Holey moley, time for a holly intervention!

enlarge this image

Let a holly get away from you and you may have to cut it back hard. That's what happened here. We show you what we did. 

The subject:

A chunky little tree holly, newly planted, per our design.

Over the last two years we pruned to reduce and rejuvenate this holly. We're putting these photos here to show you the reality of "cut it back hard" applied to a typical landscape plant that had gotten out of hand.


The need:

One May, when the plant had been in place not quite five years, we came back to visit. Its minders had clipped it annually, yet it
had become a foot taller and 18 inches

Right: At planting, it was dense and the perfect size.

That was too big. It was so wide there was no longer room for perennials in the space between holly and walkway.  Such "creep" happens at just inches per year, but adds up. It happens whenever there is no firm plan for a plant or when a gardener doesn't note the annual growth rate and cut at least that hard each year.

Below: But just look at it five years after planting. (When we then took over its pruning we did not intend to use it as a pruning lesson. If we had we would have checked our files to capture the same photo angles. Even so, we think you can see the increase.)



Some complications:

It had become a "shell" -- foliage concentrated at the branch tips from being repeatedly sheared without any thinning cuts to allow light into the center. Thus the interior of the plant was a mass of thin branches without leaves, plus twigs dead or dying because they had too little leaf to support their needs. You may not be able to see that thinness in the photo above, but watch for it, below, once our cut back has revealed the interior.

Our action:

We cut it back...

...by 24" in height and took 18" off each side -- enough so it could grow for at least a year before needing to be cut again. We also removed all dead and very weak wood from the center. This was a "bite the bullet" plan, in that it removed most of the foliage to put us quickly into the best starting position. Options we rejected: Replace the plant. Or cut in stages over a longer time: Shorten the top, let it  fill, then cut the sides.

Evaluated it after one summer's growth


Before the next spring's growth began, we assessed the plant.

Right: After one summer

The "breaks" -- new foliage growing from previously bare wood -- are still few on one side. That's understandable since that's the shadiest face. We figure that area's next chance to break will be during the spring growth spurt about to begin, and it should be a stronger response than last summer since nearby trees have not yet leafed out to block the light. So we simply remove more dead and thin wood, leaving most of the foliage intact to provide energy for a good running start.


Evaluated again...

...after 16 months.

Below: Here it is one summer after the photo at right. (That's a total of two growing seasons after our first "attack.")
It's filling in, especially on top
and on the sunnier side.



Even on the shadier side, there are now "breaks" -- new growth -- from the old wood. (Note dead twigs. That's some of the thin branches we left in place in our first two sessions, telling us they were too far gone, too weak to bounce back.)



A second big clip

So in that fall, 16 months after the first clip, we removed the dead wood and cut branches back to the strong breaks. Now, it's the right size, and poised to come back strong next spring. It's thinner than when it was new but
notice how much better it looks with that clutter
of energy-draining scantily-leafed wood removed. (Compare above, left to below, left.)


IlexJack11NovN2672as.jpg  IlexJack11novN2674as.jpg  IlexJack11NovN2680as.jpg


Explaining our lead photo, the brutal cut!IlexJack11NovcutN2676as.jpg

Those cuts removed a lot more wood (all our trimmings are on the ground to the right) but now the plant is primed to fill in all its bare spots. In the spring -- not quite 2 years after beginning the intervention -- we'll look again and expect to see lots of breaks that will each grow six inches or more.


Our dense, perfectly sized pyramidal beauty came back. (Lower right: Here it is after 2 years' better treatment.) We clipped it annually right after bloom to reduce it by six inches, and thinned it each time to encourage growth from the interior. We'll keep doing that and it will remain that size, flower and fruit but remain dense.


Always. This is real life! In the second year of rejuvenation, the property was assailed by dry salty winds as a hurricane decayed offshore. The plant spent a lot of energy keeping itself whole, energy that might otherwise have gone into developing more breaks... So we did not see the density until year two. Ah well. Stay tuned for further reports. (Surprised we're still on the job? Sometimes we are, too! Our clients are great, and have confidence in us even when results take time.)


About the fruitIlexMesFlBuds7472s.jpg

Tree holly can have beautiful fruit
but we eliminated that feature for
the time being with our hard pruning. In time the plant will have plenty of flowering, fruiting branches within the outline we set!

Right: See the flower buds that have formed on this brand new Meserve holly wood? Those will form even on twigs growing in the shrubs interior, if sufficient light reaches there.


So you can keep a holly small and
still have berries if you not only cut the top and sides right after bloom, but cut some branches further back.
Then, new branches like this are always forming in the interior. For every tip with potential fruit you clip from the outer edge, there will be
one left in the interior.