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Evergreens make winter bearable, and, if they are clipped, they can really add structure when so much is in decay.
I’m currently appreciating my chirpy box chickens and box roundels which comfort me greatly on grey, cold days. In my old garden at Hook Norton I clipped hollies into roundels and cake-tiered bushes too. Their presence smartened up the winter garden.
The holly lollipops were cut from a variegated gold and yellow Highclere Holly called Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’. This bright green and gold holly, found in Edinburgh in 1884, is one of the finest to trim because it’s dense in habit and fairly fast growing for a holly. It produces some berry, being female despite its masculine name, and the large leaves have real eye appeal.
Highclere Holly was originally identified in the woods at Highclere Castle, the grand house immortalised by the television programme Downton Abbey. This hybrid, first identified by Loudon in 1838, has rounder leaves than our prickly native Ilex aquifolium. The difference in shape is due to its parentage, which includes a tender, large-leaved holly from the Azores — Ilex perado. It was grown in orangeries for its glossy foiage and, when placed outside in summer, this exotic crossed with our native. Once identified at Highclere, many other hybrids were also found in other gardens, so there are many other 19th-century Highclere varieties still available. Whenever you topiarise holly, it’s at the expense of berry. I crave red at this time of year because it lights up the winter garden like no other colour, so I am thinking of adding some female berrying hollies to Spring Cottage. However, these evergreens are dioecious: individual varieties have either female or male flowers, not both. Generally the females only berry up if male pollen reaches the flowers, so it’s advisable to plant one male variety, unless you live in a rural location where there’s lots of holly in the woods and lanes. You only need one male holly to service a harem of females.
When choosing holly varieties, don’t go by the names: they are misleading. ‘Golden Queen’ (for instance) is a male despite being a queen, so check the sex of your hollies before planting. The RHS Plant Finder lists the sex of each in brackets after the name and also indicates the variegated ones. Some hollies berry up much more reliably than others, although all tend to have a biennial tendency according to a commercial grower I know. The red-berried forms tend to be devoured by the birds first, so pick you berries now and place them somewhere cool if you want Christmas holly for the house.
Hollies are very slow growing and it’s tempting to plant mature hollies, but they can be tricky. It’s often more successful to plant a young holly and allow it to grow away. If you do have to move one do it in early spring — preferably when the soil is moist. I successfully moved several mature hollies at Hook Norton.
Although hollies are adaptable plants for shade or sun, they will need watering during their first year. They do best on well-drained soil, although most gardeners can grow them. The ideal time to prune and trim is August, but always wear protective goggles. If you see green shoots sprouting from a variegated variety remove them immediately.