Espalier trained Japanese holly

(Updated July 2016) One of the trained Japanese hollies, with new shade planting at its feet

Labelled: Ilex “Maxim” (?)

I came across four rather nice Japanese hollies at the garden centre recently. Realising their creative pruning potential I snapped up the lot. Here is one of them (see right)

I’m not sure exactly what species they are: the label said Ilex Maxim which is not the proper nomenclature. I’m pretty sure it’s not I. crenata as that has smaller leaves, whereas these are quite box like and spineless. I. crenata is often used for creating Niwake – Japanese garden trees – pruned in cloud style over many years to resemble much older trees in a stylised and abstract way. The label that came with my new best friends claimed they were fast growing, and I could tell their wippy branches were just begging to be bent to my will.

I had a place in mind for two of them – the long face of my garden workshop, either side of the doors. My plan being to train them into neatly clipped 4 tier horizontal espaliers – much like pyracanthas that are one of the few non-fruiting trees that still gets the espalier treatment from time to time.

They are to form an interesting back drop to a narrow bed of shade loving hostas and ferns. This bed is too narrow to carry any tall plants, without them looking like regimented soldiers so wall training is an ideal option. The shade-tolerant Ilex fit the bill perfectly as this wall faces a little north of east,rarely getting the sun, except in the late summer afternoon.

The practicalities

First I erected horizontal wires at 30cm spacing using gripple nylon cord and tensioners (if you have never come across gripple it knocks the socks of galvanised wire systems. See my review here).

I checked the first plant over to identify which branches could be purposed for an espalier. I was looking for pairs of branches that were flexible enough to be bent down into the horizontal at the spacing of the wires. I then tied these branches to canes, which were then tied to the wires in turn.


Once the basic shape had been established all superfluous branches were cut away. I removed the leaves from the vertical stems, as finally, I only want foliage following the line of the wires.


As you can see in the photo above, there are plenty of good strong side shoots emerging from the new horizontal branches. If left each these will form long shoots, bending up to reach the light. To prevent this, and encourage dense branching side shoots to develop they all need cutting back to just a few leaves.

Below are the before and after shot, showing the severe-looking treatment. (Click on them for a closer look)

The second Ilex proved less fruitful, as it only had branches in suitable positions to make the first tier. The vertical was actually a branch growing backwards that had to be bent through quite an angle to make it upright.

The second holly only had suitably placed branches for the first tier of the espalier. The rest were pruned away.

I left several shoots towards the top of the leader here, so that I can train in the strongest ones to the next wire later this year or next. I reckon I took off close to 90% of the original leaf mass from this plant! Lets see how it responds over the next few months.

I’ll add to this post as they develop…

1 thought on “Espalier trained Japanese holly”

  1. Keir, in response to your query about Lavandula ‘Sussex’ on my blog, it isn’t white – it is the photo that makes it appear white. For accurate descriptions I would look at Lavandula by Andrews and Upson (try Amazon) and for a good nursery try Downderry in Kent, they will be able to find you a good white cultivar. Best wishes..


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