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WHAT'S BLOOMIN'

Gardening column: Plan now to have holly from your own garden next Christmas

Friday, December 18, 2009 - 10:07 am

At Christmastime, we like to decorate our homes with branches from evergreens, hang mistletoe overhead in hopes of a kiss and make wreaths of holly branches with the bright, shiny green leaves and red berries.

It's tradition to use these plants in this way – they make our homes look festive and give us that certain feeling we look for during this season.

Most of us have evergreens of some sort on our property, but many of us haven't done ourselves the favor of adding evergreen holly ilex. Here are some tips that should help if you decide to add holly to your landscape before Christmas 2010:

• Ilex (holly) is a large genus of more than 400 species of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs.

Hollies are grown for their leaves, which are often spiny and glossy, and their colorful berries, which attract birds. Flowers are small, cup-shaped and rather inconspicuous and bloom from spring to early summer. Berries form and ripen in late summer and fall.

• Here are a couple of new words to add to your garden diary: dioecious and monoecious. Dioecious means that separate plants are male and female. Monoceious means that a plant has both sexual organs and does not need other plants to produce fruit.

Holly is dioecious, and you will need at least one male and one female plant to get fruiting. The male plant needs to be no more than 30-40 feet from the female in order for pollination to occur.

• Hollies can be pruned in December, which is a happy coincidence – you can use the trimmings for Christmas decorations.

• The hollies that we are familiar with, due to their striking evergreen foliage used in Christmas displays, are English holly (ilex aquifolium) and American holly (ilex opaca). American holly is hardy in Zone 5 and is recommended for landscapes in our area.

• Be careful to check for the adult size of the plant you purchase, as height can range from 15 to 30 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide.

Due to their ease of care and growth habits, hollies make excellent privacy screens and hedges.

• If you have a holly that has become overgrown and needs rejuvenation, try what is called “hat racking.” In late winter, cut back the branches by half to three-quarters of their length. There will be a few leaves left, and the plant will look like a hat rack. In spring, it will grow new stems and foliage from the pruning cuts and become nice and bushy again.

• To keep this versatile plant in the shape you would like, prune back the tips of the current season's growth in late summer, autumn or winter.

• In early spring, shovel compost or well-composted manure all around and under the holly shrub, including the drip line.

• When planting hollies, make sure they are in a full-sun location and provide a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball, but only as deep as the root ball.

Because they prefer acidic soil, amend the soil with sphagnum peat moss or compost made from oak leaves and pine needles.

• Most hollies do not like wet feet, so they should be planted in a well-drained location.

• To conserve moisture during the growing season, add a 2-inch layer of mulch such as pine needles, mulched oak leaves or sphagnum.

Jane Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. E-mail questions to features@news-sentinel.com.