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December 20, 2013

The Garden Guru: A jolly holly landscape

A devoted fan makes the case for filling your yard with this widely varied genus of plants

It’s entirely appropriate that we chat about hollies at this most special time of the year. If you ask me, of course, it’s entirely appropriate to talk about them at any time of the year. I’ve said it before here, and I’ll say it again: You could build an entire landscape using nothing but hollies, and it could be wonderful.

That’s essentially what I’ve done at our house. I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the genus Ilex, since my buddy, the late nurseryman Steve Dodd, gave me a tree-form Nellie R. Stevens holly to try in my landscape. That was 43 years ago this month, and that plant is still doing beautifully.

Steve declared himself to be a “holly fanatic,” and when we lost Steve years ago, I decided it was my job to pick up his torch. So if you ask me today to list plants you ought to consider, grab a tablet and pull up a chair. We’ll be starting with hollies.

Having written this column for 35 years and having been on the radio as a garden talk show host even longer, I’ve heard all kinds of reasons why some people refuse to use hollies. Almost always, it plays back to the subject of spines.

And so it is that I begin by saying that hollies come in all shapes, all sizes and all manners of textures. Yes, some do have sharp spines, but most types either have no spines or spines that won’t hurt you.

I’ve always thought about hollies with spines much as I think about a gas grill in the patio garden. Sure, it’s hot when it’s in use, and you could get hurt if you brushed against it. But you know that ahead of time, and you just give it a few extra inches as you walk past it. That concept works just fine with hollies as well. Let’s move on.

What is it about hollies that makes them so sacred to many of us here in North Texas? Many types grow very well in our alkaline black clay soils. They do well in sun or shade. Very few other shrubs are their match on tolerance of a wide variety of lighting. You can find a holly in any size range, from dwarf types that stay at 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, all the way to small trees 15 to 25 feet tall. Some are coarse-textured (large leaves); others are fine-textured (very small leaves). Many bear handsome red fruit all winter. And hollies are available in a wide range of container sizes at almost any month of the gardening year.

To help you plan, here are my own personal favorite hollies for Blackland landscaping. I probably have 20 other types, but this dozen makes up the bulk of our half-acre garden. They’re all plants that are long tried and true. I’ll start with the smallest and step up to the tallest.

Dwarf yaupon. Grows to 24-30 inches. Small leaves. No spines. No fruit.

Carissa. Grows to 30-36 inches. Medium-size leaves. Single spine. No fruit.

Dwarf Chinese. Grows to 36-42 inches. Medium-size leaves. Many spines. No fruit.

Dwarf Burford. Grows to 42-48 inches (can be kept shorter with shearing). Medium-size leaves. Single harmless spine. Large red berries.

Little Red. Grows (in my landscape in 15 years) to 48 to 54 inches. Small leaves. Several harmless spines. Red berries.

Needlepoint (Willowleaf). Grows to 6-8 feet tall. Medium-size leaves. Dependable producer of large red berries.

Mary Nell. Grows to 8-12 feet tall. Large leaves, toothed with harmless spines. Mine have never borne fruit but produce red berries. (Introduced by Tom Dodd Nurseries in Alabama — brother of my friend Steve Dodd.)

Oakland (very similar to Oak Leaf). Grows to 10-14 feet tall. Dense habit. Large leaves with harmless spines. No fruit to date in my landscape.

Weeping yaupon. Grows 10-15 feet tall. Heavy, weeping habit. No spines. Copious fruit.

Nellie R. Stevens. Can be kept shorter, but grows to 12-18 feet. Large, dark green leaves. Harmless spines. Very large red berries. Outstanding screen.

Yaupon. Grows to 15-18 feet. Very small, spineless leaves. Female selections produce multitudes of berries. Usually trained and sold tree-form.

Possumhaw. Native to North Central Texas. Grows to 15-18 feet. Small leaves resemble those of yaupon, except these are deciduous. Choose variety ‘Warren’s Red’ for best red fruit.

Finally, while I hate to end on a negative, there are several hollies that are occasionally brought in for sale in our area. In my experience, these are hollies to avoid, mainly because of our very alkaline soils and water, and therefore, acute (and uncontrollable) iron-deficiency symptoms after a few years: Heller’s dwarf, Sky Pencil, Savannah and East Palatka. Generally speaking, varieties from Ilex cornuta lineage will be fine here, but those from Ilex crenata or I. opaca will not survive very long in alkaline soils.

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