Growing Neem Trees
A native of India, neem is an extraordinarily hardy tree that thrives in ecosystems ranging from the Sahara Desert to the wet salty environment of the Florida Keys. The only pests known to harm it are directly related to overwatering: slugs (which are mollusks not insects) and several strains of root rot.
In Florida and other tropical climates, neem quickly becomes a valuable shade tree, growing up to eight feet per year under optimum conditions. In colder climates, neem trees can easily be grown in large pots as highly decorative houseplants that spend summers outside and winters in a sunny window.
For best results, plant your new neem tree in a three-gallon pot for its first year or two, then gradually increase the size of the pot until it’s as large as you can move in and out. The best time to transplant is spring when they can take advantage of longer growing days but they’re like goldfish and will only grow as large as their pots allow.
THREE VERY IMPORTANT NOTES ON SOIL:
- Do not use potting soil with “water management” polymers – it can hold so much water that your neem tree drowns.
- Do not use soil from your yard or compost pile unless you’re an expert gardener and know exactly what you’re doing.
- Do not use “garden” soil instead of potting soil. It is not typically sterile and often holds more water than a potting soil.
To avoid overwatering once the plant is in the ground, put the tree in the pot and fill it with soil. Before you water, pick it up and gauge its weight. You don’t need a scale, just make a guess that it feels like a gallon of milk or something you’ll remember. Water thoroughly, then pick up the pot again and feel the difference in its weight. You’ll want to water when it’s about halfway between very dry and very wet.
If possible, place your new tree in a spot where it is protected from afternoon sun and high winds. Once they’re settled in, however, neem trees are happy in full sun and handle high winds well.
These trees are planted in soiless potting mixture (as required for national and international shipments) but microorganisms have been added to enhance growth and uptake of organic fertilizers. For optimum growth, fertilize weekly with fish emulsion at half the recommended rate and use a balanced organic fertilizer — like 6-6-6 — monthly while the tree is growing. We use a 2-3-1 from http://www.neptunesharvest.com/ because we want extra-strong roots.
Neem trees, like many tropical plants, are day-length sensitive and will stop growing in the winter unless supplemental light is provided. If you expect to harvest neem year-round, make sure your tree receives as much natural light as possible during the day, then several hours of artificial light at night during the short days of winter. (It doesn’t have to be a lot of light – a nearby living room lamp is fine.)