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:
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• 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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