Holly is easy to grow, especially if you have lots of time

THE REAL DIRT

December 21, 1991|By Mike Klingaman

Our decorating plans for the holidays have hit a snag because of a pretty little plant in the front yard.

My wife and I disagree over the handling of our holly tree. I want to deck the hall with its rich green boughs. But pruning the tree means my wife will deck me.

She claims our 3-year-old holly is too young for its first haircut. Nonsense, I said. Hollies expect to be pruned for the holidays. They have made these sacrifices for thousands of years, since the days when the early Romans pinned holly sprigs to their gifts during the pagan festival of Saturnalia each December.

Privately, hollies want to be pruned, I said, just as turkeys long to be stuffed. It's in their blood. Er, sap.

"Fine," my wife said. "By the way, which of the boughs were you planning to cut, the one on the left or the right?"

The truth is, our holly tree is less than a foot tall and resembles a wishbone. Maybe I'm kidding myself. Perhaps it is too young for a trim.

OK, OK, I'll wait a year. The tree ought to be at least ankle-high by then.

I envy folks whose yards are graced with majestic hollies, those hardy trees and shrubs whose beauty is surpassed only by their maddening slow growth. Hollies can live for 200 years; the catch is, the seeds take three years to germinate.

There are at least 300 known varieties of holly, nearly half of which can be found growing in Catherine Richardson's yard in Towson. Here are species of American, English, Japanese and Chinese hollies; shrubs with red, yellow and black berries; and mature hollies ranging in size from 3 inches to 40 feet tall.

Richardson, executive secretary of the Holly Society of America, landscaped the two-acre lot almost wholly with hollies when she moved in 36 years ago.

"I wanted plants that were low-maintenance, so I settled on hollies," she says. "They are the backbone of the yard."

December finds this 73-year-old gardener fluttering about the place, snipping here, clipping there and gathering immense piles of holly for decorative purposes.

"Christmas is as good a time as any to prune hollies," she says. "They aren't fussy about when it's done."

Much of what she trims, Richardson gives away. But she saves several armfuls for herself, carrying huge bunches of holly into the house and placing it in the bathtub.

The bathtub?

"I soak the holly overnight in the tub, with some detergent, to get it clean," says Richardson. "You'd be surprised how dirty the leaves get outside."

On these nights, she says, the family is forced to take showers.

Richardson is in good company. Some famous people have been holly buffs. George Washington received hollies for his Mount Vernon home from the father of Robert E. Lee.

Evelyn, a noted English diarist of the 17th century, grew a spectacular holly hedge. Alas, it was destroyed by an unruly house guest, Peter the Great, who insisted on being pushed through the garden in a wheelbarrow. (Evelyn reported the Russian leader never even said he was czary.)

Thomas Jefferson considered growing a huge holly hedge at Monticello, but apparently gave up.

"I have about half a bushel of holly seed now lying in my garden, but . . . I have determined to throw them aside, or to make very small use of them," he wrote in 1816.

Nowadays, most hollies are propagated by cuttings. The Holly Society, which lists 850 members nationwide, holds regular holly "sprig swaps" and offers the newest varieties for sale. (For information, contact the Holly Society of America, 304 North Wind Road, Baltimore 21204.)

Most hollies are easily grown across the country, in sun or partial shade. Moist soil is recommended. Variegated types need winter protection in Northern states.

Hollies are rarely bothered by pests or disease. Both the male and female of each species must be grown to ensure production of the bright red berries prized by birds and holiday revelers alike.

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