Planting and Taking Care of a Holly Bush

clippers trimming holly bush
  • 1-3 hours
  • Beginner
  • 25-50
What You'll Need
Holly bush (male and female)
Acidic fertilizer
Pruning shears
What You'll Need
Holly bush (male and female)
Acidic fertilizer
Pruning shears

Planting a holly bush is a wonderful and easy way to spruce up a dull landscape. Since evergreen holly will not lose its leaves in the winter season, the flowering plant adds a nice splash of color against the stark white backdrop of the season. However, there are certain steps to take before deciding to plant your holly bush.

Different Types

There are more than 400 different species of holly.

The English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the most commonly recognized type with its characteristic dark-green color, glossy spiked leaves, and bright red berries.

The Chinese holly (I. cornuta) is one of the few types of holly that can produce berries without male pollination. These berries vary in color, from red to dark orange or yellow. The dense foliage of the Chinese holly makes it an excellent natural privacy screen.

The Japanese holly (I. crenata) grows slowly but can live longer than 75 years. They produce striking black berries, and in rare instances, they can even sprout unique golden-yellow berries.

Several varieties of Blue holly (I. meserveae) produce attractive bluish-green foliage and purple stems, and red berries. The color palette makes the Blue holly a fun choice, but it’s also a particular favorite for birds, so consider another species if that’s an issue for you.

Choose a type depending on your personal aesthetic preference and your intended space's size, as different species of hollies can grow anywhere from 5-60 feet tall. Thankfully, even with the large variety, most holly plants require more or less the same kind of care.

Male and Female Plants

The traditional English holly bush and its beautiful red berries have become iconic in Christmas season motifs. If this is one of the reasons you're trying to cultivate a holly plant, make sure you have both a male and female plant, as they require cross-pollination. They need to be planted within 30 feet of each other.

Be aware that the store you purchase your plant from may not distinguish between genders with their labeling. The easiest way to determine the sex is by examining the flowers. The creamy white clusters of little blooms can look almost identical, though the male flowers have more prominent stamens and a sweet fragrance, while the female flowers are almost scentless. Usually, only the females will produce berries, so if you see a berried bush, chances are it's a female.

Even with both male and female plants, it could be several years before either plant begins growing berries or showing any other signs of gender. Unless you specifically want bragging rights down the line because you grew your trees “from scratch,” it’s much simpler to buy and plant an already growing holly tree.

Growing from Seeds

While some holly species can cover huge amounts of ground, they grow slower compared to other privacy plants like arborvitae. If you plan to grow from seeds, expect a long wait before you see anything magnificent. The seeds themselves actually have a protective coating that allows them to lay dormant and safe during the winter, but this same coating also prevents growth for months at a time. They typically need to start indoors, in moist soil, for a solid 12 weeks before being put in the ground.

Moving Your Plant Outside

Try to time things so that you transfer your holly plant to outdoor soil during the autumn months, especially in warmer climates. This gives your holly plenty of lead time for the roots to take hold before the onset of a hot, dry summer. When summer does hit, if your soil isn’t very acidic like the holly prefers, consider using an acidic fertilizer now and then.

Also, keep in mind that holly plants don’t grow well when transplanted from one location to another, so taking the time to locate the perfect spot on the first go is important.

Holly bushes thrive in heavy sun. Choose a spot where the house or other trees won’t overshadow the plant. Though holly is a resilient plant, areas with acidic soil will help your plant survive and flourish. Try to plant holly where run-off will occur, as this keeps the soil from becoming too soggy.

Holly roots grow strong and spread wide, which can cause damage if planted near a sidewalk, too close to the house, or above pipes and power lines. If necessary, contact a utility locating service to find the safest place to plant that avoids nearby structures that can be harmed.

TIP: Expert gardener Rachel Klein says, "Make sure to dig your hole almost as deep as the container from which you will be planting the bush, and thrice as wide."

Watering Needs

For the most part, holly will take care of itself, as long as it's placed to receive the best sunlight and you have regular rainfall. In drought conditions or areas where you only see less than one inch of rain per week, you may need to water your tree occasionally, but be mindful not to overdo it. If the soil ever becomes soggy, you’ve probably overwatered.

Seasonal Care

It's important to prune your holly in the early spring or summer. After you prune, hollies will usually send out new growth that can be damaged in low temperatures. Waiting to prune until any chance of frost has passed will reduce that risk. Once the plant gets thicker over the years, it is possible to prune your holly to specific designs or trim it into an attractive hedge. You can even cut Christmas decorations like wreaths from a thick holly bush.


Holly berries are harmful to humans, and eating them can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Either pick or prune your berries to keep them out of reach for young children, or refrain from planting both male and female hollies together until the children are older, as this will prevent berries from forming in the first place.