Holly pruning

Most hollies are planted where they cannot be allowed to grow to full size. So we prune most hollies (Ilex species) per standard size restriction method. In short, that's:

This article is Sponsored by:

• Cut the whole plant to a size that is shorter and narrower than the goal by one year's growth.

• Also cut some of the branches back by an additional year or two. Try with these deeper cuts to remove the thickest branches, those that are older and have been cut at the same level for so long that they are basically bare wood with a twiggy top-knot.

Make this cut each year before budbreak in spring or in August after the year's growth is set. Then you can prune just once each year. (See what this looks like.)

Yes, holly will still bloom and bear fruit when treated this way. The thinning cuts keep it producing new wood from the interior so there is always wood with flower buds below the first cut.

Please note:
Everything here applies precisely to Rhododendron, azalea and Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica).

When winter's cruel, pruning rules change

However, these hollies (below, left) won't flower and fruit this year, no matter what we do. They're evergreen Ilex x meserveae gone ever-brown. Ma Nature killed all the flower buds along with the leaves during an exceptionally cold winter.

HollyCutbk8975s.jpg HollyCutbk9004s.jpg

The wood wasn't killed but all of the damaged leaves will eventually fall off. If we didn't cut back hard (above, right), most new growth would begin at the branch tips and the shrubs would look like hollow balls.

So we cut out all spindly wood and branches with other problems (branches on left and inset in the photo below) and then cut back the strong wood (right hand branch) to form the best possible framework for new growth.


Below: Even on branches that seemed strong, we checked as we worked that our cuts left only wood that was lively inside and scratched green outside.

HollyCutbk8999s.jpg HollyCutbk9000s.jpg

Holly's a comeback kid

What do we expect from hollies after a hard cut? Probably they will act as other healthy hollies have. Here's what we've seen:


We first met these hollies early one fall. They had been in place about ten years, been sheared repeatedly but never thinned and had crept in size. That's the norm in a shearing-only routine, since the shearer almost never cuts into wood, but leaves an inch or more of new greenery. That shell of green becomes woody by the next year, moving the shearing line up and out.

These bushes had become woody and grown over the walk.

We did not take their picture at that first meeting. You're seeing them here (right)  in May of the next year, growing back from hard cuts we made the previous fall.


They had budded out well from wood bared by our first cut.













Here they are a few minutes later, cut back more.  We're encouraging that new growth to take over.














In August of that same year we took off the last "top knots" and the shrubs were then appropriately sized to line this walkway.

4HollyAugN7857s.jpg4HollyLowerN7862s.jpg 4HollyTopKnN7860s.jpg























The next year in early spring we saw a result of asking acid loving plants growing in alkaline soil to produce so much new leaf -- the foliage was chlorotic. We applied slow release organic fertilizer and soil sulfur.















Here are the shrubs in July of that year, greened up again and having just experienced their first normal reduction pruning. We'll prune them once a year from now on, in late summer -- cut off 6-8 inches in height and width, and make deeper cuts on some branches. It's not a big job and because we like them as rather irregular mounds it's not exacting. Everything we removed is there on the ground.













By early fall the plants have developed a few stray shoots that need a trim. We'll clip them in late fall when we fill the window boxes for winter. Some yellowing of new foliage signals that it's time for their semi-annual fertilization.













Is it an improvement? (Above, left, the hollies as you first saw them. Above, right, current appearance.) We think so. The shrubs are back off the walk, shorter by two siding strips, more dense, less blocky and we can maintain their current appearance indefinitely with standard restriction pruning.


Response varies with variety?

This holly hedge consists of plants that are probably in the 'China' variety series. ('China Girl' etc.) Those we cut hard by the air conditioning unit at the beginning of this article are probably in the 'Blue' series. ('Blue Princess' etc.) Can variety make a difference in how a plant responds to pruning? Certainly it can, and so can plant health. But we don't expect major differences -- click here to see an example of a 'Blue' comeback.


Holly as stand-in for all the broadleaf evergeens

These prune just like holly: Rhododendron, azalea, evergreen Euonymus, Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica), and mountain laurel (Kalmia species). We've pruned them all and could tell you about it in words.... but we know that photos are essential.

We don't yet have how-to and what-next photos of the others that do the trick. Since we photograph as we do the work that pays our bills, we can't schedule the work to wait for cloud cover that will eliminate harsh shadows, nor can we pick and choose to shoot only plants with perfect backdrops. We wish we could, and we always look for those ideal situations. When we find them, we replace and update photos here.

We do sometimes use readers' photos, and reprint them with that other's copyright. So if you happen to have a rhodo, azalea, etc. that's a perfect example and also perfectly photogenic, please send a photo of it to us at info@GardenAtoZ.com. Perhaps we can even come help you prune and we can take the photos together!






















Wayne Watson & Martha Frost-Watson

To read more Sponsor-recommended articles...
You, too, can be a Sponsor and help us keep growing!