Introduction to Boxwoods

by Patrick Muir on August 25, 2011

It’s been a long, hot summer and its time to revaluate the strengths in your garden. One plant you should reconsider or consider based on its continued high performance season after season is the boxwood. Boxwoods “Man’s Oldest Garden Ornament,” have been with us since Roman times and before. The first boxwoods were planted on American soil at Long Island in 1653 brought over from Amsterdam.

The three most popular types of boxwoods grown in the United States are “American” (Buxus sempiverens), “English” (buxus sempivirens ‘Suffruticosa’) and Buxus microphyllum. Sempivirens is latin for evergreen. Hybrids from ‘sempivirens’ and ‘microphyllum’, like most hybrids that are marketable, are generally faster growing and more disease resistant.

Happy Under The Knife

Boxwood can grow very well in the Midwest as long as two very important needs are met.
They require good drainage AND they do not “like their feet wet.” By this I mean plant them a little higher than soil level so they can drain. If the drainage is poor then leaves will discolor and depending on the severity may even die. Also, both soil and heavy mulch should not hug or smother the trunk of the shrub.

The top image and image at left are from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. The Blanke Boxwood Garden does justice to the species. I saw the Garden in its first season before I moved from St. Louis to Shawnee. So I only saw the hardscape and the young plantings but all the potential. I look forward soon to see the Rosendo . Visitor enter through a brick wall courtyard catching glimspes of the center of the garden. The entry walk leads visitors with plantings showing the perfect interplay of perennials and boxwood along the way. The center of the garden is an oval boxwood parterre accented by flowers and ground covers. A parterre is a garden where flower gardens, beds and path are arranged to form a pattern. The lower hedges map out he initials of the founder, Henry Shaw. (A future issue will have more about this fine gentlemen)

‘Green Velvet’

P. Allen Smith uses boxwood in two distinct ways. Traditionally sheared as a low hedge surrounding rose and herbs. He says boxwood responds well to being “put under the knife.” PAS recommends Korean Littleleaf Boxwood, Buxus microphylla koreana, for northern climate for even zones 4 withstanding temps of – 20-to 25 degrees below zero. The habit is looser and the foliage turns bronze in the winter. If you prefer greener leaves through the winter, then the Canadian hybrids of koreana and Buxus sempervirens reportedly keep their green leaves better these include ‘Green Mountain’, ‘Green Gem’ or ‘Green Mountain. The most popular variety is the Canadian ‘Green Velvet’. So if you want to start your foray into box, then ‘Green Velvet’ is the place to start. PAS also uses boxwood as a punctuation mark as in terms of framing or dotting the end of a house. He says “Just be assigning them on the corners or by the steps, you can focus or accent on different areas.”

While living in St. Louis, my wife and I rented this beautiful little cottage house. Flanking the front little walkway were two magnificent boxwoods. The subdivision was created to serve the needs of GIs returning from WWII. Next door was a beautiful soul name Lillian who moved there with her husband after the war. Lillian told me she wasn’t worried about ever loosing her sight because the scent of the box would always bring her home. What a beautiful thought.

I strongly recommend visiting an independent garden center for aid in selecting hybrids tor different locations on your property. You CANNOT rely on plant tags to make your selections at the big box retailers (i.e. Home Depot) It’s a little known fact the commercial growers have only one tag for the information regarding height and width of that variety. So talk to your garden center rep before making any purchases.

Patrick's Garden

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Donna August 30, 2011 at 7:12 am

You steal my heart. I LOVE boxwood, a staple in any garden for year round interest. Green Velvet is in my garden.

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Patrick August 30, 2011 at 8:26 am

Glad to hear of your enthousiam for boxwood. Every garden could use at least one plant.

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Janeen September 1, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I have had mixed results with boxwood, and lots of winter kill. So, I have regretfully had to throw every one of them on the compost heap.

I live in zone 4b (NE Iowa).

Still, I love them. Any suggestions?

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Patrick September 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Janeen -
Sorry to hear about your mixed results. As the posting recommendsd are you planting them a little higher than the existing soil level? I would put my money on drainage problems are the cause of all your woes.
Also,have you tried ‘Green Velvet’/ It seems to be much more orgiving than other varities.
You mentioned winter kill, if the planting is totally exposed, you may want to consider less exposed locations. Even try to find microclimate locations in your yard for best results..

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Janeen September 2, 2011 at 11:45 am

I had it on the north side, and soil is definitely clay. How much sun is ideal?

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Patrick September 6, 2011 at 11:37 am

Janeen, With today’s varieties you can plant in full sun or full shade. In full sun, you might get some scorching in the winter but the plant will come out of it quickly.. In full shade one side will be a little thin but since few shrubs can even grow in full shade, it’s still the best option out there. The only other full shade shrub I’m aware of is the yew and it is definitely a slow grower.

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Dee/reddirtramblings September 2, 2011 at 5:21 am

Hi Patrick, yes, this year I’ve gotten around a lot. I am a bit weary. As for slow food, I wish there was more of it in Oklahoma. One problem is our very unpredictable weather. This year, if we were relying only on our vegetable gardens, we’d be starving. I hope Mother Nature has been better to you all.

When I get back to St. Louis one day to visit my SIL, maybe you can show me some of these gems while I’m there. You should let Allen know that you wrote about his method of boxwood shearing.~~Dee

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Patrick September 2, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Hey Dee,
Good to hear from you considering how busy you’ve been lately.. You’re right about differences from year to year to year for slow food. I guess the hardcore slow fooders would encourage canning for the lean years. I hope you get back to MOBOT soon. Because I became a quadriplegic nine years ago i don’t know if I’ll ever get back there but living in St Louis for three years was a very special time for me because of MOBOT.. \

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Jennifer@threedogsinagarden September 2, 2011 at 6:39 am

Patrick, I am a fan of boxwood. I have a low boxwood hedge framing my circle garden. It keeps the dogs from running through the bed and also makes the often messy look of mixed perennials seem just a bit neater and contained.
As to conferring with “garden center reps.” I must tell you a cautionary tale. These days they are too often students with a summer job. They sometimes don’t know the difference between a perennial and an annual. I once asked a garden center employee about “boxwood”. He thought that I was looking for a cardboard box to put purchases in. Very sad! Have a great weekend, Patrick!

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Patrick September 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Jennifer,
I guess I’m very spoiled because I’ve been gong to my garden center on and off for 30 years starting in high school. Even one of my good friends has been with Family Tree since high school and heads up the tree and shrub department. My suggestion is to ask for the manager when you need solid advice

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Jayne September 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm

I too love boxwood. I think I love ‘Vardar Valley’ best of all, but I also love the good English boxwood too because the fragrance is so distinctive. I propagated many over the years and havent had to buy a new one in ten years!
Lilian’s thought on boxwood is wonderful – thank you for sharing that!

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Patrick September 3, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Hey Jane,
Glad to hear of another box fan out there. I want to investigate ‘Vardar Valley’ for myself. I hadn’t thought of Lillian in years until I wrote this posting. I’m sure she’s looking down at her boxwoods from high above.now.

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Foxglove Lane September 4, 2011 at 4:10 am

Hi Patrick, is there an Irish connection with your name? Anyway it was nice of you to drop by the green isle. You are obviously skilled, talented and passionate about growing, I think you are doing wonders with the water you have there:~)

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Patrick September 4, 2011 at 11:01 am

Thanks for the kind words, Foxglove.
Sorry to disappoint but my surname is Scottish. It’s a derivative of the Moores in Scotland. My grand emigrated from Scotland. Have you ever heard of John Muir the famous naturalist over here? Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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Greggo September 4, 2011 at 5:31 am

Green Velvet is number one in my books. None better. Compact and green.

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Patrick September 4, 2011 at 9:44 am

Amen on that one, brother Greggo

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Toni - Signature Gardens September 4, 2011 at 10:50 am

Patrick,
Thank you so much for leaving a comment on my blog! Whenever I see a beautiful sky I always think of Ps 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” I have to admit I have never been much of a boxwood fan. I much prefer our native Dwarf Yaupon Holly. I rarely see any good looking boxwoods around town, whereas the yaupons are almost bulletproof.

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Patrick September 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I’m not familiar with that holly. I’ll have to ask my nurseryman about them. Thanks for the tip.

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The Sage Butterfly September 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I simply love boxwood. They are drought tolerant, reliable, beautiful, and are easy to care for. I think they look good alone, in a hedge, or in a pot. Thanks for featuring them.

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Patrick September 5, 2011 at 3:19 pm

I love them in large clay pots, too.

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Shady Gardener September 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Thank you, Patrick, for your recent visit. I hope you’re feeling better!

I so appreciate this article on Boxwood. I truly have not had experience with them, but have admired them for a long time! Thank you! :-)

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Patrick September 5, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Thanks for the kuddos and I’m feel so much better. Looking forward to a great fall.

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Liz@sitwithmeinmygarden.blogspot.com September 6, 2011 at 8:43 am

Hello Patrick-
Thanks for coming by my blog! I planted Dwarf English Boxwood this year. They are my first boxwoods. I did do some research and I believe they should survive up here- Funny thing though- Lowe’s was the only place in town that carried them. The Green Velvet and Winter Gem seemed to be the most prevalent around the garden centers here. I wanted something that I wasn’t going to have to work too hard at keeping small. I hope I chose well! Last winter the voles killed my 10 year old Lemon Lime Euonymous- so I decided to try something new and chose the boxwoods for their replacement.

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Patrick September 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

The dwarf English is a good choice for keeping small. I hope it works out for you. Sorry to hear about your euonymous but I’m not a big fan of them so I think boxwood is a better option for you. Let me know how it performs, please.

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Melanie September 6, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Hey Patrick. Glad to meet another Ks gardener!! I live in south central Kansas. .in a dry habitat much different from yours in the land of the green!! I grew up on the west edge of the Flint HIlls. .and let me tell you. .it’s a different ball game here ;-) Livin’ and learnin’!!

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Patrick September 6, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Hey Princess,
Glad to meet you as well. May I ask what town? I went to KSU ag school so I do know of a bunch of Kansas’ small towns. Maybe some day can we meet. but until then let’s just blog.
Best,
Patrick

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bakingbarb September 7, 2011 at 11:40 am

The boxwood are quite pretty done right and it’s nice to see there are many more varities than what’s at the box stores. I worked at the one you mentioned and let me just say most staff do not know plants, surprise (not really)!!!!

The house I moved into had 2 boxwood along the front steps, I cut them off and use the base as a holder for planters. Best use ever. They were so overgrown and ugly, there are little bits that keep growing back and the new growth is pretty, I pluck them off every so often so they don’t get big.

I’d like to grow a pretty one in a pot though, you’ve got me thinking now!

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Patrick September 7, 2011 at 11:59 am

Hey Barb,
Thanks for your reply. Sorry for your negative experience with box. From your description about your two box I’m sure they could not have been ‘Green Velvet’ but some older variety. Since Velvet and the other Canadian varieties are so forgiving of shade, they remain a valuable tool in the box for garden design. The only other shade option is Taxus, the ever slooooooow growing yew. So if you have the right spot i hope you don’t write off a box. On the pot, I’m not sure of guaranteed performance but in the right micro-climate it’s worth a try. Thanks for stopping by, Barb.

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Pauline September 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Thanks for visiting my blog, had to stop by and tell you about all the box balls and cones that I seem to have formed over the years. All have been grown from cuttings and are now quite solid shapes which give some formality to the garden and really come into their own in the winter when they have a covering of snow! They really are a favourite of mine and I wouldn’t want to be without them.

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Patrick September 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Pauline,
Oh the beauty of shaping boxwood can lead to fantastic garden ornamentation. And what a rewarding experience to have grown your own from cuttings. I hear that’s not difficult. Thanks for visiting. today
Best,
Patrick

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Masha September 7, 2011 at 4:10 pm

This is a very informative post, I enjoyed it very much. The first picture of the hedge is wonderful, I wish I could visit the Gardens…

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Patrick September 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Glad you were informed and enjoyed the posting. The Blanke is an amazing achievement.
Best,
Blanke

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Rose September 8, 2011 at 6:27 am

Thanks for some excellent tips on boxwood! I planted three ‘Green Velvet’ last fall, and they have really held up well during our hot and dry summer. Thanks, too, for the tip on plant tags; I don’t pay much attention to the ones from the big box stores, but even with plants I buy at a nursery or garden center, I usually do a little research on the plant rather than rely on just the tags. I’ve been surprised, too, to find perennials on sale here that aren’t even hardy in my zone 5 garden.

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Patrick September 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

I’m so glad you appreciated the tips. Wait until you see Green Velvet sail through the winter and look so green and the beautiful new growth in Spring. And I’m gIlad you don’t rely on tags.
Best,
Patrick

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Alistair September 8, 2011 at 7:57 am

Hi Patrick, We are great fans of Box and were very pleased with the dwarf hedging which we had in our back garden. Unfortunately it succumbed to the dreaded Box blight which has destroyed so many hedges this side of the Atlantic. I love your site and find you very inspirational.

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Patrick September 8, 2011 at 11:31 am

Hey Alistair,
Thanks for stopping by from England. I hadn’t heard of boxwood blight. What a tragedy and I hope it never crosses the pond. Thanks for your kind inspirational words .
Best,
Patrick

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Christina September 9, 2011 at 2:04 am

Hi Patrick, I love box and found your post very informative; I was going to ask about box blight, but Alistair has already mentioned it. I’m glad you don’t have it there yet, so another good reason to know where you are buying from and make sure it hasn’t been sourced from Europe. I like using box to give a solid form with free, airy plants to contrast. Christina

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Patrick September 9, 2011 at 8:05 am

I, too, hope it never gets here. Got knows we’ve got enough fungus and viruses attacking our roses and trees like black spot and pine wilt virus.

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Kimberley September 13, 2011 at 9:08 am

I have a small, thick row of boxwood along the edge of my garage and it does seem to thrive there, receiving full sun from sunrise until early afternoon every day. It came with the house when we moved in, so I have no idea about its type! My husband loosely prunes it once a year or so, (probably at the wrong time!), and that’s all it seems to require. I don’t like its scent, though.

Your description of a parterre reminded me of the lovely knot gardens I saw many years ago at one of the Shakespeare properties in England, so I did a little on-line reading and discovered that the parterre derived from the knot garden. I tried a small knot garden of sorts a couple years back, using mostly annual flowers and a few herbs for greenery, and had moderate success. Our resident woodchucks kept foiling my attempts at symmetry! (I did learn a lot that summer about what woodchucks don’t like!)That space has now been incorporated into the fenced vegetable garden.

Always interesting to read your posts!

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Patrick September 13, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Hey Kimberly,
Good to hear from you again. I always enjoy your comments. February would be the best time before the new growth appears. In an ideal situation, you only want to prune the tips but obviously more drastic efforts may be required.

Knot gardens are more fun when you’re visiting one not making one. The British climate is much more forgiving when it comes to restraining or shaping woody shrubs. But I admire those like you who try. Thanks for stopping by, my garden pal.

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Kimberley September 14, 2011 at 10:29 am

Well, considering that my boxwoods are usually still under a foot or two of snow in February, I think we’ll wait until mid-March! (I’m in northeastern Pennsylvania.) Thanks for the advice, and I’m glad you’re enjoying our little interchanges! So am I.

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Patrick September 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm

You’re very welcome. And I’m also enjoying them very much.

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Aerie-el September 14, 2011 at 8:41 am

Hi Patrick, thanks for the comments on my Edinburgh WW image. Your love of plants and environmental stewardship must partially be in your genes!
What great information you have shared with us here! I do enjoy Buxus but Taxus steal my heart.

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Aerie-el September 14, 2011 at 8:44 am

Hi Patrick, thanks for the comment on my Edinburgh WW image. Your love of plants and environmental stewardship must partially be in your genes!
What great information you have shared with us here! I do enjoy Buxus but Taxus steal my heart.

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Patrick September 14, 2011 at 10:14 am

Thanks for your kind words. Yes I am proud to have the same last name as the famed naturalist John Muir. He was an amazing who had and continues have a huge impact on this country.
Tasus over buxus? Yews make great hedges and grow well in shade bu the4y’re such a slow grower in my book.

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Tanya @ Lovely Greens September 21, 2011 at 3:02 am

I love low box hedges…they bring tidiness and a touch of elegance to every garden :) You don’t mention disease in your article though…you must not have to deal with the dreaded Box Blight in your area. Lucky you!

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Patrick September 21, 2011 at 6:26 am

I agree with you on adding a touch elegance to every garden. Low hedges of box can add a ot to one’s garden. No sign of disease here.

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Erin August 29, 2012 at 6:47 am

Hello,

I was wondering which boxwoods have the
yellow pattern around the leaves? It is hard to
tell when they are so small.
I think the plant tags were switched by
accident. Green velvet or Green mountain?
Or maybe some other kind.

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Patrick September 29, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Too busy to look it up at this time. When I’m checking old comments, you may have your answer here.

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Sheri May 5, 2013 at 7:28 am

I had several Green Velvet Boxwood planted last summer. They seem to have survived the winter. I would like to train them into a hedge concept. They are planted in a row and used as a back drop foundation hedge to Shrub Roses. The plants seem small and I would guess, they were planted about 3-4 feet (center of plant) apart. Do you think it would be ok to buy more Boxwood and plant them in the gaps to fill them in a little more? I live in central Iowa and not sure how fast they will grow. I would like to create more of a continuous hedge effect.

Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

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Patrick May 5, 2013 at 7:48 am

Yes definitely insert additional plants to about 2′ apart. Remember the more you prune into the hedge the faster the growth will be. Good luck with your project, Sheri.

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Jamie May 9, 2013 at 8:50 am

I need some boxwood help! My wife and I bought our first house this past winter and are now working on our first flower beds. I wanted to plant some boxwoods along the foundation as a “backdrop” with some knockout roses and some colorful annuals in front. I wanted something smaller, no taller than 3 feet high, that I can maintain in round shapes. I’ve narrowed it down to 3 types, Green Velvet, Dwarf English, and Winter Gem Boxwoods. Can you help me with the differences of these 3 types and which would work best for our beds? We live in Zone 6. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

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Patrick May 9, 2013 at 10:07 am

Hey Jamie,

Thanks for contacting me. Definitely go with ‘Green Velvet’. It naturally grows to 3-4′ high and wide. But I’d encourage you to consider making a beautiful hedge. You could keep it pruned to 3′ H X 2′ W. Just something to consider.

Also, please don’t select the totally overused red ‘Knockout and go with the pink’. The pink flowers against the dark foliage has a stunning effect and the pink will allow you to use a much more pleasing array of annual color.

Consider pink and purple petunias with ‘Snow Princess’ Lobularia (it’s a water hog but gets droopy and thus tells you it wants a drink) or ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia Consider going to an independent garden center as opposed to a Home Depot to get this type of material. With the petunias, don’t get the Waves because they get too unruly, make sure your regularly pinch them back. You can find a post on the blog — The Science of Pinching — for help on this.

Good luck with your project and send me some pictures later this summer.

Best,

Patrick

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