Garden Tip: From a shrub to a tree

Willowleaf hollies (also known as “Needlepoint,” even though their leaves aren’t especially fearsome) are some of Texas’ finest mid-sized evergreen shrubs. They’re offsprings of Burford holly, which puts them in the Ilex cornuta clan. That group is adapted to a wide range of soils and climates.

Willowleaf hollies grow to be 10 to 12 ft. tall and wide at maturity. Sometimes that can be just a bit larger than we want for a particular spot. Rather than whacking them back time after time, we opt instead to let them own their true height as we convert them into small accent trees. We’ve been doing it with crape myrtles and yaupon hollies for decades. Why not Willowleaf hollies?

This was the bed before I did any pruning. Note the dwarf Chinese holly was becoming bare at its base. You can’t see, but it was also very misshapen.

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The simple steps in this process…
Make sure there are straight trunks that will be attractive once you open the plant up.
Remove any low shrubs you’ve been using in front of the tall plant you’re about to train. In my case, I took out the dwarf Chinese holly.
Start at the base of the large shrub by removing the lowest branch.
Step back to see if another branch should be removed. If in doubt, tie a rope around it and have someone gently pull it out of the way so you can visualize it better.
Repeat the process one branch at a time until you have achieved the tree-form look that you want. For appearance’s sake, it’s best not to go more than 40 percent of the way up the trunk. Remember: you can always remove a low branch later, but you can never get them to grow back once you remove them.

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This gives a nice, open look to this part of the Sperry home landscape. Our 45-year-old Willowleaf holly has been given new purpose in its life. Click image for larger view.

Finish by “sculpting” the canopy to a softly symmetrical form. But you’re trying to create a natural looking small tree, so don’t “poodle-cut” it into a globe.

I hope this Garden Tip has been helpful. I’m going to include them fairly frequently in the future. There are so many great little ideas gardeners bring to their plantings.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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