How to Trim Holly Shrubs


Holly (Ilex) is a well-known garden shrub or tree, typically thought of with distinctive green foliage and brilliant red berries. In addition to providing branches for winter holiday decorations, it can serve a variety of uses in your landscape, depending on which species you choose and how you shape it. Prune an individual shrub into a tree shape or plant several hollies of the same species in a row and clip them as a dense hedge. The holly family is diverse, with dwarf and large-growing species. Choose a holly species whose natural habit conforms most easily to your landscape plan.

Season & Frequency

Step 1

Cut off broken, dead or diseased holly branches as soon as you notice that there is damage to the plant.

Step 2

Minor removal of holly branches for seasonal decorations is acceptable for all species.

Step 3

Make most of your holly pruning cuts in the end of winter or early in the spring.

Step 4

Prune "espaliered" (trained in an open tree shape along a wall) hollies only when they are in bloom. Do not remove the flowers that will become berries.

Step 5

Begin an annual pruning program when the holly is small. Shape the holly each year to maintain the desired form.

Pruning Tools & Cuts

Step 1

Wear thorn-proof gloves at all times when working with holly. Dispose of cut holly in a yard waste container immediately after pruning to prevent scratches from the leaves. Cut with pruners if the holly branch is under 1/2 inch in diameter. Use long-handled loppers for branches that are as large as 1 1/2 inches wide. For larger branches use a pruning saw.

Step 2

Achieve a tree shape by removing the lower branches of a holly shrub. Make these cuts in either a young or a mature holly.

Step 3

Maintain a natural plant shape by thinning out (cutting back to the trunk) branches that are too long and disrupt the plant's silhouette. Remove one branch at a time, checking after each removal to see how the appearance of the plant has changed.

Step 4

Adjust the natural shape, if desired, by heading back (cutting off along the branch) to make the holly denser.

Step 5

Transform a row of hollies into a hedge by shearing them with hedge clippers to make a compact and dense planting.

Tips and Warnings

  • Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) will not produce as many berries the following season if it is heavily pruned. Dwarf Japanese and Chinese hollies need regular shaping to maintain a symmetrical form.

Things You'll Need

  • Thorn-proof gloves
  • Pruners
  • Loppers
  • Hedge clippers
  • Pruning saw
  • Yard waste disposal container


  • University of Delaware Cooperative Extension; Pruning Evergreens
  • North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service; Pruning Trees & Shrubs
  • Agricultural Extension Service, University of Tennessee; Pruning Landscape Trees, Shrubs and Groundcovers

Who Can Help

  • National Gardening Association
Keywords: prune holly, holly hedge, thinning holly

About this Author

Daffodil Planter's writing appears in the Chicago Sun-Times, and she is the Sacramento Gardening Scene Examiner for A member of the Garden Writers Association, she has a bachelor's degree from Stanford, a law degree from the University of Virginia and studies horticulture at Sierra College.