Feed the Birds

Article written by Troy-Bilt brand ambassador Helen Yoest of Gardening with Confidence

It may seem cruel or a welcome relief to talk about winter plants at the height of summer. But fall is the perfect time to plant shrubs. Mark your calendars to make your garden welcoming for birds this winter, and hollies are a perfect food source for our area birds.
Birds have a high metabolism and need to eat frequently to maintain energy levels. Supplemental feeders will attract many resident birds, but not all birds come to feeders. Many summer insect-eating birds switch to winter berries when insects are in short supply.


Male and Female Holly

Many hollies are dioecious, meaning the male flowers provide pollen to the female flowers (which later produce berries if pollinated). Male trees bear male flowers; female trees bear female flowers.
The best pollinator for any holly is a male of the same species. The good news is one male plant can serve about five to seven female trees. Also, if a male flower of one species overlaps with the flowering time of a female flower of another species, pollination can occur.
In a few hollies, especially Chinese varieties of Ilex cornuta, the berries are not pollinated, rather they are parthenocarpic, developing a sterile fruit.


Why So Few Berries?

It's true, some years there are more berries on our area holly bushes than others. There are several factors affecting this, beyond not having a suitable pollen source. These factors include a late spring frost, summer drought, late fertilization, biennial cycling and unsynchronized bloom periods.
Late Spring Frost: As we know, this can and often happens, and no one is every happy about it. When this occurs, many of the flowers drop, limiting the fruit set.
Late Fertilization: If we have a long winter and short spring, fertilization is often delayed. If this is the case, there is very little energy put into blooming, resulting in fewer flowers and thus, fewer berries.
Summer Drought: When water is in short supply, the berries are the first to suffer. During a drought, check to see if any developing fruit is wrinkled. If so, water deeply, or they will likely fall from the bush.
Biennial Cycling: The holly berries not only add important color to the winter landscape, but they allow the birds to eat the fruit they bear each year. If the berries are not eaten, the fruit will remain and less energy will go into blooming the following spring. The berries won't be wasted because the mockingbirds will eat them in the summer, but then you will only get a bumper crop every other year.
Unsynchronized Bloom Periods: Various holly shrubs have bloom periods covering several months; some species have completed this process before other species begin. This is why it's important to have a male of the same species for each of the female species grown.