Growing CONCERNS: Every day's a holly day at Henderson Holly Farm

Throughout Western civilization, each season of the year is represented by botanical icons. Spring has its daffodils and tulips; summer is the time of roses. Autumn celebrates the colorful changing of the leaves, and in winter, especially during the holidays, we deck the halls with evergreen boughs, poinsettias, and holly.

Holly is much more than an enduring symbol of the Yuletide to one North Whidbey man. Robert “Robby” Henderson is the owner-operator of Henderson Holly Farm, a family enterprise for more than 50 years.

In 1951, Henderson’s parents purchased their 11-acre homestead on DeGraff Road, north of Oak Harbor. The previous owner had planted a holly orchard during the 1930s, and the Hendersons added even more hollies. Those 140 trees are still being harvested. In 1980, the family purchased an additional 24 acres at 264 East Troxell Road, about 2.5 miles east of Highway 20. That acreage had been planted with 550 hollies by the previous owners, the Morrell family. It’s now the farm’s primary location.

In addition to several varieties of English holly, the farm produces the Noble fir and cedar used in the artistic wreaths, sprays and garlands it sells from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. The items are also shipped fresh throughout the United States and England. Henderson recently received a request to ship holly to Nigeria!

About a dozen years ago, Robby Henderson began making whimsical, rustic reindeer from fallen branches and twigs; they have since become a popular part of the inventory. Botanical artistry apparently runs in the family. Holly Henderson, one of Robby’s five siblings, owns and operates the North Whidbey-based Lavender Heart, which produces botanical décor crafted from dried plants, pods, mosses and more. The imaginative embellishments are sold in catalogs nationwide and at her Seattle boutique by the same name.

I asked Robby Henderson how he manages to care for nearly 700 holly trees year round. During the year, he and one or two assistants do all the work, which includes regularly checking the trees for bud moth, leaf miners, scale insects, aphids and twig blight.

“If we see a problem, we’ll take appropriate measures, but we do no blanket spraying in our orchards,” he said.

“Here Mother Nature rules.

Aphids, in particular, can be a problem, since they cause leaf curl. But right around the Fourth of July, it’s quite a miracle to watch them disappear as the wild bees, yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets take care of them for us.”

The farm has eight pollinator trees, but the bees do all the work in that department, too. Henderson feeds his trees by spraying the leaves with a nitrogen-rich water-soluble fertilizer, and uses a mulch mixture of composted cow manure and grass clippings. Naturally drought tolerant, the hollies don’t require irrigation except during unusually dry seasons, such as the summer and fall of 2003.

Henderson compares the holly to “a giant Bonsai tree.” In the springtime, he pinch-prunes each bough to show the leaves’ prickly “horns,” but the main pruning starts right after Thanksgiving, when the sales season begins. Then he hires a dozen or more workers to help with the harvest, to craft wreaths and garlands and prepare bulk holly for shipment. Those same holly helpers return year after year; some have been working with Henderson for decades.

“I’m surrounded by good people who put their hearts into this business,” he said. Growing holly commercially isn’t for everyone, he adds.

“It’s a different life, working for Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”

This year, in addition to sales at the Troxell Road farm, Henderson has a stand on Highway 20, in front of Island Jewelers. Fresh wreaths, swags, and garlands are for sale there, and you can bring a camera to take photos of friends and family encircled by a huge holly wreath. Hours at the stand are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week, weather permitting, through Dec. 21. The Troxell Road farm is open, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week through Dec. 23.


There are many species of holly throughout the world, but English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the one that has been associated with winter rituals since antiquity. Druids wore it in their hair for the ceremonial cutting of the sacred mistletoe. Ancient Romans decorated images of Saturn with holly wreaths during December’s feast of Saturnalia. As Christianity overtook pagan Europe, the holly remained, but was transformed into a symbol of Christ.

Holly’s spiny, shiny, evergreen leaves protect the small, white flowers. Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. In order for holly to bear the bright red berries for which it is famous, same-species trees of both sexes should ideally be planted within 100 feet of each other. Bees accomplish the task of pollination.

English holly can grow to 50 feet and higher, and may live more than 150 years. The tree enjoys full sun and slightly acidic soil, but doesn’t like wet ground. It will grow in shaded areas, but berry production will suffer.

Holly trees require little pruning to hold their graceful shape, thank goodness, because those spiny leaves can be painful. If you feel you must prune your holly, try to do so in December, when the clippings can be used for holiday decorations. Suit up in leather gloves, long-sleeved jackets and bib overalls for this task!

If you use holly on your holiday table, keep it away from fruit. Fruit naturally gives off ethylene gas, which defoliates holly. Take care, also, to keep toddlers and pets away from those beautiful red berries. Some species contain a toxin that, if ingested, causes extreme nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It doesn’t seem to have this effect on wildlife, though. Deer and birds, especially robins, cedar waxwings and band-tailed pigeons, flock to hollies to feast on the berries. That’s one of the reasons English holly has become somewhat of a problem in the Pacific Northwest.

Birds spread the seed of Ilex aquifolium, which is very hardy and tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions. It’s an invasive species that reproduces easily and may spread through local ecosystems, crowding out native plants. If you’re the proud owner of a beautiful English holly, consider pulling out seedlings as they come up, and clip the berried branches for indoor decoration.

Mariana Graham writes this biweekly feature as part of her volunteer efforts as an Island County Master Gardener. E-mail her at

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