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How To Prune Holly Bushes? Myth VS Reality

How to prune holly bushes

You can’t help but take a second look when there is a holly bush out there. With its beautiful lush green foliage and stunning berries, it’s a must-have plant in any garden. It makes any garden worth its money. Not only that, but most varieties are also evergreen, so when other plants would go all barren, holly would still be the coolness of your eyes. Due to its mesmerizing beauty, some varieties, like the English holly, are used for decoration at Christmas time. However, for holly to continue to please you with its beauty, it’s important to know the proper pruning technique for maintaining holly.

Certain types of holly can become unmanageable if left on its own. Proper pruning can help prevent diseases, control the shape of the bush, and encourage better flowering. However, there is no one answer to how to prune holly bushes. Pruning depends on the variety of holly as well as the time of the year. I know it can be a lot for someone with no prior experience but don’t worry! This article will walk you through everything you’ll ever need to prune holly.     

Stepwise Guide on Holly Bush Care:

The First Step: Clean Shears

Before we start jumping into the details of pruning, the first thing that you should keep in mind is to always use clean shears for pruning. Using rough or dirty shears can lead to disease infestation and you would, in turn, be causing more harm to your plant than good. To achieve that, put the blades or shears in a sanitizing solution. You can also use 1 part of an oil cleaner in 3 parts of water if you don’t have access to the sanitizing solution.

Also, make sure that the cuts are clean to help the plant heal faster.

The Second Step: When to prune?

Holly goes through a dormant period in the winter season. This is the safest time to prune. Other than this time, plants can be exposed to diseases and injuries. Spring pruning is also practiced by some people after the plant has bloomed. It is an acceptable practice if the goal is to safeguard and enhance the berry production.

Don’t prune too late in summer as it would induce new growth that would be killed by the first frost. Then what’s the point!

The Third Step: How to prune holly bushes?

General Pruning Practices:

1) Remove damaged, dead and diseased branches.

2) Remove the branches which are not growing in the desired direction. The branches which are crisscrossing or rubbing against each other are removed. These prevent light from other branches

3) Start from inside and work outside. The goal is to open the inside of the plant for maximum light penetration.

4) Do this regularly for better shape and health of the plant.

There are different types of holly and different holly bush care strategies are required for each one. Not all varieties of this plant can be pruned at the same time. It is important to know when they should be pruned to avoid damaging it. The most common ones will be discussed here along with the pruning practice associated with them.

Types of Holly Bushes and Pruning Practices Associated with Them:

Blue Princess Holly:

This sounds more like a Disney character than a plant. It is known for its dark-colored leaves. The red berries, usually associated with holly, are the characteristic berries of this plant. These berries are like ‘icing on the cake’ with those attractive prickly leaves.

This type is pruned while the plant is still young. ‘Better safe than sorry’! This will help shape the plant to manage it with ease in the future while not pruning in the early stages will lead to an unmanageable plant. Don’t come crying to me then!

Once the desired shape is attained, then you don’t have to prune it often. Only tip-prune for maintaining the shape wherever needed.

Hetz Japanese Holly Shrubs:

With their characteristic blackberries, these holly shrubs are nothing less than a marvel of mother nature. When compared with the blue princess (I still can’t get over this name!), it doesn’t have prickly leaves nor is it primarily known for its berries. Also, conveniently for us who are trying to learn how to prune holly bushes, they are easy to prune unlike the “blue princess”. A useful practice is to open up the inside of the plant by making thinning cuts. This would improve the air circulation and in turn reduce the risk of infestation of diseases.

Sky Pencil:

Here comes another type with a weird name. As the name suggests, this is a narrow bush compared to its height. Due to its particular shape, it is widely used for landscaping around front entries and also at the corners of the house. It bears blackberries and has tiny leaves like Hetz and is easy to prune as well. They require very little pruning as long as your bush isn’t severely damaged due to snow.  

Inkberry Holly Bush:

Another one with black colored berries. There goes the common perception of holly bushes to be associated only with red berries. To much of our delight, inkberry holly bush is pretty tough and is resilient to challenging conditions like the lack of sunlight and excess of moisture in the soil. This makes our job easy. We just have to prune to maintain its shape and size. Simple! Isn’t it?

Winterberry Holly Bush:

You saw a few varieties of holly bushes that were grown primarily for their foliage. Here comes a type that is primarily grown for its berries. Who cares much for the green stuff when you’ve got glowing red berries to display!

Among the different types of holly bushes, winterberry is the odd one out. Winterberry holly bushes are not evergreen and so the approach towards pruning them is totally different. While drastic pruning was not acceptable for other holly types, it is applicable in the case of winterberry holly. A common practice is to remove 1/3 of the oldest and thickest stems each year in the dormant season.

American Holly Bush:

This holly bush variety can grow up to 15-50 feet tall. This variety is known for its pyramid shape and for having red berries; its leaves are dark green and are pointy. If you want habitat for wildlife, then this tree is perfect for you. This tree can provide food and shade for some critters and birds.

However, to have access to its red berries you will need to specifically procure a female one. Only the female holly bush can produce red berries, you can get the female holly bush at a nursery.

How to Trim Overgrown Holly Trees

Two strategies can be adopted when trying to prune overgrown holly.

Drastic Measures:

This is only recommended for a southern climate where there is little or no risk of cold injury in winter. This system is best used in late winter or early spring.

1) Cut all the stems back to about 6 inches from the ground.

2) Each cut should be at an angle, ideally 45 degrees. This would allow the rainwater to rundown without standing for long periods on the cut. 

3) As the new shoots emerge, cut the tips to about 6 inches. This would encourage them to branch out.

Moderate pruning:

Moderate pruning is a safer option to trim overgrown holly trees. This is done in early spring and is a viable option for northern climates.

1) Instead of all the stems, prune back only one-third of the oldest and thickest stems of your holly tree to 6 inches from the ground. Choose stems from different parts of the tree to give your tree a balanced look.

2) Repeat the process next year. Additionally, prune off the tips of new growth from last year to encourage the plant to branch. Cut above an outfacing bud.

3) Repeat the process the third year as well and again top off the new growth from the previous year.

I’m no good at math. Can you do this simple math for me?

1/3 the first year + 1/3 the second year + 1/3 the third year =?

You just replaced your overgrown holly bush with entirely new growth! Congratulations!

The Best Tools To Prune a Holly Bush

To prune a Holly bush, you will need a few essential tools to ensure that the job is done correctly and efficiently. Here are the tools you will needs to use:

  1. Pruning shears: Pruning shears, also known as secateurs, are essential for cutting small branches and stems. They come in two types – bypass and anvil – and you can choose the one that suits your needs.
  2. Loppers: Loppers are long-handled pruning shears that are used for cutting thicker branches. They come in various sizes and styles, and you should choose one that is comfortable to use and fits the size of the branch you need to cut.
  3. Pruning saw: A pruning saw is used to cut larger branches that are too thick for loppers or pruning shears. There are different types of pruning saws, including hand saws, folding saws, and pole saws, depending on the size and height of the branches you need to cut.
    • Mini Chainsaw: This are a valuable tool if you want to make pruning your Holly bushes easy. Great for those thicker branches and stems. You will still need your pruning shears but they are easier to use than loppers and pruning saws in most cases. We have written the Ultimate Mini Chainsaw Guide so head over there for more info on them
    • Gloves: It is essential to wear gloves while pruning a Holly bush to protect your hands from scratches, cuts, and thorns. There is nothing worse than getting to the end of a day of gardening and finding out how many cuts you have when you forget and accidently use the hand sanitiser….Ouch!

    When using these tools, make sure they are clean, sharp, and well-maintained to ensure clean cuts and minimize damage to the Holly bush. If you care enough to prune your Holly bush then you absolutely must maintain your tools properly.


    Pruning has always been something that scared the heck out of even the toughest of the lot! I know it’s a lot of work but taking care of your holly is important and would pay dividends in the end. Just relax and pick up those pruning shears, make sure that they are clean (important!), open this easy-to-follow guide, and start pruning!  

    There you go! A complete guide on how to prune holly bushes. All that’s left is for you to take action. Your holly bush won’t magically be maintained on its own you know!

    Now that you have learned how to prune a holly bush, do you have thoughts or tips on this? Any questions perhaps? Comment below! We also offer other guides as well such as How To Grow Rosemary and How to Grow Thai Basil.

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