The Holly (genus ILEX) is one of the most popular evergreen shrubs in America. Hollies come in a very wide range of shapes and potential sizes, are typically low maintenance, and often provide lovely red berries for winter interest.
Hobby gardeners and home owners often ask:
What is the best time of year to prune my holly shrubs?
Actually, hollies can be pruned just about any time you like, depending on the nature of pruning you have in mind and your overall goal for the shrub. For example, if you shear your hollies into tight geometric shapes, or maintain a natural but not-too-wild look by controlling fast growing shoots, you might prune up to three times per year: spring, mid-summer, and fall.
The best time for hard pruning, however, is late Winter or early Spring, i.e. mid February to mid March in eastern Tennessee. Hard pruning, as you might imagine, is a process of deep, penetrating cuts intended to drastically reduce foliage and woody material, often to the greatest extent possible without compromising the health of the plant.
A gardener usually chooses to hard prune his or her hollies when doing so is critical to save the plant or necessary to significantly increase the specimen’s vitality. Examples include overgrown hollies that have been improperly sheared for many years, very old holly shrubs with trunks and branches that defy light or even moderate pruning efforts, and sick or damaged hollies that must be aggressively rejuvenated in order to save their lives.
The standard tools for hard pruning work are medium to heavy loppers, pruning saws, and of course a good pair of hand pruners. The plan of action here is to reach behind the outer foliage spread, finding and cutting branches and shoots close to the trunks until you have achieved your target reduction.
The photographs below illustrate a recent pruning endeavor aimed at saving the life of an old and particularly large Foster Holly. The plant had reached a height of 20 feet, blocking an upstairs window and detracting from the frontal view of the customer’s lovely home. While the shrub could have continued to thrive for some time to come at this immense size, one of the homeowners had decided to cut it down.
Fortunately his wife called in the Garden Coach to mount an emergency rescue operation!
Overgrown Foster Holly Before Pruning:
Overgrown Foster Holly After Successful Hard Pruning:
The difference is dramatic, as you can plainly see, but the plant was saved from the wrath of an angry husband with a chainsaw. Holly shrubs are robust and energetic, and an old specimen like this will literally explode with new foliage during the active growth season ahead.
This is precisely why late Winter to early Spring are the ideal times for hard pruning: Holly shrubs will take advantage of the mid spring “burst” and quickly regenerate much of the material you remove.
In this example project we took care to ensure that forthcoming growth will be primarily lateral and not vertical; the holly will fill back out nicely without exceeding the desired height. Here’s a picture of Kim sporting the seven plus foot top of the holly, which is taller than her!
Even younger hollies will flush back out quickly after a deep pruning, so if you have a recently damaged holly that needs a rescue effort right away, consider reducing its size substantially now so it will have plenty of opportunity for recovery as we enter Spring.