Trimming Holly

Hollies are best when hand pruned in early spring

By: Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension

Q. I have two 20-year-old hollies that have never been trimmed.  A friend who needs some holly for the holidays has offered to trim them. Is it a good idea to trim holly in December? I also have 4 small hollies planted late in the summer of 2007. When should these hollies be trimmed?

A. If your friend if knowledgeable about pruning, it is no problem for her to harvest some holly for holiday decorations. Many gardeners prune their hollies at Christmas for that very reason. If she is not, she could spoil the shape of your hollies until new growth covers up any poorly placed cuts. Although you do not say what kind of hollies you have, American holly (Ilex opaca) is relatively slow growing, with a graceful pyramidal shape. 

These evergreen hollies require the most attention to pruning when young in order to establish a strong central leader to carry that pyramidal shape. Competing leaders and crossing branches should be removed, and the occasional wild branch removed back to its point of origin on the trunk or a side branch.  Although American holly tolerates shearing, it is better to maintain its natural shape with careful hand pruning.

American Holly
American Holly
Ilex opaca

Blue holly (Ilex  x meserveae) grows faster and may require more frequent pruning to maintain a neat natural shape. These evergreen hollies tend to grow as large rounded shrubs. They are best pruned by removing any crossing branches and by removing the occasional wild stem at its point of origin. Although blue holly tolerates shearing, it is also preferable to maintain its natural shape by hand pruning.

Blue Holly
Sheared Blue Prince Holly
Ilex x meserveae

Deciduous hollies, also known as winterberries (Ilex verticillata, Ilex serrata), are upright arching shrubs that lose their leaves in the winter. Their brilliant red fruits shine like beacons in winterís dull gray landscape. These shrubs are best pruned by removing individual canes at ground level. Remove those that are weak and spindly and those that have suckered up beyond the boundaries you have set for the shrub. Remove about one-third of those stems that are thicker than your thumb, too. These older canes do not flower and set fruit as well as younger canes.


Cutting Holly for Holidays

It is fine to give all kinds of hollies a light trim in December in order to make holiday decorations. Save the real pruning for March, especially if you need to rejuvenate badly overgrown hollies. By then you can easily see any winter damage on evergreen hollies so you can prune it out before new growth begins later in spring.  Although it is fine to remove dead or wayward branches when you find them, avoid pruning hollies hard after mid-July. Pruning always forces new growth, and new growth after mid-July may not harden off enough before winter cold arrives. That tender growth could be killed by the cold.

Hollies are dioeceous

A holly can be either male or female, with the females getting the red berries. It is usually necessary to have a male holly within 500 feet for a female to get pollinated and develop berries.

As far as your new hollies are concerned, wait until March, and then remove any crossing branches and/or competing central leaders (for pyramidal-shaped types).  When pruning young plants, your goal is always to create a strong basic framework to support future growth.


Black spots on Holly

Holly tree without Berries?

Brown leaf blotches are probably Holly Leafminer



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