How to Grow Holly at Home in 10 Easy Steps

red holly with green branches

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is famous for being a Christmas plant, but did you know it was used in ancient times to decorate statues of Saturn (the Roman god of harvest)? It was said it protected people from evil spirits and kept woodland creatures and fairies at bay. Regardless of the reason you might like it, Holly brightens up the cold winter months. For this reason, we are going to have a look at how to grow holly in your own backyard by following some easy steps.

How to Grow Holly

how to grow holly red holly berries with snow on the branches
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Before Planting

1. Choose the Variety You Like

There are hundreds of holly varieties available, from tiny shrubs that barely reach a foot in height to real trees that grow to 70’. They present various shapes: columnar, weeping, pyramidal, or rounded. The leaf shapes vary as well: large, spiny leaves or smoother ones that can make you mistake the plant for boxwood. In fact, if you love landscaping with boxwoods, you’re probably going to love completing the décor with holly as well. Let’s have a look at the most common groups:

  • Deciduous Holly – the varieties in this group have their leaves fall off and show its colorful berries during winter. The most popular ones are Red Sprite, Jim Dandy, Winterberry or Possumhaw.
  • English Holly – this is the group mostly used at Christmas due to its glossy and spiny foliage. Usually, people choose to grow Gold Coast or Angustifolia.
  • Hybrid Holly – here, you can find a huge array of options, such as the Meserve varieties (a cross between English and Chinese hollies and the Prostrate variety). The most popular ones are China Girl, Fosteri, and Blue Hollies.
  • Chinese Holly – since we mentioned it before, we should explain it in detail. It’s famous for spineless, large, and glossy varieties, such as Carissa or Burford.
  • American Holly – these varieties resemble the English ones a lot, except that they have duller leaves. The trees in this category have a pyramidal shape, which is why they’re great as barrier plants. The most popular varieties are called Greenleaf and Carnival.
  • Miscellaneous Evergreen Types – if you’re still looking for the right holly for your garden, try Inkberry or other Asiatic varieties: Perny or Longstalk.
how to grow holly berries and pinecones
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2. Use Both Male and Female

Another thing you need to know when deciding on how to grow holly is that this species has both male and female plants. Only the female ones will produce berries, and they need to be pollinated by the male ones that bloom simultaneously. If you live in a developed neighborhood, most likely there are other male shrubs around you. However, if you notice the holly isn’t producing any berries, you should plant a pollinator.

A general rule would be to plant a male to every 10 females. With some varieties, it’s easy to tell them apart since they have appropriate names, such as Blue Girl and Blue Boy. Another solution to the pollination issue is to graft together two different stems. You can also plant them in the same pot. Whatever you choose, make sure you know the gender of the plant before purchasing it.

3. Choose the Right Time

The best time to grow holly at home is in the spring or fall. These periods are ideal because they provide high rainfall, as well as relatively low temperatures. Thus, they cut down on the stress of a new location for the bush.

how to grow holly flower buds
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4. Choose the Location

The best place to plant holly bushes is a spot that gets full sun. They love getting lots of sunlight. What’s important when it comes to location is the soil. Holly loves a well-drained, loamy soil, with a slight acidity.

If you have heavy soil in your garden, you may want to add some organic material to make it lighter and to improve its drainage. The ideal pH should be between 5.0 and 6.0. If you don’t know the pH of your soil, you can use a soil tester before planting. In general, most holly varieties can adapt to conditions that aren’t ideal for them. As such, they can grow in partly shady or swampy/dry soil too.

When deciding on how to grow holly at home, don’t plant it next to the house, near a sidewalk, above pipes or power lines. This is because the plant grows strong roots and spreads wide, thus being able to damage the constructions nearby.

Planting Holly

5. Start the Seeds Indoors

When learning how to grow holly from seeds, you should know that this method requires a little more patience. If you have a look at the seeds, you will notice they have a protective coating that lets them be dormant and safe in winter. However, the same coat can prevent growth for months. You need to start the seeds indoors. Place them in moist soil and keep them there for 12 weeks before transplanting them to the ground.

Alternatively, you can also learn how to grow holly from cuttings of year-old growth or from berries.

how to grow holly opened holly flower
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6. Transplant the Holly

The ideal time to transplant your holly is sometime in autumn, especially if you live in a warmer climate. In this way, your plant will have enough lead time for the roots to settle in the soil before a hot, dry summer comes. When this happens, you should occasionally use an acidic fertilizer if the soil isn’t very acidic.

Dig a hole 2 – 3 times bigger than the width of the holly’s root ball. Put the plant in the hole with the top of the root placed level or a little bit higher than the soil around. Leave at least 5 feet space between small varieties, and 25 feet for the tree-type ones. Fill the hole half full of soil, then add water to settle it and help remove any air pockets. When you notice the water has drained, fill up the hole with soil. With a shovel, firm the soil around your holly.

Make sure you water thoroughly to feed the roots. Take some natural mulch and spread 2 – 3 inches of it. You can go for shredded bark around the plant, for example. This will help conserve moisture and keep weeds at bay.

Caring for Holly

7. Watering

Most of the time, holly can take care of itself, so you don’t need to make any effort. It’s essential to place it somewhere so it can get the best sunlight, as well as regular rainfall. If you live in an area where you get only 1 inch of rain every week, or if you’re going through a drought period, you need to water it occasionally. However, make sure you don’t overdo it. If you notice the soil becoming soggy, it’s a sign you watered it too much.

how to grow holly orange holly berries
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8. Fertilizing and Mulching

A couple of inches of mulch are welcome to prevent any damage from the freeze-thaw, especially to the shallow roots. The correct way of using mulch is to apply it in a circle that’s as wide as the branches of the plant. This will help retain water during summer, as well as to even out the temperature of the soil during winter.

When learning how to grow holly in your own garden, it’s important to know how often to fertilize. Luckily, you don’t need to use too much of this. Just apply a dose of it twice a year, in spring and fall. This helps your plants keep healthy. The type of fertilizer you should use is one that is formulated for evergreens, as well as other plants that love acid.

9. Pruning

Though hollies don’t need the pruning, they respond well to it, which helps you create beautiful hedges or geometric shapes. Through this process, you can correct any bare spots that may have been caused by over shearing. You can also use deeper pruning cuts to allow more light to reach the plant. It’s recommended you prune the branches back to a growth bud. If you cut off a branch or a stem completely, it may not appear back in.

A great idea is to prune your holly bushes in late winter. This way, you can use the cuttings as outdoor Christmas decorations, especially if you plant to hold a backyard Christmas party. Alternatively, you can also do it in early spring. Here you have a clip that explains the entire process in detail:

10. Pests and Diseases

One of the most common dangers you’ll face when you learn how to grow holly by yourself is birds. Unfortunately for you, they love holly berries. They prefer to eat them after a couple of freezes, so they’ll wait until late winter. Besides birds, other diseases you may need to treat are:

  • Sooty mold;
  • Black spot;
  • Phytophthora leaf;
  • Twig blight.

There are also a couple of problematic insects, such as:

  • Bud moths;
  • Holly leaf miners;
  • Red mites.


It’s extremely important to pay attention to your holly bushes if you have young children. Holly berries are toxic for humans, and in case of eating, they cause vomiting and diarrhea. However, if you still want to plant them, keep them out of reach of young children. Alternatively, you can refrain from planting both male and female bushes together until your children grow older. This will not allow berries to form.

how to grow holly red holly berries and green leaves
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The process of learning how to grow holly in your own backyard isn’t complicated at all. Whether you decide to grow from seeds, from cuttings, or from berries, it’s important to ensure the right light and soil conditions. Other than that, hollies are great at managing themselves, so you don’t need to worry about them.

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