Pruning Hollies

I wonder how many varieties of hollies there are. There is one thing for sure; they can be our gorgeous friends or a gang of monsters surrounding our house. Some things that are true about hollies: 1) we have planted them by the thousands, and 2) they never seem to get enough room. Example, the enclosed picture. Nellie Stevens hollies were not created to be put directly on a house foundation. Have you ever seen a Nellie placed in a field under lots of sun with room to grow? I have seen them 40 feet tall and 15 feet wide. I’m afraid we cut down as many as we prune because there is just not enough room for these beauty/beasts to grow. The good news is that there are myriad hollies for nearly every situation, offering different colors, shapes and sizes. So… how do we prune them? With gloves, long sleeves and cold weather, that’s right, winter. Unless it’s a Chinese holly. If so, prepare yourself for some pain and a blood transfusion. You’ll be lucky to come out with all your clothes. They are nature’s natural shredders. 

Hollies are best pruned in the winter. Begin after your New Year’s party but before Easter. You may be better off in cold climates pruning them later in winter when the threat of sub-zero has passed. Most hollies can withstand severe pruning. We have taken Nellie’s and cut them to the ground and watched them grow 6 feet the next year. We have taken every leaf off of them and watched them refoliate by June. So, if you need to shrink them, do it, and in the Mid-Atlantic, March is usually a great time for the task. 

As the pictures show we not only shortened these but thinned them as well and always with hand pruners. Again, thinning allows your holly to grow leaves along its inner surfaces, improving the tree’s health by increased sugar production. On the other hand, shearing hollies can be dangerous. It promotes excessive growth from stubby cuts that only produce leaves along the outer edges of the plant. This shields the inner plant from light, and where a holly lacks light it will not produce leaves efficiently, if at all. Take a close look at a sheared holly by spreading the branches, exposing its inner structure. See any leaves? Probably not. No sun, no leaves. Back to our pictures. Try to shrink the tree by cutting all the long ends back to where they originate within the plant, rather than cutting them at the exact height you desire. You can still have a smooth straight look but your time taken to thin will reward you and your tree with a flush of inner growth. 

So, in short, reduce the plant by thinning. Cut the holly back past where it will grow during the next growing season. And, remember, if you are pruning this holly out of your way every winter, it may be time to replace it with something more appropriate. Happy pruning, be creative and most of all, have fun with your hollies! Peter

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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