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.
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
had become a foot taller and 18 inches
Right: At planting, it was dense and the perfect
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
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
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.
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
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.
...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
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.)
Explaining our lead photo, the brutal cut!
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 fruit
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
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.