Holly Bushes: Planting, Growing, and Pruning Hollies

How to Grow Holly Bushes

Holly Bush With Red Berries
Photo Credit
Stella Oriente
Botanical Name
Ilex spp.
Sun Exposure
Hardiness Zone

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Planting, Growing, and Pruning Holly Bushes

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Holly bushes bear lovely evergreen leaves year-round and also bear attractive red berries. If you’d like to grow your own boughs to Deck the Halls, this is the plant. And they’re easy to grow! Learn how to plant, grow, and care for hollies.

About Holly

Maybe you cut holly leaves from green paper in grade school to make decorations for the holidays or drew their dark evergreen leaves and red berries with crayons to make a card. Evergreen holly trees and bushes have been tied to the winter season for centuries, but there are deciduous species, too.

The genus Ilex contains hundreds of hollies, and plant breeders have been busy making fantastic and easy-to-grow cultivars. There’s plenty to choose from, with sizes ranging from full-blown trees to groundcover shrubs.

Hollies are mostly evergreen perennials, although a few are deciduous, like the winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Holly shrubs make excellent privacy or security hedges and provide a natural habitat for songbirds. Their fruits can be of many colors, including the bright red they are famous for, as well as white, orange, yellow, and black.

Holly trees and shrubs are dioecious, meaning the plants are either male or female. You’ll need at least one of each to see those brilliant red berries in the autumn. Many vendors identify the male and female plants for you, either by name or on the tag. 

Blue Princess and Blue Prince holly are examples of male and female cultivars. If you already have a holly in your yard and aren’t sure which it is, watch for a year. If it fruits in autumn, it’s a female plant (and you have a male holly nearby). Lately, breeders have created a few self-fertile holly cultivars.

Blue Girl Holly.

Holly trees and shrubs vary widely in size, so consider your plant’s mature sizing when choosing a location. Plant them more closely together for a hedge effect, or spread them out for a natural look.

Hollies will grow in most soil types as long as they’re adequately drained. Hollies don’t mind an occasional damp period, but ponding or standing water can kill them. They prefer slightly acidic soil that is well-drained, loamy, and partial to full sun. 

If you’re in the southern range of the plants’ viable zones, pick a spot with afternoon shade. Conversely, those at the northern edge of the range should pick spots sheltered from cold winter winds and full sun.

When to Plant Holly

Hollies in containers can be planted at any time, but spring or early autumn are easiest on the plants. If planting in autumn, try to get your shrub or tree in the ground for at least four weeks. It needs time to establish new roots before cold weather sets in. 

Bare-root holly plants are typically shipped in late winter or early spring. They should be planted as soon as possible after receipt. If you can’t plant immediately, store them in a dark location and keep the roots moist.

How to Plant Holly

  • Dig a hole 2-3 times as wide as the root ball and slightly deeper. It should resemble a saucer, not a soup can. 
  • Set the holly in the ground, and match the soil level in the container (or the soil stain on a bare root plant) with the new surrounding ground level. Toss in a bit more soil if the plant sits too deep.
  • If the roots are circled or potbound, you’ll want to loosen them first. Use a soil knife or garden trowel to cut any girdling roots and to loosen packed pot-bound roots.
  • Set your holly in the hole and begin backfilling with the soil you removed. Be sure to firm the soil as you go to eliminate air pockets. 
  • Water thoroughly, ensuring water soaks in and doesn’t just run off. Creating a low ridge of soil around the newly planted shrub can help water stay put long enough to infiltrate.
  • Apply a mulch layer 3-4 inches deep around the base, but don’t mound mulch around the stem. Mulch in contact with the trunk can cause prolonged damp conditions, leading to rot and disease. 

Holly shrubs and trees don’t require much effort from us at all after their first year. They do not often need pruning, except for shaping or removing an injured branch.

  • During the first year, water regularly. Especially if establishing a hedge, follow the inch-per-week rule, either from rain or the hose.   
  • Avoid heavy shearing or pruning in late fall, as the coming cold weather can damage the new growth that flushes. Broken, diseased, or dead branches can be removed at any time. 
  • Some hollies bloom on old wood (last year’s growth), and some on new wood. Check online to see which scenario you have, and you’ll know how to time any aesthetic pruning. 
  • If desired, fertilize in spring with a slow-release general-purpose fertilizer or one labeled for acid-loving shrubs and ornamental trees. Avoid fertilizing in the fall, as new growth won’t harden off before winter.

How to Propagate Holly

Growing new hollies from seed is complex and typically unreliable. If they germinate, it may take over a year. For this reason, try taking cuttings if you’d like to experiment with propagating hollies. While many species and cultivars exist, use this general recipe. 

  1. Take cuttings in fall or early winter, typically from September into November. Cut 4-6 inch terminal cuttings from branches with firm 1-year-old wood. 
  2. Use a 1:1 mix of coir and perlite or coir and damp sand. The mix needs to drain well.
  3. Remove all but two or three leaves.
  4. Wound the base of the cutting on two sides, gently scraping off a strip of bark about an inch long.
  5. Dip the cuttings in the rooting hormone. Start with 1-2% IBA.
  6. Stick the cuttings in the rooting mix, firming around their base.
  7. Use a humidity dome to keep moisture levels high. Alternatively, a plastic bag and a rubber band can work. Don’t allow the bag to touch the leaves.
  8. Rooting may begin in 4 to 6 weeks but typically takes longer.
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Andy Wilcox

Andy Wilcox is a flower farmer and master gardener with a passion for soil health, small producers, forestry, and horticulture. Read More from Andy Wilcox

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