission trip and they have palm trees there. I’d go online and I’d see a bunch,” Howlett says.

“I kept on seeing palm trees everywhere I went. Didn’t matter if I was in the grocery store, seeing a sign, seeing a card. I would see palm trees. I knew I was supposed to start it. Sometimes you keep on getting hints about what you should do. You’ve got to eventually step out and face it. And that’s what I did in mid-summer.”

The first step was to get people to even imagine that palm trees could thrive here. By way of advertising, he and his crew planted a palm in the front yard of one of his favorite clients, whose yard faces Old Hickory Boulevard, precisely where Brentwood looks across the street at Forrest Hills.

It’s a highly traveled, low-speed, traffic-choked stretch of highway and the palm is almost impossible to miss. Beneath it is a sign advertising “Nashville Palms.”

“I’ve been doing landscaping for them for four years. They are super-good people and told me I could plant one there. That was kind of a blessing, my first big leap of visibility for Nashville Palms.”

He does not think this leap was accidental: “I’m a Christian. I give God all the glory for all he’s done.”

That simple bit of advertising has been successful.

“It’s been going good. I’ve gotten a ton of phone calls, left and right. A lot of people have been kind of shocked seeing a palm tree in Nashville. A lot of people are very interested. I haven’t sold a ton, but I’ve sold many.”

He expects that this year’s foray into the palm-planting profession – and the subsequent winterizing he recommends for most of the trees -- will lead to more success next year, when “God will bless us and it will be really good. You’ve just got to trust God and make sure it works and follow through.”

Of course, he hopes his faith in fronds will help fulfill his own dreams as well as those of some of his beach-loving customers.

“When I think of the palm tree, I think of when Jesus was on earth, when they were waving palms. It’s an awesome tree.”

So instead of waiting until that next trip to Orange Beach or the Florida panhandle for the psychological lift bestowed by that first glimpse of a palm, Howlett recommends Nashvillians insert bits of the beach in their own front yards, where fronds will flourish through gray winters and into bright summers to come.

As Tug McGraw, a great poet of summer’s hope, once said: “Ya gotta believe.”

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