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How to Cut Back Holly Bushes

holly image by Warren Millar from

Holly bushes make an attractive winter landscape plant, with their red berries adding visual interest in a sometimes-dreary season. While holly cuttings make a festive holiday decoration, gardeners need to conduct a more serious pruning of this bush than gathering greens for a mantle display. Cut back holly bushes annually to keep the plant cosmetically attractive and healthy.

Put on garden gloves to avoid getting pricked by holly leaves. Inspect your holly bush for dead, damaged or diseased limbs. Dead wood will feel hollow to the touch. Diseased and damaged wood will be physically marred with discolored wood or evidence of nicks and cuts.

Prepare a 1-to-10 solution of bleach-to-water in a bucket. Dip your pruning tools in this solution, then cut away dead, damaged and diseased wood. Snip off these limbs at their intersection with the trunk or main branch. Use anvil pruners for small cuts and lopping shears for thicker branches that are difficult to cut with the small pruners. Disinfect your pruners between cuts. Dispose of all infected and dead wood in a garbage bin, then disinfect your pruning tools and wipe them dry with a towel. Dispose of the bleach solution.

Head back your holly bush to reduce the height. Using your pruners, cut each branch back by the desired number of inches. Cut limbs off just above a node, or swollen joint on the limb. Keep your plant looking neat by heading back branches at the same height.

Thin out crowded areas of the canopy to promote air circulation, which keeps holly bushes healthy. Use pruners to remove weak limbs and limbs that press up against other branches. Cut all growth off at the base.

Remove low-growing or downward-growing branches from the holly bush by snipping them off at the base. Do not cut into the collar, or the swollen tissue on the trunk that marks the branch intersection with the trunk.


The University of Rhode Island recommends pruning holly bushes either early in the spring before new growth begins or late in the winter.

Remove dead or damaged wood at any time of year as soon as you notice it. Always check for this wood first when you prune your holly.

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