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Urban Gardener: Hollies Make Christmas Gardens Bright

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Eternity is within every garden. Urban gardeners reach beyond the day into the future. Our quest for growth and insight is guided by permanence. The hollies offer beauty, color and presence worthy in every garden. We desire their bright red berries and deep green leaves. Variations in leaves and berries only pique our interest. The long nights and short days of the solstice give sacred meaning to much around us. The hollies address the spiritual as no other plant. Bright green leaves and cheerful red berries proclaim life over darkness. People have known this for generations and show no sign of neglecting this ancient garden tree.

Hollies grow well in southern New England and will do well for you too. They have few requirements beyond the means of most urban gardeners. Hollies are a small, relatively slow growing tree that thrives in partial shade. Their evergreen leaves are highly articulated and form dense mounds of foliage. Their red berries are not edible for humans but are attractive to birds. The hollies thrive all the more when they are pruned. Clip the trees for dense growth along the ubiquitous chain link fences in our cities for beautiful and impenetrable barriers. Birds will thank you for the protective thickets and build their nests among the close knit leaves.

The holly naturally grows on the edges of wetlands and this proclivity hints at their cultural requirements. Plenty of moisture is a good thing. They also grow well as part of the understory of taller trees and are often naturally associated with oaks and swamp maples. Acidic soils are fine for hollies. Our soil is naturally acidic and fertilizers to enhance acidity are more necessary west of the Mississippi than in New England. Not at all fussy, hollies disturb some gardeners by the slow growth of young plants. Once established, they flourish. Be patient gardeners and wait out the first couple seasons of settling in. Don’t transplant your holly from here to there and expect rampant growth. Think through the needs of the plant before selecting a permanent site, let it settle in and grow. When they’ve developed a strong root system, it’s possible to harvest vibrant greenery for the holiday solstice. Shaping hollies can range from the artistic topiary onwards to simply control height or hedge.

Winter is the season most of us associate with hollies. Gardens are good for the spirit at all times of the year and I enjoy growing hollies for their punctuation of green and as reminders of other seasons. Hollies have an aura around them. They are naturally attractive and inspire. Like roses, they have an occasional thorn as part of the leaves. Don’t be discouraged, these thorns are dangerous only to the especially clumsy and some varieties are virtually thornless. The wood is dense and valued for its fine grain. Most gardeners reap many benefits from growing the holly in their garden. Essential for winter display are the red berries cherished by so many. Female hollies offer the red berries and require a male holly tree to fertilize their inconspicuous spring blooms. Plant a male holly or survey your neighborhood for other holly trees. If your neighbors have hollies with red berries there must be a male holly somewhere within 100 feet of the female. Are you in doubt? Select a male holly at the nursery and plant in within range but not immediately close to the specimen female plants. A single male holly will provide plenty of pollen for many female holly trees.

Hollies have a long life. They endure. Season after season the holly is a constant. Hollies remind gardeners of the four seasons. Our culture often moves from artificial holiday sales events. Hollies are from an older time. Their relationship with western culture precedes Christianity. Druids wore holly as sacred regalia. Often, hollies were planted in holy places. Or groves of the tree marked places for worship. This idea persists on many levels into the present. We decorate our doorways with wreaths of holly. Or we illustrate our art and greetings with these lovely green plants, their bright red berries reminiscent of bloodshed for our benefit. A holly tree is both memorial and promise.

Plant a pair of holly trees. They can still be bought at nursery centers when other plants are not available. Explore the marvelous world of holly varieties. Dark rich green may distinguish one variety to suit the gardener’s taste for depth or one may select a variegated type for more light. If you’re an urban gardener with that special commodity, space, enjoy the freedom of choice and plant several varieties. There is no regret or remorse among the hollies, only rewards and benefits. It’s no wonder that the holly has accompanied people in their travels and become resident across the globe. The wish for the peace that passes all understanding is nobly renewed each year by the holly’s lovely green foliage and bright red berries.

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joe pregiato

Holly anybody has these anymore.

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