On a recent visit to a nursery in search of some heat resistant plants, my friend and I got to talking about boxwood, an evergreen we discovered we both love. I’ve forever been fond of the formality and symmetry of perfectly shaped boxwood but like many, am a bit intimidated by it. Seemingly both formal and high maintenance and considering that I’m no true blue green thumb or fanatical gardener, the constant talk of blight and shaping has been enough to make me back off of boxwood. But maybe it’s time to jump in the boxwood pool, even if it’s just to make a small splash with a pretty potted porch version.
Boxwood is the ideal garden design building block and an arrangement of it adds instant curb appeal. The gorgeous greenery creates structure and depth to any landscape and it is both earthy and elegant. Christina Dandar of “The Potted Boxwood” perhaps said it best when she wrote, “To me, a potted boxwood by the front door or anywhere in the landscape is a fairly certain declaration that what is inside is something worth seeing…potted boxwood have the subtle ability to let you know it’s worth opening the door.”
So, come on in. Let’s enter the world of boxwood.
Stately to look at and simple in design, boxwood can for sure be a bit much for the novice gardener. But, it is drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, and endlessly versatile when it comes to garden design. It also beautiful at weddings and wedding receptions!
The beautiful boxwood has been around forever and has an illustrious history when it comes to grounds and the design of them. This staple of gardens was found as formal hedges in ancient Egypt as well as palatial gardens of ancient Greece and Rome. Today they can be found on porches and pathways everywhere, from Colonial Williamsburg to concrete-surrounded suburbia enclaves. So fabulous are they, that Houston landscape designer calls them the “little black dress” of plants and says every garden should have at least one.
I’m all about little black dresses so sounds like a plan and yes ma’am!
So what is it about boxwood that makes it so special and so fabulous? For one, it’s extremely versatile and can be used as everything from low-growing hedges to conical columns to shapely globes. In addition, the classic shrub’s small and dense evergreen leaves boast what many consider the perfect sculptable quality.
A word of warning though: if you’re even considering investing in boxwood, know that you’ll probably hear a lot about blight, a disastrous fungal threat gives boxwood a bit of a bum rap. It is also sometimes considered a money pit if not tended to properly. Times have somewhat changed however, and there are more than 90 species and 365 selections of boxwood, many much hardier than and somewhat threat free.
A bit about the dreaded blight. It’s definitely something to be aware of but not afraid of. Basically a fungus that can wipe out an entire shrub, blight can affect any boxwood species and can first be spotted as brown spots on leaves. The spots get bigger and merge together, eventually turning entire leaves brown. Keep an eye out for black or dark brown streaks on the stems and rapid leaf loss.
The fungus thrives in humid and warm conditions and once a plant is exposed, spores of the fungus are easily spread through splashing water, wind, and even contaminated gardening tools. If you see any signs of blight on a boxwood, remove and destroy all affected shrubs by burning (safely and legally), burying at least two feet deep, or double bagging in plastic bags and landfilling. Also dispose of all gardening tools used on the affected plants, roots, and leaves or branches that fell. Blighted portions should never be composted.
To avoid blight, always buy boxwood shrubs from local reputable suppliers that have thoroughly inspected the plants for evidence of blight-including those ever popular Christmas and holiday wreaths- and dip pruners in a 10 percent bleach solution after use on each plant. Once purchased, isolate new boxwood shrubs from established boxwoods for several weeks before planting, as boxwood blight symptoms often don’t become apparent until weeks later. When planting boxwoods, space them far enough apart from each other and other shrubs so that branches on adjacent shrubs do not overlap. This will increase air flow between them and promote a drier environment that will be less favorable for boxwood blight. Wherever possible, avoid watering plants with sprinklers or overhead with hoses and instead use a soaker or drip hose.
I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about boxwood the more demanding it seems. All the more reason to hire a professional, right?! But, even if you do, it’s important to know what you want out of your boxwood, including the “Fab Four” boxwood uses:
- Hedgers and Edgers. These are generally a series of small boxwood balls that form an edge. They can also be used to define certain spaces in large gardens and break up gardens into smaller sections.
- Container Accents. I love these because I love topiaries! I also love green and white together and a green boxwood in a white square Chippendale style planter is simply stunning. Add some Paper Whites, Star Jasmine, or Phloxstar White phlox to an arrangement and it’s green and white perfection. Just one or one pair on a porch is perfection, or group some globes or cones side-by-side or a more dramatic look.
- Backdrops. Think of it against a house or fence as a way to frame blooming perennials, give a space structure and authority, or even create some privacy.
- Architectural Shapes. A large grouping of cone-shaped boxwoods alongside a sidewalk or home foundation gives evergreen elegance and unequaled uniformity.
Today there’s practically boxwood for everyone, most of which are hardier than the perennially persnickety English boxwood, including Japanese and Korean types such as Green Beauty and Winter Gem, which are more resistant to the disease.
Here are just a few examples of the vast array of boxwood and their individual appeal and suggested use:
- Newgen’s Freedom is one of the most promising of the many new blight-resistant varieties.
- Dee Runk boxwood offers a unique, upright, and conical shape and is ideal as focal points on garden corners or to frame a walkway.
- Baby Gem variety is smaller in size but boasts dense foliage so it’s great for low hedges. Once established it’s also drought tolerant and generally only needs trimming a couple times a year.
- Justin Brouwers selection is easy to maintain, is very hardy, and perfect for low hedges and bed borders.
- Grace Hendrick Phillips boxwood is perfect for short hedges and parterres as has a very slow growth rate. It doesn’t need constant clipping and has smaller and narrower foliage, which add interesting texture to its placement.
- Variegated English boxwood is perfect for making a statement, as it adds a pop of personality to a sphere or topiary.
- Wintergreen and other fast-growing types are great for impatient gardeners, as they produce height quickly. This fast growth also means they need regular trimming and pruning.
- Morris Dwarf is a slow growing variety and is perfect for all you patient green thumbers. It requires less care but its slow growth rate means it takes longer to acquire a desired shape.
Whatever boxwood you choose, don’t believe all of the many warnings and negatives you might hear, as once established, boxwood is quite hardy and low maintenance. The “plant in fall” gardener golden rule doesn’t necessarily apply to boxwood since it is considered an evergreen. It is advised to avoid planting them in serious heat, but if the weather isn’t scorching hot and you have good irrigation, you can pretty much plant boxwood any time of year. Also keep in mind that most boxwood prefers some shade so don’t plant it in areas that get a lot of afternoon sun and loose, quick-draining soil is best.
Although long-considered a traditional twist to any garden, today’s boxwood is being used in new and fun ways such as with loose grasses and flowering perennials. I personally love the look of an all green garden or garden section that incorporates boxwood (preferably shaped) with other green plants of various hues.
However used and wherever placed, boxwood can be shaped into decorative topiaries, thick hedges to hide and protect, and used as low-in-height borders to keep other plants in order. Most experts do suggest it’s best to start with boxwood that has the natural size and shape that best matches your end-result desire rather than pruning any boxwood into a shape you choose. For example:
If you’re seeking a small and squatty look, Compacta, Grace Hendrick Phllips, or Nana varieties will best fit your bill while John Baldwin, Rotundifolia, and Wintergreen are great large hedge choices. For those beautiful upright and triangular-shaped perfect for framing a stairway or path, choose either Fastigiata or Graham Blandy.
Maybe you’re still leery about boxwood but you love the look of them. No worries. A few simple indoor topiaries are much easier to keep and always make a great addition to any grouping. If you really, really like the look of boxwood but haven’t had good luck with it or are worried it might not work for you, BH&G suggests considering similar “Golf Ball” Pittosporum, Japanese Holly, Rosemary, or Yew. They tolerate heat, work in various climates, are great for borders, and can be pruned as a topiary…in that order…but know that Yew can be toxic in large quantities to pests.
So say you’ve picked your boxwoods and they are looking fabulous but you know they’ll eventually need to be trimmed. How best to do so? First and foremost, avoid over-pruning, which is bad for the plant and is an open invitation to both pests and blight.
Landscape architect, boxwood grower, and former director of the American Boxwood Society, Andrea Filippone suggested the following tips to BH&G:
- When pruning for shape, gently and selectively prune a few inches of growth by hand to control size and shape. Do so twice a year: once in the summer but before August and again in December.
- To make window cuts, make selective cuts into the outer six inches to allow more light (i.e.: “windows”) and air to reach the plant’s center. When doing so, angle the pruners into the shrub and make cuts where the plant begins branching. Remove all clipped and dead branches and twigs.
- Don’t shear! Boxwoods push new growth where they’re cut, so shearing – clipping only the outermost layer of leaves – leads to a dense outer layer that blocks light and air from reaching the center. This ultimately encourages pests and disease.
Like anything, I come away thinking boxwood may not work for me unless I get a professional to lend a hand, but it’s worth the risk and could be both beautiful and fun. Are you with me?