Saturday, June 12, 2010

Growing Hollies

Hollies have been used in decoration and for landscape applications for over 2000 years. There are 20 species of American Holly. There are about 128 species of Asian Holly and 200 species of English Holly. With such variety, it's easy to find a holly which fits your taste and your environment.

Hollies make a distinct statement in the household outdoor plant environment. They look great trimmed low and spreading as a foundation plant. In the winter landscape, the evergreen varieties show up against the bleak surroundings. The curly, colorful, sometimes variegated foliage is intriguing.

Some holly varieties grow into tall trees while others grow not much taller than a dwarf fruit tree. Since holly foliage is bunched and tightly knit, the holly can be trained into a hedge. The holly serves as a formidable barrier as a hedge. Unlike a solid fence, the holly hedge does not present the imposing and lifeless impression of a wood or masonry wall.

Hollies flower but the flowers are small and hardly sensational. Small, greenish-white flowers bloom in warm weather but only upon the female plant. Instead of bright and sensational flowers, the holly produces berries: red ones, yellow ones, or orange ones.

In order to get those bright red berries which look so great in a Christmas wreath, the gardener needs both male and female plants. Cross-pollination is necessary for berry production. The gender of the American holly is difficult to determine until it blooms and produces berries. Indeed, some years may pass before the plant shows gender characteristics.

There is good reason hollies are associated with Christmas decoration in cold and snowy climates. In many parts of the world where winters are cold and snowy, the soils are inhospitable. The deciduous varieties are hardy to 30 degrees below zero; the evergreen varieties can tolerate temperatures to 15 degrees below zero. Though hollies prefer an acid soil, they will easily adapt to less than ideal conditions.

Gardeners and landscapers are often unaware of the deciduous varieties of holly. The reason for this might be that the deciduous varieties are often referred to by other names. Deciduous hollies are common in the northeast of the U.S. where it is called "winterberry". Woodsmen and farmers may be more familiar with these varieties than gardeners are. Winterberry is found mostly in the woods, rarely in the backyard garden. The berries are typically orange in color, rather than red. But winterberry is in the Ilex family, along with its evergreen counterparts.

Smaller hollies are not unusually expensive in garden shops but the cost can get high if the gardener wishes to purchase a large lot of them to train into a hedge. Propagating them from seed is an option but it's not a very good one. Growing holly from seed takes a great deal of time. The holly seed is protected by a coating which temporarily prevents propagation. This coating of enzyme and pulp allows the seed to survive the cold winter and begin its growth in spring when the weather warms. For those with a great deal of patience, however, the pulp can be stripped from the seed, washed in cold water, and grown indoors.

A more practical method of propagating holly is through cuttings. One year old cuttings from healthy holly bushes will be the best option for propagation. New growth is green and not yet established. Older holly wood has lost some of the enzymes needed for the plant to thrive.

To propagate from cuttings, dip the cuttings in a rooting enzyme. Place the cuttings in a plant bed of sterilized potting soil mixed with sand and vermiculite. Keep the soil moist while the plants are establishing roots. In an orange crate, one can easily propagate ten to thirty new plants for a planned hedge.

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