From the Sperry Garden: February 11, 2016

I don’t make big changes quickly. I’ve been known to look at bothersome situations in my own gardens for a year, even two, before I took bold steps to correct them.

I’ve been a proponent of Nellie R. Stevens holly since I planted my first one in Farmers Branch 46 years ago. We moved to our current house outside McKinney 38 years ago, and this was a 10-gallon shrub-form NRS when I planted it.

My plant grew and grew. Every few years, we’d give it a trim to keep it full and compact. However, it began to outgrow my space and my ability to climb up to prune it. I wondered what I might do to keep my old friend and still be able to get in and out of my truck and the garage.


35-year-old Nellie R. Stevens holly had become a very large shrub.

I’ve seen these hollies used as small trees more than once, so I looked down under the lower branches, and I could see trunks waiting to be exposed to the world.

The first step in a pruning task like this is to be sure a tree-form plant will fit the surroundings. In my case, the top of the plant will be able to grow up and over the roof of the garage if it needs to, although the plant has been slow-growing in this spot, so I don’t think that will happen any time soon. But trimming it tree-form wouldn’t be a good solution if this plant were up against a two-story house or any other tall wall.

I used lopping shears to remove all of the side branches. With larger plants it might sometimes be necessary to employ a saw, but these were quite manageable with my long-handled loppers.

I removed the lowest branch, then I stepped back to observe what impact that had on the look of the plant. I had a friend working with me, and he took a soft rope and gently noosed it around the next lowest limb. He pulled that limb down and out of the way so I could see if removing it would be a good move. And it was, so off came limb Number 2.


Branches removed weren’t all that impressive, but the results certainly were.

And so, on and on, I worked my way up the shrub until we reached a branch whose removal would have left the plant looking lopsided and unattractive, and that’s where I stopped. Oh, that branch may come off in the future, but I’ve done absolutely no more trimming in the ensuing three years. I’ve saved a valuable part of my landscape, and I’ve actually added a beautiful accent tree in the process.


Our Nellie R. Stevens “tree” is a handsome part of our gardens.

This “limbing up” trimming works well with yaupon hollies, even Needlepoint hollies, and it might be a fun option for an old, overgrown waxleaf ligustrum. Take a look around. You might have shrubs that could benefit from this very same treatment.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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