How to Grow: Holly

Learn about holly, including varieties and how to plant and grow them.

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How to Grow: Holly

Ilex spp and hybridsholly

Other Name

common holly

Sun Requirements

full sun, part sun, part shade

Bloom Period and Seasonal Color

Spring with small white flowers. The flower are not overly ornamental, but the bright red, orange and yellow berries are attractive

Mature Height x Spread

6 to 20 feet x 3 to 6 feet

Added Benefits

Native, deer resistant, fall color

Hollies are a broad group of deciduous and evergreens shrubs. Some grow as small as 2 to 3 feet tall while others look like trees reaching above 20 feet tall. The hollies most commonly grown and hardy in New England tend to be small to medium-sized shrubs. While the flowers are insignificant on most holly species, the berries can be bright and colorful offering interest in fall and winter. Plants are either male or female, with only the females having berries. The evergreen varieties are hardy in warmer parts of our region. Their glossy green leaves keep gardens looking lively in winter. Deciduous varieties are more winter hardy and can grow in wet soil areas. Both types are attractive plants to birds.

When, Where and How to Plant

Depending on the species, deciduous hollies are hardy to zone 4 and evergreen varieties hardy to zone 5. Select varieties that are hardy for your area. Purchase plants from a local garden center. Plant hollies from spring to summer in a full sun to part shade location on well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Hollies fruit best in full sun. Space plants 5 to 15 feet apart depending on the variety.

Growing Tips

Keep the soil evenly moist and slightly acidic by watering hollies well after transplanting and mulching with pine needles, bark mulch or wood chips. Apply an acidifying fertilizer in spring.

Regional Advice and Care

Plant evergreen hollies in a spot protected from winter and drive four stakes around bushes and wrap burlap around the stakes to protect them from winter winds. Deciduous hollies are tougher and need less protection. Prune both types of hollies in spring to remove dead, damaged and diseased growth and to shape the plant. Don’t prune after flowering or you may remove this year’s berry crop.

Companion Planting and Design

Plant a male pollinator variety within 300 feet of a female variety to produce berries. Plant evergreen hollies as foundation plants or specimen plants in a mixed shrub border with other acidic soil loving plants, such as rhododendron, azalea, and fothergilla. Plant deciduous hollies with shrub dogwoods, and viburnum. Hollies tend to sucker and spread on their own. Both types of hollies can be planted as hedges or barrier plants and used to attract birds.

Try These

For evergreen hollies try, ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ for their 8 to 10 foot tall habit, glossy leaves and hardiness. ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’ stand 12 to 15 feet tall and have very dark blue-green leaves with red berries. For deciduous varieties try, ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Winter Gold’ with red or gold berries on 8 foot tall plants. ‘Apollo’ is a good male pollinator for those two females. ‘Cacapon’ has red berries on dwarf 5-foot tall shrubs and can be pollinated by the early blooming ‘Jim Dandy’.

Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.

Podcast Transcript

Sprigs from this well known winter shrub used to be placed around houses to ward off evil spirits, bad luck, animals and even fairies. The leaves and berries were used medicinally and in Celtic folklore the Oak King ruled the land from summPlant, Bush, Holly, Green, Christmas, Holly Busher solstice until winter solstice, when the Holly King began his rule.

Yes, holly shrubs are embedded in our holiday traditions and we can grow native species and exotic types here in Vermont. Holly can be deciduous or evergreen depending on the type. Either way, hollies come in separate male and female plants. You’ll need at least one male for every 4 females plants to get berries in fall. The deciduous hollies (Ilex verticillata) or winterberry is native to the Northeast. Breeders have created some variations on the traditional red berry color with ‘Winter Gold’ producing yellow berries and ‘Aurantiaca’ having pinkish-orange colored fruits. Winter berries grow 4 to 7 feet tall in part to full sun and thrive in wet areas on poor sols. You’ll often see them growing near ponds and in swampy spots.

For the more traditional Christmas holly, try the evergreen species such as Ilex meservea. These are only hardy to zone 5, so may lose their leaves in colder areas or during harsh winters. Like the winter berry you’ll need both male and female plants to get berries. Some common varieties include ‘China Boy’ and ‘Girl’ and ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Girl’.

Hollies look best planted in groups where you can enjoy the bright berries from your home. Birds also love the berries, sometimes cleaning out the fruits before you can harvest. In spring amend the soil with sulfur and compost. This time of year protect evergreens with a wrap of burlap to block the cold, desiccating winter winds.

From the Vermont Garden Journal on Vermont Public Radio.

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