A horticultural buddy was once giving a somewhat mixed assessment of the landscaping style of well-heeled Richmonders.
“They’re definitely willing to spend plenty of money. But they have a hard time going beyond brick-and-boxwood!”
Yet another plant person was describing the conditions under which boxwood is found in the wild. “Boxwood is a tall shrub, or even a small tree, found growing in the understory of the forest. Not, as some would believe, a small green mound in front of a brick mansion.”
Ah, yes, boxwood, an apparently almost sacred component of traditional Virginia gardens. When everything is going right, it rightfully deserves the title, the “aristocrat” of shrubs. But when things go awry with boxwood, it can look more wretched than almost any other shrub. So how do you keep your boxwood in the first category, and out of the second?
Boxwood’s native place as an understory shrub provides a clue regarding what conditions it favors, namely dry shade. Unhappy boxwood are often exposed to too much sun and wind, not to mention poor drainage in clay soils. For us, clay soil is pretty much a given, but it can be amended with organic matter and lime added to bring the pH up close to 7.
When placing new plants, provide afternoon shade if possible. The canopy of a large oak would provide the requisite shade, and its roots would take up some moisture, as well. If you don’t have a place for your boxwood under a tree, a building could also serve nicely, especially if it can be used to block drying north and west winds. Just avoid putting boxwood against a sunny, south-facing wall if you don’t want to see that all too common orange-brown look in the winter. Although they can take drought, boxwood will require deep watering for the first year in the ground. And don’t overdo the mulch; only one inch is recommended, and keep it away from the trunk.
Some background on the genus Buxus: Most of the several dozen species are found in or near the tropics; only a few are native to temperate climates, and of course those are the ones we can grow. And despite the name “American boxwood” applied to one variety, no species are native to the United States. (Several boxwood species are native to Cuba, however. And one member of the boxwood family is indigenous to the southern Appalachians, our native pachysandra. Japanese pachysandra is much more commonly seen in gardens.)
Common—or American— boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), native to western and southern Europe, North Africa and over to western Asia, presumably gets its name from its abundance in area gardens since colonial times. Sometimes persisting for decades even around abandoned home sites, it can attain substantial size, reportedly to twenty feet. Unless damaged by sun or wind, leaves are a dark, matte green not matched by any other landscape plant. Its dwarf cousin, English boxwood (B. sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) usually reaches only four feet in height after many years and commonly is used to edge formal beds. This variety is also known for its distinctive aroma.
There are a slew of other cultivars of common boxwood, varying in size, shape, cold hardiness, leaf form, and resistance to the various boxwood maladies. When I first encountered the upright cultivar ‘Dee Runk’, I became curious about the name. Years ago, I was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin Dewes Runk, Dean of Students at U.Va. Known as Dee to his peers, Runk was a boxwood aficionado, and the University’s Blandy Farm named the variety in his honor.
Littleleaf boxwood (B. microphylla) is the other species commonly seen in our area, typically sold as one of many cultivars. Its leaves are generally a lighter green than common boxwood; they may turn a sickly color in winter, although the variety japonica performs much better in that respect; it’s also generally better adapted to conditions in the Southeast.
In his musings on boxwood, woody plant guru Michael Dirr says that, “The best and most dedicated Buxus information comes from Paul Saunders, Saunders Brothers Nursery, Inc., Piney River, Virginia.” High praise indeed for this Nelson County nursery that has been in the Saunders family for three generations. As a wholesale operation, Saunders provides boxwood, as well as other plants, to most garden centers in our area and throughout much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
In addition to growing boxwoods, Mr. Saunders coordinates the National Boxwood Trials, testing various cultivars in 30 locations across the Boxwood Belt. Data from these trials, as well as a wealth of other information on boxwood, is readily available on the nursery’s website, www.saundersbrothers.com, and would be extremely helpful to anyone either currently growing boxwood or contemplating a purchase. The website features the Boxwood Designer, in which you enter various plant requirements—for example, height, sun/shade, etc.—and then let it search for appropriate plants. If you want to see tips on boxwood care or merely wish to browse available varieties, check out Saunders’ Boxwood Guide. This 57-page online flipbook provides good, straightforward information; unlike a typical nursery catalog, it does not merely gush over each variety. Instead, it provides unvarnished facts and even notes a particular cultivar’s shortcomings.
Although primarily a wholesale operation, Saunders Brothers conducts retail sales on two Saturdays in the spring and on one Saturday in the fall; dates were not currently up on their website, but they recommend checking back later in the year. They also have a seasonal market featuring their home-grown produce and home-baked goods. The pictures certainly had me wishing for warmer weather!
Most sources list boxwood as a deer-resistant plant; if you have experienced otherwise, I would be interested in hearing about it. And yes, Virginia, boxwood indeed looks good planted next to brick!