Peter Dowdall looks at another use for holly this Christmas season — as a security measure and protector of the home.
Police in Essex, England are working with garden businesses in the design and construction of what they call a ‘Secured by Design’ garden.
This initiative, which the public can visit to see plants which could be used in their own gardens, is part of its plan to encourage greater security and greater protection of homes in the area .
Several elements are factored into this show garden — not least the plant variety types and locations, as well as other measure to secure garden sheds, garages and other vulnerable outhouses.
Interestingly, the planting of low-growing shrubs only, in front gardens, is encouraged to ensure there is no safe hiding place for unwanted visitors.
The biggest deterrent of all, however, is a good thorny, prickly hedge and this is where the native holly comes into its own. It’s recommended along with Pyracantha, Berberis, Prunus spinosa, and Crateagus monogyna as a natural security fence.
It makes sense too, if an opportunistic burglar is looking to help himself to a nice flat screen TV or some valuable jewellery, he or she is much more likely to go for the house that doesn’t involve fighting through a razorwire-like hedge or one wreathed in a thorny, impossible thicket of climbing roses. All of these plants, and more, are recommended for secure property defence on the walls and boundaries of a house.
Holly should be planted anyway as a matter of course in most gardens, simply for what it offers the environment. It provides a safe refuge for nesting birds, in particular, the mistle thrush, which likes the bush because it’s thorny foliage keeps other marauders at bay, as well as two-legged burglars. Hedgehogs too can hibernate in relative safety at the base of a holly hedge.
What we call common holly or Ilex aquifolium to give it its college name, is similar to most hollies, dioecious, meaning that both male and female plants are needed to pollinate the female flowers to develop into berries.
Ilex ‘JC Van Tol’ is a self-fertile variety producing berries freely on one plant, however as with all self-fertile plants, I would recommend planting more than one for a better display of berries. ‘Golden van Tol’ is a bright variegated form, again self-fertile, but with the added feature of leaves with a cream margin bringing a lovely colour contrast to the garden. The van Tols are not spiny and thorny as you would expect from a Holly tree, rather the leaves are glossy and smooth. So not much good for burglar- prevention.
The berries provide food for several birds and, while these are important for wildlife and a valuable Christmas decoration for us, they are also toxic to humans. One or two berries will lead to vomiting and diarrhoea, but a large amount of the bright berries, twenty or more, could be fatal.
Holly leaf blight is a particularly nasty disease, which has become more prevalent over the last number of years. Caused by the fungus, Phytophtora ilicis it tends to thrive, like most fungal infections, in damp conditions and damage is often noticed after a period of cold and wet weather.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand on offer for the treatment of holly leaf blight, but I have had good results from pruning out infected growth, treating the plant with copper sulphate and a good generous feed of Fast Grow seaweed compost, mixed with chicken manure.
When pruning, don’t be scared to be brutal, removing more as opposed to less, growth. Don’t worry, the plant will thank you in the long run and provided you have cut out enough of the infection, then it will produce healthy new stems in no time.
The problem often is that the first symptoms of the disease can be on the lower branches and removing these, while leaving the higher branches alone, can leave you with a fairly bare looking specimen, more like a standard than a bush.
In these circumstances, it’s best to prune the entire plant severely, reducing the overall size but retaining the original shape. This will mean that when new growth is produced it will be increasing in size proportionately and not just in one part of the plant.
Holly trees are also susceptible to damage from the ‘leaf miner’ and scale insect and also from sooty mould fungus. Please don’t just get the first chemical spray that you find, as there are several organic remedies now widely available that contain Pyrol which is just as effective, if not more, than other more-damaging formulations. A good pruning can also help to eradicate both problems. And remember, don’t pick holly in the wild, nature needs its berries.
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