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How to prune a holly bush

With its spiky leaves and rich red berries, the holly plant (Ilex) is a universal symbol of Christmas – especially as the berries only begin to emerge in the late autumn. Here’s more about the plant, including how to prune it and keep it looking its best.

Types of holly

Incredibly, there are more than 400 varieties of this plant around the world, and some even have different coloured berries. Holly can have serrated leaves, or ones with smoothed edges. Some leaves can also be variegated – so you might see darker centres bordered by a lighter green, for example. And as for berries, while red is the most traditional shade, some varieties have white, yellow and even black berries.

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll look at the most popular type – Ilex Aquifolium, or the Common English Holly.

Growing holly

Sun or shade; tree, bush or hedge; deciduous or non-deciduous; the choice is yours. These plants thrive in most garden locations – but ensure the soil is well-drained, but moist, for optimum growth. We’d suggest planting in the winter and using good-quality compost for the task, digging a large hole for your plant to root firmly. Bear in mind, though, that these plants aren’t in any rush – you might need to wait a while for holly to grow to a good size.

You can also grow holly from its berries. Simply remove the flesh, rinse, then pop into a pot of compost and leave indoors to shoot.

Finally, for growing holly from cuttings, propagate when the bush is dormant. This might mean taking a cutting when the bush doesn’t have leaves (if deciduous), but you should still see nodes that show where new leaves will sprout from. Cut just below one of these, and aim for around 15cm of length. Then, put into rooting compost in a sunny spot, like a greenhouse or indoor windowsill.

Pruning holly

Pruning and hedge cutting might seem counterproductive, but it’s an essential part of tree care and actually encourages your plant to send out new growth. The best time of year to do this for your common holly is late spring or early summer, when the weather is relatively warm. If you prune at a colder time of year, it could actually damage your plant and inhibit new growth. Bear in mind, though, that pruning can remove some of the flowers that later develop the berries; and for deciduous (shedding) hollies, pruning should actually be carried out in late winter.

There are different approaches to pruning your holly bush:

  1. Thinning – this can make your plant appear less bulky. Our arborealists advise to tackle any branches growing across each other or intersecting, which can affect the overall shape of the bush. Hedge cutting also means more air gets to the centre of the plant, which can help to prevent disease.
  2. Shaping – these plants take well to shaping techniques, which can also be used to maintain a holly hedge. You don’t need to cut out any branches when shaping your holly or carrying out hedge cutting – just reduce the branches you’re cutting to a bud or leaf node.
  3. Radical pruning – this is more extreme tree care designed for the deciduous holly varieties, which shed their leaves in the autumn/winter period. Arborealists agree that extensive pruning is needed for these during this period, which helps to control growth and shaping for the spring, as well as ensure your plant stays healthy. Tackle old, thin and brittle stems first, especially on the outside of the plant, but keep at least two-thirds of your bush intact.

General pruning tips

A few things to bear in mind when pruning or hedge cutting are:

  • Aim to maintain your plant’s health. Any wood showing signs of damage or disease, as well as dead stems, should be removed.
  • Prune your bush annually, either in the winter for deciduous holly or the early summer for non-deciduous kinds.
  • Ensure your plant has a thick base, or it can take on a ‘leggy’ appearance.
  • Invest in the right tools for the job. Holly is a woody plant, therefore it needs sharp tools that won’t crush the stems. Bypass tools – loppers or pruners – are ideal, or you can use a pruning saw.

Uses for holly

Due to their ornamental appearance, holly can make spectacular Christmas decorations, for instance when put into a piece of oasis. Holly can also be tucked into Christmas wreaths, then hung on your front door. Another tip for the leaves is to add them to a tealight holder as a simple table centrepiece.

Speak to an expert

Our arborealists are on-hand to help customers in Bromley and South East London manage tasks like tree care, shrub maintenance, hedge cutting, pruning and planting. To find out more, get in touch.

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