How to Grow Holly

A classic holiday decoration brought to the United State sby the first English settlers, holly continues to be a popular Christmas favorite. With beautiful foliage (though watch out for those needles!) and bright red berries, it naturally brings out the colors of the season. Many like to grow their own holly for use in winter decorating and it’s quite simple to do!

Before You Plant

Choose the Right Type:

  • Around 300 species of holly are found all around the world. Most grow in temperate and sub-tropical locations, though there are some that will grow in colder regions.
  • Holly grows in many ways with some smaller plants, shrubs, and even large trees.
  • Check the growth range of your specific plant as some can reach heights of 70 feet! (Though others only grow to six inches.)
  • Here are some to consider:
    • Ilex aquifoliumEnglish Holly has bright green, glossy foliage adorned with brilliant berries. This is the holly that is most often desired for holiday decorations and is commonly replicated in pictures. It requires warmer areas and grows best up to zone 6.
    • Ilex opacaAmerican Holly is similar to English Holly, with foliage and berries that are a little less brilliant. However, it is much hardier to colder regions.
    • Ilex cornuta – The Burford Holly, otherwise known as Burfordii, grows as a shrub. The leaves are dark green in color and it produces large, red berries. While this shrub is hardy to colder regions, the leaves may be damaged.
    • Ilex crenata – These Japanese Holly species are often used as landscaping rather than decorations. They produce black berries rather than red. They are much hardier to colder temperatures and can be pruned to specific shapes and sizes.
    • While traditional holly is green with red berries, the Gold Coast variety has green foliage with bright yellow margins. This male plant is often grouped together with the female plant Argenteo Marginata. This popular plant produces green foliage with cream margins. Together they make a beautiful combination.
  • Holly plants are dioecious, meaning there are both male and female plants. Only female plants will produce berries. In order for this to happen, there must be a male plant in close proximity (within 30 feet). Without a male plant present, your plant will not bear any fruit. If you don’t have space for several plants, consider placing a male and female plant together in a large pot.
  • Most holly is only hardy to zone 6. There is a small handful that are hardy to zone 5 and only a few that are hardy in zone 4. Choose your plant’s growth requirements carefully to ensure they will grow well in your area.

Find a Suitable Place: 

  • Most holly likes full sun, though most will tolerate light shade. Check the requirements for your specific variety.
  • Avoid exposed areas where the plant will have to tolerate wind. 

Prepare the Soil: 

  • Soil must be well-draining. Amend heavy soils with plenty of organic matter.
  • Holly loves organic, acidic soil. To increase the acidity of the soil, there are several options.
    • Ammonium sulfate will lower the pH immediately, however it also raises the nitrogen levels, and too much nitrogen reduces berry production.
    • Add sphagnum peat to the soil.
    • Coffee grounds, oak leaves and pine needles work more slowly, but they’re free!
  •  For the best results, have your soil tested by a local extension office. This will inform you of the exact acidity levels in the soil so you will know how much to amend. 


What You Will Need:  

  • Holly plants
  • Holly Tone fertilizer
  • Small shovel
  • Organic compost/mulch
  • Prepared soil
  • Water 

Steps for Planting Holly: 

  1. Begin by preparing the soil according to the instructions above.
  2. Dig a hole that is approximately twice as large as the root ball of the holly plant.
  3. Carefully remove the plant from its original container. Be careful not to disturb the roots.
  4. Place the root ball into the hole, keeping it at the same depth as it was in the original container.
  5. Fill in with removed soil and pat to firm.
  6. Water thoroughly immediately after planting.
  7. Adding mulch around the base of the plant will help to retain moisture and keep weeds away.
  8. Fertilize regularly with Holly Tone following the guidelines on the package.
  9. Continue to water regularly to moisten the soil when it becomes dry, but never water so much that the ground becomes soggy. Once holly is established, it can tolerate a certain level of drought, so be careful not to overwater.
  10. Weed the area regularly so your plants can get the maximum nutrients and water from the soil.
  11. Prune each spring to keep the plant shapely and under control. 

Starting Holly from Seeds 

  1. In order for holly seeds to germinate, you must use a process called stratification.
  2. Place the leaves between several layers of soil and leaves.
  3. Alternate the temperature between freezing and thawing several times (while always keeping the temperature cool).
  4. This freezing/thawing process breaks the coating on the seed and allows it to grow.
  5. Plant the seeds directly into the soil in the spring. 

Additional Tips and Advice 

  1. If you must transplant your holly, it is best to do it late winter or early spring while the plant is dormant. Carefully remove the entire root ball and replant in the desired location.
  2. Many growers like to decorate with holly for the holidays. Be cautious when taking cuttings as cutting too much off of the plant can harm the plant. If you want to include lots of fresh holly in your decorating, simply grow several plants.
  3. Low berry production can be caused by high nitrogen levels in the soil, poor pollination, or spring frosts damaging the flower buds.
  4. Animals love to feast on the berries and foliage. You may need to add protection to keep rabbits, deer, squirrels, birds and other hungry critters away.
  5. Holly also grows well in large containers. Often, nurseries will sell two plants (one male and one female) together in a large 5-gallon container.

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