Identifying & Pruning a Holly Shrub That Has Tree-Like Aspirations

Asked September 3, 2019, 7:38 AM EDT

Last weekend, I struggled to place a two-story ladder against my house and trim the top 3 feet of my big holly. Fully extended, the ladder is heavy and difficult to reposition, especially with a sharp-needled holly beneath it. To support the ladder on the sloping ground, I placed two 2x6s underneath one of the legs, which wasn't exactly textbook safe, but it was the best of several bad options. I then climbed up the ladder, with my alarmed wife providing a running commentary on ladder safety. Because my electric extension hedge trimmer is heavy, especially with arms outstretched, I had to release my grip of the ladder, hold the trimmer in both hands, turn sideways on one of the ladder rungs, and begin cutting, which involves much reaching and not a little flexing of the fully-extended ladder. Once I completed my work and descended, I had to promise my wife I'd never do this again. Objectively, it's a miracle I didn't fall off the ladder into the needle-like holly--with sharp trimmers in hand. A friend did something like this two years ago, while cleaning gutters, and ended up in Shock Trauma in Baltimore.

When we bought our house in 1998, the holly was a sickly, crooked, Charlie Brown-inspired eyesore. Over the years, I shaped it into a nice ornamental shrub. Problem is, its top is now beyond my reach, even with my super-extension trimmers. If left untrimmed, the holly gets shaggy and rubs against the screens on our windows, explaining why I removed the massive bottom branches two years ago. I've read some hollies reach 25 feet in height, which alarms me, so my options seem to be: (a) I can severely prune the holly or (b) remove the holly and replace it with a dwarf specimen. I would prefer to keep it, yet instead of pruning it to 18-24 inches in height--with good growth on each branch, as a book recommended--I'd prefer a five-foot specimen that resembles a tree. I'd also like to do my pruning in October or November, if that is optimal.

Three questions: (1) Does the described pruning sound like a good strategy? (2) Could I successfully "flat-top" the shrub--removing the top 5 feet by cutting the branches straight across--without harming it? (3) Can you identify the species of our holly? In spring, it has tiny white flower-like growth on it, which bees love, but it does NOT have red berries. Thanks in advance--and yes, I promise to stay off the big ladder.

Frederick County Maryland pruning holly tree

1 Response

We cannot identify the type of holly from the photo.
The best strategy would be to remove and replace the holly with a plant that matches the site location and conditions. Plan for mature height and width of the new plant.

In general hollies tolerate pruning but generally no more than 1/3rd of the shrub at a time. More than that could weaken the plant and be susceptible to winter injury. Any severe pruning should be done in early spring.
Topping is not recommended and the plant would not look aesthetically pleasing. Consider that the plant is in a prominent location in your landscape.

Marian