In a formal setting or a casual situation, boxwood is always up for the task thanks to its versatility. In winter this shrub’s strong shape, rich green color, and air of old-world formality dominates the garden, taking center stage. In summer, when the garden is in full-bloom, they meld into the background providing structure, enhancing without competing. While the most familiar forms are what are commonly referred to as “American” (Buxus sempervirens) and “English” (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) boxwood, there are about 90 species and over 365 different cultivars, including Japanese and Korean varieties. Different boxwood plants and species vary tremendously in size, shape, leaf characteristics, growth rates, and hardiness. The secret to working with these evergreens is choosing the best selection to fit your vision and growing conditions. Here are our top picks and ways to use them.
Because they take well to shearing, boxwoods are ideal for defining different spaces in the garden, as a border along a property line or for a tidy foundation cover-up. (Tip: If you’re looking to achieve a tight, close hedge, pay attention to spacing; place your plants half as far away from one another as the mature width listed on the plant tag and they will fill in nicely.) These three are hardy:
Edgers and low hedgers:
Gardeners have been clipping boxwood shrubs into tight formations since 4,000 BC with the Egyptians picked up some shears and went to work. From parterres and knot gardens to defined borders along walkways or beds, low-growing boxwoods such as these three help you play with structure.
Greet your guests at the door with a single or several shapely boxwoods (we love three different staggered heights packed into a tight grouping), use them to define corners in a border, or add to billowing borders for structure. These cultivars make it easy:
Select one of the taller-growing varieties for swooping spiral or tiered ball topiary forms. Smaller varieties can be sheared into whatever shape you fancy, from classic orb to whimsical whatever. Take clippers to these:
Just about every boxwood is a candidate for a container because they look just as good in January as they do in June. Choose a fast-draining pot that is at least as wide and tall as the plant itself and preferably bigger. The larger the container, the more soil it holds and the less often you have to water. This one’s a great container candidate:
Keeping Boxwood Happy
Provide excellent drainage: Boxwood is highly adaptable to various soil types, including average or poor soils as well as acidic or alkaline provided the soil is well-drained. Boxwoods can’t take standing water and heavy, wet soil which can lead to root rot. Prevent by amending soil with lots of organic matter and planting high when installing.
Keep it clean: When a boxwood is sheared to produce denser outer foliage, air circulation is inhibited, light is prevented from reaching the inner sections of the plant and dead leaves and stems accumulate in the center of the plant, all of which can promote fungal diseases that can cause potentially fatal dieback. Prune back all dying branches to healthy wood, remove all debris from the center of the plant, and thin out some of the outside growth so that air and light can reach the center.
Exposure: Boxwoods thrive in full sun or light shade, but they don’t like exposed, very windy sites, particularly in winter. Protect boxwoods by keeping them vigorous and healthy, watered as needed in late and apply a fresh layer of mulch in fall to help prevent winter damage.
Fertilizing and watering: Apply a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer (10-10-10) in spring to encourage leafy growth and again in fall to promote root growth. Monthly application of compost tea and use of drip irrigation, which might mitigate blight, can help maintain their health.
Back from the brink: If you have a younger, smaller boxwood that’s not doing well, prune back the dead branches, open up the center of the plant, sprinkle one or two cups of a slow-release fertilizer around the shrub, and water it in. If your plant is older, one of the slower-growing varieties, or taller than 3 feet, the time to recover makes trying to save it impractical. Replace it with a new one.