Boxwoods (Buxaceae, or Buxus) are one of the most common evergreen shrubs, and come in a wide variety of forms and sizes. If properly planted, they can offer a low maintenance source of lush green beauty in the landscape. They're one of the shrubs most commonly selected for hedges and topiary, because they can withstand heavy and frequent pruning, but are also useful as specimen plants in your landscape design. They're also commonly used for winter holiday decorating, indoors and out.
The boxwood shrub is native to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Boxwood was first introduced in North America in 1653. Although the boxwood has enjoyed a reputation for hundreds of years as a hardy, trouble-free plant, in recent years there have been some problems with boxwood blight, which is spreading further. This article from The American Boxwood Society explains boxwood blight and how best to avoid and address it.
There are virtually hundreds of different varieties of boxwoods, but only a comparatively small number of them are available in plant nurseries for purchase. The most common used for home landscaping include Green Gem, Wintergreen, Winter Gem, and Green Velvet.
These shrubs are somewhat slow-growing, with firm, thick leaves that are on the small side. It can take several years for a boxwood to reach mature size: something to keep in mind if trying to grow them into hedges. Most boxwoods range in color from yellow-green to dark green, and usually don't have blue-green tones.
When to Plant Boxwoods
Shrub planting is best done in spring or summer so that it can get well established before winter. Spring is best, because while a new planting is becoming acclimated to its new environment, extreme weather conditions like heat or drought can cause undue stress. Your local nursery s also likely to have the best selection of boxwoods in spring, but check with the manager in case they'll be getting an additional shipment, which might mean a better selection.
How to Select the Best Boxwood
Before purchasing your boxwood shrubs, determine your needs and preferences. Do you want small, rounded shrubs that will need a minimum of pruning? Do you want to use boxwoods to plant a hedge? If so, get small ones and plant them about a foot apart. Do you want larger boxwoods to serve as foundation or specimen plants? Do a bit of research into the different varieties, determine what is best for your growing zone, and check the dimensions of mature size expectations on the label. Some boxwoods will grow very tall but these days the smaller, more compact hybrids are the most widely available for home gardeners.
Location, Location, Location
It's important to select a good location for boxwoods. They need at least five to six hours of full sun per day, and soil with good drainage. One complaint gardeners sometimes have with boxwoods is that some leaves or sections turn yellow or become discolored. The reasons can vary, but most often this is due to the shrub not receiving an even distribution of sunlight. For this reason, planting larger boxwoods next to your house is not the best idea for a foundation planting. Smaller boxwoods will be less vulnerable to this issue.
If your nursery sells shrubs that are balled with burlap, you'll have to cut the fabric off and make sure the roots are not root-bound. If they are root-bound, gently use a pruning saw to loosen them and create some space between the roots, being careful not to sever any of the larger pieces.
Dig a hole that allows an extra six inches minimum in circumference and depth. You also will need to add some good topsoil, and if your soil is mostly clay, add some manure and peat moss too, to improve drainage.
Add some water to the hole first, filling it about one quarter full. Then add a few inches of planting medium (your soil, manure and peat moss mixture).
Gently place the shrub into the hole, and hold it upright while you add some more soil around the sides to anchor it in place. Step back and make sure the shrub is upright and at an appropriate depth (the spot where the roots begin to spread out is where the soil should come up to).
Once the boxwood is in place, tamp down the soil gently but firmly on all sides, using the back of a spade, a trowel or your shoes. Water again from the top. Give it a good soak but don't over water. It's also a good idea to water regularly (every day for the first three days, then every other day) for the first two weeks, and if the weather gets too dry.
Growing Boxwoods in Containers
It's possible to grow boxwoods successfully in containers, but be sure to select a container that will let the root system have plenty of room. It's best to only grow smaller sized boxwoods in containers. Use plenty of well-draining garden soil, and some peat moss and manure, just as you would for planting in beds. Keep them watered regularly, as container plantings do dry out faster than beds. In winter, your boxwoods may be at risk for frozen root systems, which is a potential hazard for any evergreen shrub grown in a container. If movable, you can place them in a slightly warmer sheltered area (such as a sunporch or garage) in case of plummeting temperatures.
Maintaining your Boxwoods
Boxwoods are very low maintenance, unless they are hedges which need occasional trimming. If you notice dead or discolored leaves, gently prune off those branches. As boxwoods don't flower, they don't really need fertilizer, but a top dressing of manure in fall helps keep the soil and roots healthy. Keep them watered in droughts. Your boxwoods, properly cared for once planted, should last many years.