Holly Companions – What Can I Grow Underneath A Holly Bush


By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

Holly plants can start out as small, dainty little shrubs, but depending on type, they can reach heights from 8 to 40 feet (2-12 m.). With some holly types having a growth rate of 12-24 inches (30-61 cm.) per year, finding companion plants for growing holly bushes can be a challenge. Continue reading to learn more about planting under holly bushes.

About Holly Companions

The three commonly grown types of holly are American holly (Ilex opaca), English holly (Ilex aquifolium), and Chinese colly (Ilex cornuta). All three are evergreens that will grow in partially shaded locations.

  • American holly is hardy in zones 5-9, can grow 40-50 feet (12-15 m.) tall and 18-40 feet (6-12 m.) wide.
  • English holly is hardy in zones 3-7 and can grow 15-30 feet (5-9 m.) tall and wide.
  • Chinese holly is hardy in zones 7-9 and grows 8-15 feet (2-5 m.) tall and wide.

A few common holly companions for planting next to the shrubs include boxwood, viburnum, clematis, hydrangea, and rhododendrons.

What Can I Grow Underneath a Holly Bush?

Because holly plants are usually planted small, but eventually grow very large, many gardeners use annual plantings under holly bushes. This prevents having to dig up and move perennials or shrubs, as they holly plants grow larger. Annuals also work well as underplantings for container grown holly shrubs.

Some annual holly companions include:

  • Impatiens
  • Geraniums
  • Torenia
  • Begonia
  • Coleus
  • Hypoestes
  • Wandering jew
  • Lobelia
  • Browallia
  • Pansy
  • Cleome
  • Snapdragons

Planting under holly bushes that are more established is much easier than planting under young holly bushes. Many gardeners even like to limb up large hollies, so that they grow more in the form of a tree. Left natural, holly plants will mature into a classic evergreen conical shape. Some common perennial holly companions are:

  • Bleeding heart
  • Dianthus
  • Creeping phlox
  • Hosta
  • Periwinkle
  • Sweet woodruff
  • Creeping wintergreen
  • Lamium
  • Cyclamen
  • Daylily
  • Ivy
  • Jacob’s ladder
  • Turtlehead
  • Cranesbill
  • Coral bells
  • Viola
  • Painted ferns
  • Hellebore
  • Epimedium
  • Hepatica
  • Japanese anemone
  • Spiderwort

Low growing shrubs such as gold or blue junipers, cotoneaster, and Moon Shadow euonymus provide a nice contrast to the dark green foliage of holly plants.

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Read more about Holly Bushes


Plants That Thrive Under Evergreens

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Plants under evergreen trees need several qualities to grow well: drought tolerance, shade tolerance and tolerance for acidic soil. Unless the trees are pruned up to allow more light to hit the ground, only shade-loving plants will thrive below them. The dropped needles from evergreen conifers tend to lower the pH level of the soil as they break down, and the tree roots take up most of the available water.


Location and Soil

Holly performs best in partial shade, although most types tolerate full sunlight. The plant requires well-drained soil and prefers slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.0 and 6.0. To determine your soil pH, use a soil testing kit available at most garden centers. Holly benefits from the addition of organic matter such as shredded or chopped bark at planting time, which helps to lower soil pH and also improves soil quality and drainage. You can also lower pH by working a sulfur-based fertilizer into the ground at planting time. Otherwise, healthy soil generally requires no fertilizer or other soil amendments.


Plants that are to be grown under trees and at the bases of hedges need to be chosen with care. The soil in these spots of the garden can be dry, depleted of nutrients and shady, and not all plants will grow in those conditions.

However, if you prepare the soil well, choose the right plants and help them settle in properly, certain plants will thrive in these tricky spots.

Choose from our selection of plants below, which will give colour and interest in winter and spring.

Snowdrops

The demurely nodding flowers of snowdrops (Galanthus) brave the coldest weather in late winter. They do particularly well under the canopy of deciduous trees. Plant them ‘in the green’ and divide established clumps after flowering.

Flowers: January to February

Hepaticas

The European, woodland forms of hepatica love dappled shade, producing pink, blue or white flowers in early spring. ‘Eisvogel’ is a great choice, as it shows up well in dark places.

Flowers: February to March

Lungwort

A tough but pretty groundcover plant, Pulmonaria offers bee-friendly flowers in a range of colours, from purple to blue to pink, red and white. These stand above silver-flecked foliage. A British native wild flower, it requires little care.

Flowers: February to March

Wood anemones

Native woodlander Anemone nemorosa flourishes under deciduous trees and shrubs, producing drifts of scented white flowers just before the canopy comes into leaf. Cultivated forms included double-flowered ‘Vestal’.

Flowers: March to April

Bloodroot

Any cool, shady location suits this little woodlander, Sanguinaria canadensis. Each bloom is a perfect rosette of white petals, opening just a few centimetres from the ground, above clasping leaves.

Flowers: March to April

Primroses

One of the first spring flowers, our native primrose, Primula vulgaris, will light up your garden for months on end with its cheery, pale yellow blooms. Allow it to naturalise in shady woodland borders and banks, or plant into pots and window boxes.

Flowers: March to May

Bluebells

Plant this fragrant native wildflower, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, for a sea of blue beneath trees in spring. The bulbs will multiply happily in the dappled shade of deciduous trees, in moist but well-drained soil.

Flowers: April to May

Comfrey

Symphytum is very easy to grow in damp soil and its flowers attract early foraging bees. There are several colours to choose from, including white and red, but ‘Hidcote Blue’ is a favourite, great for filling gaps between shrubs.

Flowers: April to May

Epimedium

These robust shade-lovers spread quickly, covering the ground with their leathery foliage. This is infused with rich bronze hues in early spring and turns green over summer. Above the leaves rise airy clouds of tiny flowers.

Flowers: April to May

Lesser periwinkle

The pretty flowers of Vinca minor give a long season of interest under trees. ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ is a compact variety with pure white flowers and evergreen leaves, ideally for brightening shady areas.

Flowers: April to September

Growing lesser periwinkle

Vinca minor is a popular ground cover plant. Is a smaller version of its more vigorous relative, greater periwinkle. Its leaves, flowers and growth rate are about two-thirds those of Vinca major. Cut back any unwanted shoots in spring to prevent it covering too large an area.


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