Boxwood gets a makeover
By Adrian Higgins, Published: June 10
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The boxwood is valued for its evergreen steadfastness, but we are at that one lovely moment in the year when the monarch of shrubs transforms itself with new growth. This is produced between late April and mid-June and gives a bush a shaggier look and, moreover, a brighter appearance that radiates vitality.
The new light green growth spends the next month hardening off and reverting to its darker state, so enjoy this phenomenon now.
I do like boxwood. Yes, it has an odor some people disdain, and yes, it calls to mind an old formality that can be stultifying, but boxwood shrubs used as accents, to announce a threshold or frame a path can give a soothing strength to any garden.
Boxwood is happiest in the shade garden, from places of light shade to gloomier landscapes. It dislikes baking hot spots in summer but detests more than that an exposed and sunny location in winter, which causes discoloration and dieback. The shade garden is a better fit aesthetically as well as physically, because this is the environment where you rely more on leaf ornament.
Boxwood’s forte — other than its lack of appeal to deer — is that it provides a steadfast foil of fine texture against coarser-leafed shade plants such as azaleas, hydrangeas, hostas and Japanese maples. A simple line of boxwood, or just one large specimen, is all you need to bestow a sense of structure to an area of the garden. There’s no need to re-create a Colonial garden, unless you want to.
I’ve touched on this before, but it is worth repeating: In recent years, the development of new boxwood varieties has revived a shrub that for all its rich history in the American garden was falling quickly from grace. The classic English boxwood was beset with a series of ills, from soil nematodes to boxwood decline disease. The latest, and in some ways most serious, malady is the boxwood blight, a fungus that targets many boxwood types but especially English box.
The spores of the disease are spread by bringing in infected plants or tools, so you can keep it at bay if you are careful. If you had an old estate stuffed with antebellum boxwood — admittedly not a problem for most of us — you would do well to keep a set of garden tools for the visiting maintenance crew to use. That’s the advice that Robert Saunders gives to property owners and institutions with such gardens. His family’s nursery in Piney River, Va. — Saunders Brothers — is widely known for its boxwood and grows varieties for garden centers and public gardens from Richmond to Boston.
[In central Virginia, one family has defined and re-defined the boxwood]
I was recently in a boxwood garden in Georgetown with some other boxwood gurus — Andrea Filippone and Eric Fleisher, whose company, F2 Environmental Design, specializes in restoring boxwood gardens that have become old, tired and diseased. They do this with a two-pronged approach: by using organic practices that revitalize the soil and by planting new varieties.
In the old days, the world of boxwood worked this way: If you wanted tall hedges, you used something called American box; otherwise you inherited ancient English box as big blobs that rose five or six feet and almost as much across. If you were well-heeled, you could buy expensive boxwood that had been salvaged from old estates and hauled to your garden. (Even old box moves well, in the right hands.)
For small edging box you used younger English box and kept it clipped, or you planted miniature varieties that might grow a foot high after 30 years.
Today, you can pick from a raft of varieties by leaf shape, color and — foremost — size. Because they grow at a faster rate than old box, you don’t have to wait inordinately for them to have the effect you want. So for an edging box, Filippone will use a variety such as Grace Hendrick Phillips, which is bright green, very fine in texture and grows to about 12 inches by about 24 inches across. Other choices include Morris Dwarf and Green Pillow, she said.
Another great dwarf boxwood is named Franklins Gem, similar in its light green hue and extremely fine texture, but a little taller and wider, getting to three feet across.
Vadar Valley bridges the space between small and medium-size boxwood, growing two feet high and four feet across after a few years. After 15 years or more it can get to three feet high and six feet across, Saunders said. Vadar Valley is distinguished by a handsome blue cast to its spring foliage. It’s slow-growing, but with a bit of age “it looks spectacular,” Filippone said.
Among the new hybrids that substitute for English boxwood, Filippone commends the variety Justin Brouwers, which has attractive, dense, narrow foliage.
Another of Filippone’s favorites is Green Mound. For a larger version, Saunders recommends Green Beauty and Jim Stauffer, both of which can take sunnier sites. The latter is more resistant to leafminer but is harder for consumers to find, he said.
Many of these varieties have their quirks. But they are not as sickly as boxwood of yore, assuming they are free of blight, and very much worth planting instead of, say, azalea or hydrangea.
If you want more verticality in your boxwood, Filippone commends a variety named Rotundifolia which, as its name suggests, has markedly larger and rounder leaves that pop out in the presence of other boxwood foliage. Another, named Fastigiata, takes on the form of a medium-size Christmas tree. Saunders thinks it should be used in place of the screens of arborvitae that people like. It’s more handsome, he says, and deer-resistant.
For all their benefits over English box, many of these varieties face a couple of issues. They can be hard to find in an industry where growers must anticipate demand years in advance. (Saunders’s Web site, www.saundersbrothers.com, lists the retail nurseries it supplies.) Also, some are more prone to boxwood leafminer, which can disfigure the foliage.
One way to reduce but not eradicate the problem is to prune and destroy the fresh growth where the midge lays her eggs in May, but do this after the new growth darkens next month. Varieties derived from the species Buxus sempervirens aren’t as susceptible. These include Vardar Valley, Rotundifolia and Fastigiata.
Filippone also uses organic, insecticidal soap to kill the adults when they emerge and fly about in early May, giving the boxwood several sprayings as weather requires.
Saunders sees a day when future varieties are resistant both to blight and to leafminer. What is clear is that a plant once thought moribund is springing back to life, courtesy of growers and breeders who refuse to let this ancient shrub sink into history.