Answer: There's no way for us to know absolutely what happened to your plants, but if they were planted in soil that didn't drain well, root rot is a definite possiblility. When a plant's roots die, the entire vascular system shuts down. Without fluids to nourish them, the leaves will quickly turn brown. Holly isn't prone to many diseases or insect problems, so environment or cultural practices are the likely cause of death. You can investigate further by cutting into some of the roots. If they're brown and dry inside, perhaps with some white fungal strands between them, the likely cause is root rot. If they're creamy white inside, but the leaves and branches are dead, then I'd suspect a chemical cause or over-fertilization. When planting a holly, dig the hole deeper and wider than the root mass of the plant (to help loosen the soil). Remove the container or burlap and spread the roots in a natural fashion. Then place the roots into the hole, making sure its at the same soil level as it was growing before. You can add soil to the hole to raise it up, placing a mound of soil in the center of the hole so the roots can hang down. Then backfill with soil, tamping it down to exclude air pockets, but not so hard you compact the soil. Then water well and be sure to provide about an inch of water per week to the plant. Established holly bushes can get along with natural rainfall in the autumn and winter months, but should be watered regularly in the spring and summer. Better luck with their replacements!
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