Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Growing holly could be a lucrative resolution for 2017

The site of a holly
The site of a holly "farm" should be away from the roadside as theft can be a problem at Christmas time
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That has never stopped me making New Year resolutions, however, even if many of my aspirations fail to reach fruition.

I have two targets for 2017. The first is to try to move more and eat less. This is the simplest and cheapest way to stay fit without wasting money by joining a gym or reading any of the numerous articles and books on the subject.

Secondly, I intend to plant more holly. The reason for the inclusion of holly is simple.

Not only is it a lovely shrub for around the farm, but I found it hard to meet the demand for it this year and had to turn away business when I could have sold far more.

Bunches of berried holly are a must-have item during Christmas time and the public are now returning to the concept of having natural materials in decorations and wreaths rather than the rather tacky plastic imitation stuff.

Planting more holly is undoubtedly the easier of my two resolutions as it is no hardship to load up the quad trailer with pots and with spade in hand, spend a few hours each week during the coming months popping in some more, wherever there is space.

There are always gaps in hedgerows that need filling and also along the woodland edges as well as within the woods among broadleaves.

Best of all are the areas that have been left unplanted under ESB lines which are ideal for establishing small holly "farms". While it has the ability to photosynthesise in semi shade and will establish itself readily within deciduous woodland, holly will grow faster in full sunlight.

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I already have hundreds of bushes popping up all over the farm where livestock cannot reach them and I can thank the many birds that eat the berries for this as they fly around the woods and hedgerows, dropping seeds in a ready made package of fertiliser.

There is, of course, the drawback of the same birds raiding the bushes during a cold snap in early December, but that's a risk worth taking. There is usually enough for everyone and I don't grudge a hungry blackbird or thrush a feed during a hard cold spell.

Given the huge demand each Christmas, it is astonishing that more farmers don't grow holly commercially by planting the varieties that are sought after by florists. Once established, it requires little aftercare and the annual harvesting of berried stems is sufficient to keep it in shape.

It doesn't need spraying or any of the other endless tasks associated with growing fruit crops or cereals and the only drawback is that you need to give it up to 10 years head start before commencing serious harvesting. From there on though it couldn't be simpler, and each year you can turn your initial investment in to hard cash.

Apparently much of the holly harvested in Ireland annually is removed illegally with whole trees being cut from hedgerows around the countryside and then packed in containers and exported to Britain and Germany.

Theft has always been a problem when growing Christmas trees so the same precautions must apply and the site of a holly "farm" should be away from the roadside and in a position which is relatively inaccessible to the public or where it is easy to monitor.

There is little point in going to the trouble and expense of planting and caring for holly if you choose a location that requires an armed guard in the weeks leading up to Christmas. According to the medieval Brehon laws in Ireland, if anyone were caught stealing a holly tree, they were obliged to owe the landowner the hefty fee of two milking cows. Now there is a thought. Maybe our Department of Justice and equality could restore that one when next reviewing our judicial system.

I have found it difficult to source female plants of the common species Ilex aqifolium. Obviously, the males will not produce the essential berries, without which, holly is virtually unsaleable. Some male bushes are of course essential for fertilisation but only a few are needed.

The care of holly bushes, once they are established is easy. On good soil, fertiliser is not necessary but does help on poorer sites. Water the plants when necessary for the first year and after that, normal vegetation control will ensure they keep growing happily.

One of the seven Nobles of the Woods

In times past, hedgerows often had the holly left uncut, one reason given was that it stopped witches running across the top. There were commercial reasons of course, for holly leaves as well as ivy were an important winter fodder in parts of Ireland as recently as the 1950s.

The use of holly and ivy as Christmas decorations dates back to very ancient times when we celebrated the solstice and decorated our dwellings with greenery to shelter the woodland spirits during the winter.

It is nice that this custom has survived but I doubt that many still realise its older significance. Holly was also one of the seven Nobles of the Woods which also include oak, hazel, yew, ash, pine and apple. What made holly so valuable was its tough, heavy wood which was favoured for making spears and chariot axles.

Nowadays, apart from its lovely foliage, it is popular for woodturning because of its attractive, smooth, dense, ­ivory-white timber.

When ordering your plants, be sure to include some of the cultivars such as Ilex JC Van Tol, Ilex Alaska and Ilex Golden King which are self-fertilising and once fully established, will produce great crops of valuable red-berried stems.

Indo Farming