Holly Matchmaking

By Scott Aker
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 3, 2006

Q I hope you can solve a puzzle about the pollination of hollies in my garden. I have eight American hollies, both male and female plants. A couple of years ago I added two new varieties, Oakleaf and Robin. I purchased them with berries and was told that the existing American hollies would pollinate them for future fruiting. This hasn't happened; the new ones bloom before the existing ones. Is there a male holly for these varieties?

AThe plants you mention belong to a new hybrid group called the Red Holly Hybrids. Many of them have new growth that is red, produce a heavy crop of berries, and develop a tight, conical habit without pruning. For any holly to be a suitable mate to your hollies, it must flower at the same time. Three different species were hybridized to develop this new group, but our native American holly, Ilex opaca , was not one of them.

Recommended male hollies to pair with your Robin and Oakleaf hollies are in the same breeding series. Festive and Little Red are males that can provide a reliable source of pollen for both of your females, since they bloom at the same time.

What would happen if I let the grass in my back yard grow meadowlike? Would it seed itself and fill in? Would I be able to cut it back at some point? Would my wife and children disown me?

If you stopped mowing, your grass would grow high, develop seed heads and form a meadow, but that would progress in a few years to scrubland and finally to woodland. Interestingly, this process leads to a more varied tapestry of plants, depending on minute differences in soil, slope and moisture. Native plants such as heath aster, goldenrod and bluestem find their way among the tall fescue. Weeds, including dandelions, plantain and ground ivy, will die out, unable to reach for enough light to sustain them.

Woody invaders appear almost immediately, and foreign invaders are among the most noticeable. Porcelain berry, sweet autumn clematis and Japanese honeysuckle weave their vines among the grasses, and brambles of multiflora rose and blackberry appear. Bradford pear, black cherry and tulip tree seedlings soon follow, unless fire or herbicide is used to keep the meadow sunny for its grasses and perennial wildflowers.

I'm sure your wife and kids will stand by you as the yard turns into tall grass. I'm not so sure about the authorities in your area. While I can understand that throwing away the mower might be a goal, you will first want to check with your homeowners association, city government and county government before you make the move to meadow. Many localities do not allow this kind of land management. If it is allowed, it is an option that is best suited to the five-acre suburban or country estate lot, not the dense, quarter-acre suburban yard.

Still, if you have the space and the setting, you should consider it. A meadow is best maintained by an annual mowing with a brush cutter, preferably in winter when the ground is frozen. Woody invaders should receive an herbicide containing triclopyr applied in the fall every five years or so. The rewards for turning a large expanse of turf into meadow are an ever-changing mosaic of texture and color that is enchanting on a breezy day, a haven for birds and wildlife, reduced soil compaction, and better filtering and absorption of storm water, not to mention the reduced consumption of gasoline and time spent mowing.

Scott Aker is a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum.

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