I admit that I am a fan of the uncommon, the underused and the unappreciated…but sometimes you just need a good ol’ bread-and-butter plant to get you through the challenges that arise in gardening. Boxwoods are a good fit in many of these cases, and I’ve seen plenty in varied landscapes and varied uses that always seem to be holding their own and looking pretty good to boot.
Boxwoods, or “box” as they are often called across the pond, are native to various parts of Eurasia. Because of similar climates and compatible growing conditions, however, they do very well here in many parts of the U.S. You wouldn’t know it by looking at them, but their small family of relatives include garden favorites Pachysandra and Sweetbox (Sarcococca). Boxwoods are evergreen shrubs with a simple, short list of requirements to thrive: partial sun (a bit of shade in the hottest part of the day is greatly appreciated, though they will put up with sun all day); moisture-retentive but well-drained soil and minimal root disturbances (they resent having their roots repeatedly damaged). With a high tolerance for pruning, many people use them as trimmed hedges, topiaries or knot gardens, but do restrain yourself from pruning them so densely that they form a ball of solid foliage. Doing so causes two problems – inner foliage becomes so shaded-out that the plant sheds a lot of foliage, and the crowded conditions allow leaves to stay wetter from dew or rain for longer periods, creating favorable conditions for fungal infection. As with many things in life, prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to chasing after a runaway fungal infection in evergreens. True, boxwoods have a handful of insects that can cause trouble, but generally they are easily dispatched and some varieties are less appealing to them than others.
Even given their “bread-and-butter” status, boxwoods can still offer a bit of unexpected interest. There are narrow, upright growers who can help accent a doorway or mixed container planting; there are very diminutive selections that serve well as fairy garden, model railroad or bonsai candidates; and there are some that sport foliage edged in yellow or cream. I prefer my boxwoods unpruned, as I like a less formal look and it keeps the plants healthier in general. I also, as a foliage lover, take great joy in playing with leaf textures and colors when choosing companion plants. In this, boxwoods are a great go-to neutral element with their smaller leaves in unassuming shades of green – useful foils for louder, bolder leaves like yellow Hakone grass, blue Hostas, white-edged Hydrangeas, red Barberries (the seedless ones, of course) or purple Fringeflowers. Even the soft, silvery leaves of Artemisia and the stiffer, liner leaves of a variegated Yucca look great when played off a boxwood. If you really like to play with colors in unexpected ways, try one of the boxwood varieties that blush orange in the winter and go wild with the theme using ‘Caramel’ Heuchera or ‘Andorra’ Juniper to really drive that color home (both are bronzy/orange-y in the winter). Too much orange? Tone it down with a related color like the mocha-brown from a Siberian Carpet or ‘Heatherbun’ whitecedar in winter.
I had a boxwood seedling volunteer itself in a planter on my porch a few years ago. I kept it as a useful evergreen accent and it did quite well with very, very little care (trust me, I can go a little bit beyond “benign neglect” sometimes, though I try to be a better plant mother). Its housemates were Hosta and Heuchera; two years ago it was getting a bit too tall and I wanted to be able to change some of my container plantings without damaging too many roots, so I took it out and squeezed it into a poorly-prepared planting hole (hey, I was tired and there were a LOT of roots) at the base of a mature Tulip Poplar. While I did coddle it a bit with extra water for the first few weeks, it has been on its own since, and let me tell you, it’s looking pretty darned good. Now, as a gardening professional, I’m certainly going to advise that you treat your boxwood babies better than I’ve treated mine, but my point is to relate to you how tough boxwoods can be.
The trait I find the most valuable these days – both for myself and for many customers I work with – is distastefulness to deer. Those “corn rats” can eat a surprising array of things that they normally don’t like (or which are mildly poisonous!) when they get desperate in winter, but I have yet to hear about any of them touching boxwood. I suppose it tastes really terrible, because they certainly don’t seem to have any other defense like spines or fuzz. Whatever the reason, I’ll take it.
To sum up, here are some basic boxwood do’s and don’ts:
- do try to give them a break from the harsh summer sun – it will pay off in better-looking, healthier plants that are less stressed by dry spells in summer
- don’t plant annuals in their root zone every year – instead, use perennials, long-lived bulbs and other shrubs as their companions so their roots remain undisturbed
- if you must prune, do so responsibly: sterilize your tools between shrubs to minimize the chance you’ll be spreading disease. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than having a decades-old boxwood succumb to infection because an infected plant was pruned before it was (and spores can survive on dirty tools for a long time); also only prune early in the year so you run less risk of winter damage on young growth
- don’t plant them too close together just because they’re young: they may be slow-growing and might frustrate you with having to be patient, but overcrowding slows them down even further and invites disease
- don’t pass them up as a group just because you don’t like the smell (which to some folks resembles urea): there are plenty of hybrids that have enough non-English boxwood genes that don’t have a detectable scent
- do expect them to live long, useful lives that enrich your garden and give you dependability and a great foundation for the rest of your garden
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer