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Leonard Moorehead the Urban Gardener: Hollies Forever Holidays

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Photo: Leonard Moorehead

Urban gardeners are sensitive, caring folks. We are attune to the rhythms far more ancient than our thickly, densely, populated cities. To us, the sun, the moon, the stars are guides to annual cycles. Since beyond memory, cultures across the world have observed the sun’s transit. All note the year’s shortest days. No longer the subject of dread or worship, we remain observant. The longest night is upon us, the moon and sun dominate. Photoperiods, day length are permanent influences upon urban gardens and those who nurture, love them. No plant claims our attention more than the holly, horticulture’s solstice punctuation. The holly defies brief days, its green artfully formed leaves and attractive red berries proclaim eternal truth. Life is powerful, life drives through cement, life is beautiful. 

If you’re to have one shrub, a small tree, a sturdy carefree endlessly rewarding plant in the urban garden, I urge you to consider the holly. You’re in good company, in temperate regions of North America and Europe the holly has adopted gardeners for generations of devotion. Its legacy for us is replete with legend and strong powers. When winter fastens its icy grip on our garden plots the holly accepts homage. Our admiration is not misplaced. Patience, endurance, harmony are the first aspects of the holly, their grey bark, distinctive green foliage, charming red berries manifest the best in people. Nature is not separate from urban gardens. Rather, nature insists. Make room for a holly around your home. Plant hollies for now, for many tomorrows, note its past. 


Hollies are a large family. The winter solstice moves many to faith and holly is the first to adorn our gardens and homes with nearly endless variations in color, shape and form. Celtic druids attributed sacred powers to many plants, chief among them the holly. Veneration is but another aspect of spiritual growth. Our secular urban society has newer versions of adoration yet has never replaced the holly. There are good reasons. 

Hollies are an understory small tree. It thrives in well drained moist lands under the shade of maples and oaks. Often distanced from one another, the holly is generally understood to be evergreen. There are native hollies in America, most are evergreen. Their deciduous cousins are most evident as profusions of red berries on short shrubs in wetlands. Urban gardeners borrow from nature, we provide as much as possible the original environment of any plant. Hollies thrive whenever in places close in formation to their native habitat. You can do this too. 

Hollies have long lifespans. They form dense root systems important to keep in mind. Their preference for soils of modest fertility, semi-shade, moist but well drained sandy or gravelly glacial moraine deposits are reminders that fertilizers and deep mulches are not required. They are valiant. Deep shade is not their forte, they will establish themselves alongside buildings that cut off sunlight, and any east or western perspective is good, southern direct exposure to sunlight may discourage them. Hollies are virtually pest free and not preferred by common garden varmints such as woodchucks, raccoons or skunks who have adapted to urban life. 

They thrive in the generally acid soils of the eastern United States and extend into the gentle sections of zone 6. Most hollies are bought from nurseries. They are easy to start from cuttings however hollies are slow growing and it’s worth jumpstarting this small tree to save several years waiting. Larger plants offer stronger defense against competitors. Carefully select the long term location. Hollies are among those who are hesitant to transplant. Always prepare a $100 hole for a $10 plant. Dig several times the diameter of the plant’s pot, mix in peat, a reminder of the holly’s native habitat, perhaps but not necessary add commercial fertilizers such as Hollytone that lean towards acid or high PH soils. Other shrubs often associated with hollies are laurels and rhododendrons. All have the same environmental needs. 


Hollies are either female or male. It takes a bit of experience to distinguish the two but it’s not baffling. Female hollies form the legendary red berries carved into our collective memory. Look over your neighborhood for other hollies; they have no knowledge of fences or boundaries. If you see hollies with red berries there is a male holly somewhere within a 100 foot perimeter. A bit chancy? Don’t worry. Male hollies have undistinguished small white flowers and a slightly different form. Their handsome foliage is every bit as attractive as the female sans berries. 

Look carefully at the plant tags. Hollies have been the focus of intensive hybridization and there are many cultivars. Urban gardeners have an embarrassment of choices. Their foliage comes in many variations of green and shape. Dark green verging upon blue, highly articulated notched leaves, variegated white and green foliage, or simple deep green leaves are all out there and have the same cultural requirements. Some have orange berries for those who seek the unconventional. Urban gardeners need only one healthy male holly to pollinate others. For the conservative among us, plant male hollies within the traditional 100 foot range to adjust for the decline in pollinating insects, in particular, bees. Surely, the urban garden faces many challenges inherent to urban centers, do your best to stack the odds in favor of your garden plots. 

Photo: Leonard Moorehead

Keeping Hollies

Hollies will grow in very large pots. Remember they like their feet wet and do not tolerate desiccation. Give the pots, like all container plants, a quarter turn with each watering. This helps promote good form. Hollies were once heavily pruned to provide winter fodder for sheep and cattle. Their response is generous; lateral branches grow out and like kindly Medusas, their lateral branches double the density of what can be an open branched small tree aspiring to greater heights. Yes, I’ve succeeded in rooting hollies from pruned branches, take off all but the last two leaves of supple pencil sized cuttings and push deeply into the soil close to the mother plant. Be patient. Do not cultivate around hollies, they are vulnerable and sensitive to any disturbance of their roots. On the good side of things, hollies can with stand heavy pruning. I know of examples that sent up shoots from the base of cut down trees. Most people like their holly on the shrub side of things yet they will form small trees up to thirty feet tall with open branching. Their grey bark is as attractive as the larger, unrelated beech tree. 

Hollies venerable association with urban gardeners will never change. Dignified and always dressed in their best they will always be in style. Bright red berries are beacons of hope during the darkest days of the year. Celebrate the solstice with hollies. They are constant reminders of Solomon’s dictum: this too will pass. Enjoy their testimony, believe the sun will return and bless us with longer sunny days. Later, hollies will surrender their winter role to other seasons. They haven’t given up yet; hollies offer fine habitats to birds who add flight and song to an already perfect package. Don’t overlook this garden classic so deeply installed within our culture. Hollies are worth it and so are you. Grow them for loyalty to our annual cycles and noted for never uttering an unkind word. Red berries? No extra charge. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree. 


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