January 26, 2015

Soft Touch Compact Holly: A Useful Little Evergreen Shrub

Last year I added several 'Soft Touch' compact hollies (Ilex crenata) to my landscape, and I have been pleased with their performance so far.  This unassuming but useful shrub grows at a moderate rate to 2-3' wide and tall, prefers full sun, is hardy in zones 5-9, and its leaves are not prickly.  It may sport black berries in winter, though my eight young shrubs didn't produce any this year.

I have used various types of boxwoods (45 of them in all) to create a winter skeleton and to calm down my riot of perennials and flowering shrubs, but some of them don't stay very green during our cold winters.  Above you see a 'Soft Touch' holly on the left and a 'Green Velvet' boxwood (Buxus) on the right.  Both photos were taken today, at the end of January, in my backyard.  The holly is a much nicer green than the boxwood.  I like the way the hollies echo the overall appearance of the boxwoods though, since they add more unity to the landscape. 

The new spring growth on this holly is very vibrant, as you see above.  These shrubs can be used to form a hedge or can be planted singly among other garden plants, as I have done.  The mature plants tend to grow a little wider than tall and can be sheared into a smooth shape or left to grow in a more natural form.  I am not a fan of sheared shrubs, so I plan to prune them only when an awkward stem is sticking out and needs to be cut back.  Hooray for something low-maintenance in my mostly high-maintenance yard!

As with most of the evergreen shrubs that are hardy around here in zone 5, this type of holly isn't a spectacular addition to the landscape during the growing season.  There is a holly above on the bottom right of the photo, but you don't notice it much with all the other plants in leaf around it. 

The real worth of these shrubs is seen in winter, when much of the garden is asleep underground.   The two hollies above, one at the very center and one at the front to the left, will provide more needed winter green as they mature and fill in their spaces.  This photo includes a 'Green Tower' boxwood at left and three 'Green Mountain' boxwoods to the rear of the photo.

This is a good time of year to evaluate the strength of your winter landscape.  Although I will never give up all my favorite flowers to fill my garden with plants that look good all winter, I try to strike a balance by including at least a few evergreens in each area, as you see above.  'Soft Touch' compact hollies are a nice addition to the list of low-maintenance shrubs that are attractive in winter.


  1. I am so glad I read this. I thought my miniature boxwoods were dying. Now I know that they don't stay green during the winter. Very encouraging.

    1. Yes, Kim, many boxwoods turn "bronze" in the winter - which is a gardener's way of saying they look brown and dead. 'Winter Gem' turns totally bronze, and 'Green Velvet' is supposed to stay more green. WG has prettier green leaves the rest of the year, which is probably why it's still so popular despite its complete bronzing. No boxwoods like drying winter winds, so even my GV's get a little brownish around the edges as you see above.

  2. This winter I have seen the need to add more evergreens, as most of my bushes and trees are deciduous. This spring and summer I'll try and remedy that, so it doesn't look so bare in my yard all winter! Though right now it's just all snow anyway, which does cover a multitude of sins in the garden :)


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