Pruning Bare Branches on Holly Bushes

Holly bush with bare branches.

Bare holly branches can be helped by strategic pruning.

I recently planted a pyramidal-shaped holly bush, and the lower branches are pretty bare. Can I prune them to encourage new growth? -Judith

Holly bushes can lose leaves for a number of reasons, from diseases to environmental factors such as light, water, and temperature. Some of the most common causes include:

  • Pests or Disease: The first thing I would recommend is a thorough inspection of the remaining leaves, to see if there are any signs of insects or disease such as spots, shriveled or discolored leaves, bark damage, or galls (strange-looking growths). Some diseases, such as leaf blight, can spread by water splashing up from the ground, which makes the symptoms worse at the bottom of the plant.
  • Overcrowding: If the lower branches were bare when you bought it, they may have simply been too crowded at the garden center and those branches didn’t get enough sun. Or, if hedgerows are planted too close together, the upper branches can block sunlight from the lower branches. Bare branches can also happen when bushes and hedges are over-sheared, which causes thick growth at the edges that blocks light and air from the interior of the plant.

How to Prune Holly Branches

If your plant is otherwise healthy, or if you’ve successfully treated any pest or disease problems, follow these tips to give your holly a strategic pruning that will encourage the bottom branches to fill out:

  • Remove Dead Branches: Go ahead and completely remove any branches that are completely dead. The best way to tell is to lightly scrape off a little bark with your fingernail – if it’s green underneath, the branch is still alive; if it’s brown underneath, it’s dead. Dead branches will also be brittle and snap easily.
  • Pinching back holly branch.

    Pinching back holly branch.

  • Pinch Back Bottom Branches: Very lightly trim or pinch off just the tips of the lower branches, back to a growth bud. This gentle pruning strategy will encourage branching along those stems without shortening them very much. But don’t over-trim! Pyramidal-shaped hollies should always be kept in their natural shape, with the lower branches wider than the uppers. If you prune back the lower branches too far, those branches can be over-shaded and can weaken the plant.
  • Thin Out Crowded Upper Branches: Next, thin out any crowded branches in the upper part of the plant, by completely removing them at the trunk or main branch. Thinning will help let light and air into the plant. This will not only help with shade problems, but also with air circulation and disease prevention. Don’t overdo thinning, though, since those branches may not grow back. When you’re finished, the plant should still look nice and full, just opened up a little.
  • Time Pruning Wisely: Prune hollies in late winter or early spring, during dry weather.
  • Dispose of Prunings: If you suspect a disease or pest problem, bag and discard all the trimmings, and rake up any fallen leaves underneath the plant, to prevent its spread.


Further Information


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4 Comments on “Pruning Bare Branches on Holly Bushes”

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  • Official Comment:

    Thomas Boni Says:
    May 3rd, 2019 at 10:42 pm

    Hi, Melissa,
    Some things you can only determine in person (and this is one of ’em)! We suggest contacting your local Master Gardeners association for a quick visit. Master gardeners train on a range of topics so they can provide advice, at no charge, for people in their area.
    Thanks for your question, and good luck!

  • Melissa Says:
    May 3rd, 2019 at 8:05 am

    We have a very tall holly tree in our yard that had cypress trees growing all around it because the cypress trees blocked the sun of the holly tree for so many years the holly tree is only sprouting at the top where it was getting light. There aren’t any branches on the bottom half of the tree. Now that we cut the surrounding trees down and the holly is getting sun again. Should I be hopeful that new branches on the bottom of the tree will sprout out?

  • Jess Says:
    February 13th, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    My friend received a small indoor Holly bush for her father’s funeral. She has had it any 2 months. Initially, leaves were shiney green. She had it indoors,and now the branches are brittle and the leaves are either pale green, or dark with browning edges, and falling off, easily. She said hubby saw some small bugs(no description) on it. I advised her to pour used soapy dish water over it for the pests. She said she was afraid to do that, in fear it would kill the bush. I went over to look at it and it was worse than I had imagined. It appears the whole bush is dried out, but she says she kept watering it. I told her you trim all the dead limbs off, and she became very emotional, for the sentiment attached is strong . She asked me to take it home to try and revive it. I am not a green thumb gardener, and hope to help, but would appreciate any suggestions on how to trim this little bush?

  • susie rost Says:
    August 31st, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    I would like to cut the lower branches of my holly tree, it is really tall, It would be easier to mow around with the lower branches cut off

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Pruning Bare Branches on Holly Bushes