Hints For Growing Happy Hollies

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The planting of a holly tree is much the same as taking a new member into your family, and quite naturally, you are looking forward to living together happily ever after.

So, first of all, let me introduce you to the new arrival.

Growing HolliesPin

The name is Ilex, conferred upon the hollies of the world by a distinguished botanist, Linnaeus, over 200 years ago.

There are many different kinds of hollies, but here we are talking about the tree-like evergreen species, English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and American holly (Ilex opaca).

Lady Ilex and her Prince Charming (should she be accompanied by a male holly for a mate) are most likely to reach you rather dry and thirsty if they have come many miles from the nursery.

To freshen their foliage, there’s nothing better than a really big drink of water.

Plunge their roots, potted or balled, into a tub of cool, fresh water and let stand a while until no more air bubbles appear.

When And Where To Plant Holly

In many areas, anytime is the right time for planting a holly. But should the Ilex reach you during mid-winter with the ground frozen solid, don’t worry.

The holly is used to living in a pot of kindly soil and will thank you for a comfortable spot in a cool room, near the window.

If outdoor living is forever out of the question for the Ilex, it can become a cherished house plant.

Outdoors, choose a spot that will show off the holly to the best advantage. Too much shade will cause the holly to grow weak and weak.

In most climates, hollies prefer full sun. In the deep South, partial shade or screening will afford much-needed relief from the burning rays of the hot afternoon sun.

Where winter’s cold is severe and accompanied by alternating freezing and thawing, a northern ‘exposure with minimum daily temperature variation may prove to be safest for your hollies.

I use the plural to remind you that it takes a male tree nearby to assure fruiting and red berries in season on the pistillate (female) trees.

Preparing And Planting

I used to wonder what our old Scotch gardener meant by “kindly” soil.

Through the years I’ve learned that hollies take kindly to some soils and show their undying appreciation by growing ever more beautiful.

The kindly soil is often a mixture of friable sun-drenched topsoil, a goodly portion of peat, and just enough coarse sand to counteract compaction.

To complete the formula, there should be such nutrient additives as bone meal, cottonseed meal, or even a dash of Uramite or Borden 30 to fortify the mix with available nitrogen in slow action form.

Avoid using stubborn subsoils and rock-hard clay as you prepare the kindly planting soil for your hollies.

Surgeon’s Technique

To borrow from the surgeon’s technique, call for the spade, rake, water, peat, a wheelbarrow filled with planting soil, and if the holly is to grace your lawn, a strip of burlap to protect the grass

First, describe a 3-foot circle, lift the sod and excavate a planting hole at least four times the size of the root ball.

Relegate the sod and long-buried subsoil to your compost pile.

Next, partially fill in the hole with your prepared planting soil and center the holly until the top of the root ball is several inches above lawn level to allow for future settling.

Don’t forget to remove and discard the paper pot or other container, except for larger hollies where the roots are encased in burlap, which should be left in place after cutting the tie cords at the base of the trunk.

Puddling The Holly

Remove any protective covering of paper or plastic film which, unlike burlap, does not quickly rot away.

Finally, just fill in around the roots, watering well all the while compacting the planting soil and excluding air pockets. This step is called puddling or mudding in the holly.

Top off the job by sloping the surface to a saucer shape, concave and higher at the edge of the planting circle, to hold and conduct water to the roots.

Mounding the soil cone-wise or convexly about a tree is incorrect for then it will act as a roof to deflect the much-needed water away from the roots.

Watering Differences

Here’s a warning about the difference between lots of water and wet feet which are most repugnant to Ilex.

If the soil in your yard is heavy clay and impervious to good drainage, then excess water and rain may become trapped in the planting hole.

Such water stagnates and sours, eventually rotting the roots and drowning them with airless liquid mud.

To solve such a problem, you can plant a holly on top of the ground, using the planting soil to build up a 3-foot wide circular and slightly concave mound around the root ball. Then stake the holly to hold it in position until it becomes well anchored in the soil.

This high ground planting or hilling of the hollies defies root rot, provides proper drainage, and assures needed root aeration.

It is the only successful way to combat overly wet soil conditions short of tiling to drain away excess water accumulation.

Mulching Hollies

Now for the frosting, or finishing touch, the mulch.

Peat is best; lawn clippings will serve, forest duff, or even sawdust fortified with nitrogen by adding two pounds of ammonium sulfate to four cubic feet or a good wheelbarrow load.

Cover over the planting circles with your favorite mulch topping it off several inches deep, but keeping it high on the outside and thinner at the base of the holly.

Mulching conserves soil moisture and prevents the damp earth from quickly drying between sprinkling or showers.

The protective mulch also makes for easy cultivation, permitting the pulling of weeds without disturbing the vital roots of your holly.

The feeder roots of the hollies live just beneath the branches and at the very surface of the ground as do those of rhododendron and azaleas.

Never spade deeply around your hollies, or all will be lost.


All living, growing things need careful and yet generous feeding.

If Ilex is left to shift for herself, she will gradually exhaust the nutrients contained in her planting soil.

If she is to smile for you with gleaming sunlight reflected from her glossy leaves, she’ll require a regular and well-balanced diet of plant food.

February is a good month in many areas for applying well-rotted manure or a few pounds of any well-known brand of organic fertilizer.

Inorganic or chemical fertilizers if applied according to directions are both safe and satisfactory.

A rough rule of thumb for 10-16-8, a desirable formula for many soils, is one pound scattered beneath the drip line of the branches per half an inch of trunk diameter.

Granulated Form On Ilex

The granulated form is superior to the fine ground as it dissolves and leaches more slowly.

Avoid fall feeding which stimulates late season growth and tenderizes your holly in the very months when dormancy should be encouraged to prepare for the cold temperatures of winter.

If you’ll only take time out to visit the holly it will tell you in ways plainer than words it wants.

When thirsty, it wilts. When hungry, it becomes pallid, and its growth is stubby, harsh, and unattractive.

When well fed, the Ilex grows healthily, and every branch will be tipped with vigorous young growth.

Pruning And Shaping

Hollies often develop a tendency toward waywardness in their growth habits.

Sometimes they cannot decide whether to become a tree or a bush. They are properly classified as arborescent or tree-like shrubs.

For this reason, you may sometimes have to lend assistance to encourage the desired shape.

Trim and prune to achieve your purpose.

Cut away any low-lying limbs which trail the ground and block air movement so necessary to ventilate and dry the hollies between showers.

You’ll be happily surprised to discover how willingly your tree will respond to efforts to direct growth into a symmetrical form.

Pests And Control

Though hollies are among the longest-lived of all trees and are quite resistant to disease, it must be admitted that Ilex will attract its share of pestiferous parasites.

The most commonly encountered pests are perhaps the following:

  • Holly scales
  • Fungus
  • Algae
  • Leaf miners
  • Bud moths

Fortunately, they do yield to treatment by chemical sprays.

On my holly farms in Oregon, I have obtained satisfactory control with a. single annual spraying during April just before blooming time and the spring growing season.

Timing of the spray, good equipment, proper use of materials, and thorough application are the four cardinal points in conducting successful warfare on common holly pests.

A good spray mixture that would control scale, algae, leaf rollers, bud moths, and leaf miners consists of the following:

  • 25% percent malathion wettable powder, three tablespoons
  • 100% percent tribasic copper sulfate, one tablespoon
  • 50% percent DDT wettable powder, two tablespoons, to each gallon of water.

Add a spreader sticker.

Winter Care

In more northerly states where cold winters can be expected, newly-planted hollies should be protected against rapid fluctuations in temperature.

In time they will become well established and acclimated to their new but often rigorous surroundings.

Ideas On Winter Care

Here are a few ideas used across America:

1. An extra deep mulch applied in the late fall will go far toward insulating the tender roots from damaging freezing.

2. Some growers fence their hollies and fill in over the trees with leaves. This system seems best suited for very dry climates, for if the leaves become soggy with rain, the hollies are apt to be deprived of air, and branches decay.

3. A better, more elaborate procedure is to erect two circular and concentric walls of wire netting about the holly and to fill in the space between leaves and lawn clippings. This forms an insulating wall about a foot thick around the tree but leaves the holly free to breathe and is kept handy to throw over the top of the enclosure during snow storms or sub-zero weather.

4. Another helpful aid is one designed to reduce the evaporation of moisture from the leaves and stems of the hollies.

Any steps to counteract destructive dehydration will prove most helpful. Some gardeners spray with water to produce an ice film or coat plastic coatings to reduce wilting.

We spray every one of our hollies before sending them on their journeys across the continent.

It is helpful in the summertime as well, and is almost a must for transplanting success.

44659 by  Ambrose Brownell