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They have been grown in gardens at least since the days of the Roman Empire, and came to North America with the early colonists. It is prized for its evergreen color, its substance and fine texture, and its almost architectural role in gardens, outlining flower beds or holding strategic positions by doors and gates. It is a classic plant for gardens of every size and style.
Every garden needs evergreen shrubs, and boxwood is extremely versatile. A single plant can stand alone with grace and dignity, and a line of nicely spaced boxwoods give a flower bed or shrub border a gentle rhythm. Boxwoods look very stylish in flower pots. Dozens of different varieties are available. In the past 20 years, the selection on the market has grown from just two distinguished boxwoods — English box and American box — to include upright and very dwarf cultivars, variegated box, and several very winter-hardy boxwood.
Even small plants lend a lot of character to a garden: you can get started with inexpensive plants in one-gallon pots and watch them develop and assume their proper places in the garden. A gardener in Portland described his experience with small plants: “The first year they look good, and the second year they look perfect.” If you simply can’t wait, look for larger specimens: they will impart almost instant aristocracy.
Boxwood is known for its natural southern charm, but also for its willingness to submit to discipline, which you can see clearly at Mount Vernon, where George Washington supervised the planting of a lively parterre. The modern recreation of Washington’s fancy parterre is planted with ‘Morris Dwarf’ boxwood, which naturally forms tight mounds; it is trimmed lightly every year. At the White House, just a few miles from Mount Vernon, several excellent modern boxwood cultivars, including ‘Justin Browers’ and ‘Vardar Valley,’ flourish in the Rose Garden.
Boxwood grows slowly, and thrives in sun or part shade. Plant in spring or early fall, in well-drained soil, and mulch around the plants with about an inch of compost or bark mulch to conserve soil moisture and help control weeds. New plants should be watered regularly. Established plants tolerate drought surprisingly well: in a severe drought in Kansas City recently, gardeners at Powell Gardens reported that the hardy cultivar ‘Green Velvet’ came through a brutal summer without supplemental watering.
A little bit of pruning keeps boxwood looking its best. Sharp shears are essential. In our garden, my husband and I shape upright ‘Dee Runk’ and ‘Graham Blandy’ boxwoods with Fiskars Quantum™ pruners, snipping off tips here and there to encourage thicker growth. We use Quantum™ hedge shears to give a more formal shape to a thick boxwood hedge along the sidewalk. A good time to prune is in late spring, after new growth has turned dark green. While you’re pruning, remove any broken branches and thin the shrubs lightly to allow light and air to circulate better.
Healthy plants resist problems, including boxwood blight, which causes leaves to drop and has been identified in plants up and down the east coast. Plant pathologists at North Carolina State University and nursery managers across the country are working to control blight in the industry; for home gardeners, the best prevention is to buy healthy plants and take good care of existing boxwoods. To learn more about modern cultivars, check the boxwood guide on the website of Saunders Brothers Nursery in Piney River, Virginia, in the heart of boxwood country. I grow more than a dozen different handsome boxwoods in my garden, and I’m crazy about all of them.