Boxwoods have been beautifying Southern gardens for centuries. These classic, beautiful evergreen shrubs are the backbone of many famous and not-so-famous gardens in South Carolina. The tricky part about gardening with boxwoods in the Midlands is matching the correct variety with the desired placement in the garden, but there is definitely a boxwood for every spot! Boxwoods add formality and structure to the garden. One of the most important rules for designing gardens is “definition of space.” Boxwoods are the perfect plant to define space in any garden. Boxwoods can be used as borders, foundation plants, screens to obscure an unattractive vista, structural backgrounds for perennials, frameworks for a formal garden, container plants and can even be pruned into many forms of topiary. Choose the right boxwood for the right space and be rewarded with years of beauty and structure in your garden.
Things to consider when choosing boxwoods
Boxwoods come in all shapes, leaf colors and sizes. Boxwoods need rich, well-drained soil amended with organic matter, and most varieties need a thick layer of organic mulch. It is worth the time and effort to amend the soil when planting boxwoods because they will not thrive in thin, soggy soil. Different varieties of boxwoods have differing tolerances for sun.
Dwarf English boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens suffruticosa) do not thrive in our full South Carolina sun. However, they grow very well in spaces that receive morning sun, filtered light or indirect light throughout the day. This variety is prized for their dense, dark green leaves and compact growth habit. A mature English boxwood will grow slowly to a maximum height of 3 to 4 feet, but this takes a long time in South Carolina. Dwarf English boxwoods have a wonderful woody smell that adds to their allure.
Dwarf English boxwoods also need consistent irrigation. Make sure that they are never allowed to completely dry out. This type of boxwood is very shallow rooted so a thick layer, 3 or so inches, of organic mulch is recommended to protect the exposed roots from our harsh heat.
Sometimes English boxwoods are used as specimen plants. More often they are used in groups in foundation beds or to form hedges or borders and are most well known for their use in formal landscape design. They are the perfect boxwood to define a parterre or formal border and have been used throughout history in knot gardens and medicinal gardens. They respond well as container plants if placed in a shady spot and are provided with consistent irrigation. They are a wonderful focal point in a container with annuals planted around the base. A lovely spring combination is one Dwarf English boxwood planted in the center of a formal urn with lobelia or violas densely planted around the base. I like to use only one color viola, lobelia or other annual to keep the arrangement tight and formal. This is a beautiful and inviting combination to have flanking the front steps or at the front door.
Korean boxwoods (Buxus microphylla ‘Koreana’) can tolerate and thrive in full sun. They are a slow growing, compact variety with a mature growth of 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide. The Korean varieties bear the classic small, rounded boxwood leaf and respond very well to pruning.
Buxus microphylla ‘Winter Green’ is a very reliable type that thrives in the Midlands. It is a larger member of the microphylla variety and has a mature size of 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide. ‘Winter Green’ is an excellent choice for a foundation bed with full sun exposure. ‘Winter Green’ pairs nicely with dwarf pittosporum and giant liriope for a handsome, low-maintenance foundation bed. It is happiest growing in loamy, well-drained soil and given consistent irrigation. It responds very well to pruning or can be left to grow into its natural rounded form. ‘Winter Green’ boxwood thrives as a container plant. A perfectly pruned ‘Winter Green’ boxwood is a beautiful focal point in a formal garden. It would be very effective at the junction of two paths with the container in the middle. White Christmas lights can be added during the holidays to add a festive accent to the garden at night. This is one of the most versatile varieties of boxwoods that thrive in Zone 8. A light fertilization of a balanced, slow release fertilizer every spring and fall should be all the care this low maintenance, hardy shrub needs.
American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is the classic, large boxwood that can be seen in many gardens in the Midlands. It is the traditional Southern boxwood and is consistently a popular choice. This boxwood was most commonly planted in Colonial America, so it has a long history in the South. Wonderful and beautiful specimens of American boxwood can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg. There are many fine examples of this variety in Columbia and the surrounding areas. There are also some very unhappy and unhealthy examples. This is usually the result of an American boxwood being planted in the wrong space — too much sun and in poor soil. American boxwoods have dark green leaves that are narrower than the Korean varieties. They grow at a moderate rate and are happiest and healthiest grown in part shade, preferring morning sun and protection from the harsh heat of the afternoon. They must have good drainage and consistent moisture. They respond well to a light dose of fertilizer that is specific for acid-loving shrubs.
Holly-Tone is an excellent choice. Mulching thoroughly around the roots and drip line helps maintain moisture and keeps the roots cooler in the hot summer months. These beauties are best used as foundation plants and harmonize beautifully with traditional architecture. They are usually deer resistant, and the boughs can be used in flower arrangements and for festive holiday decorations.
American boxwoods, dwarf pittosporums, Carissa holly with a border of Dwarf English boxwoods, Korean boxwoods or mondo grass make a perfect front yard foundation planting combination. There are beautiful specimens of American boxwoods at The Caldwell-Boylston House gardens and also at The Lace House at the Governor’s Mansion complex. Some of these boxwoods are still thriving at 70 to 80 years old. With the proper placement and proper plant care, American boxwoods can thrive in most Midlands gardens and will add structure and beauty to new and existing gardens.
November is the perfect time to plant boxwoods. Visit local nurseries to see the varieties discussed in this article and to discover new varieties. Most gardens can be improved by the addition of these beautiful plants. Try a new hedge, a container combination or replace scraggly foundation plants with a better-suited boxwood variety. You’ll be glad you did!
Chores for the November Gardener
- Perennials can still be divided and moved to other parts of the garden or shared with other gardeners.
- November is exactly the right time to plant spring blooming bulbs such as daffodils, tulips and lilies. It’s a good idea to mark the area where bulbs are planted so they won’t be disturbed when planting other shrubs, etc.
- This month is the right time to plant or transplant large shrubs or trees.
- Explore your garden. Decide if there is an area that would benefit from a formal low hedge of Korean boxwoods. Would the front foundation beds be improved by the addition of mature American boxwoods? If existing boxwoods are struggling in an area with too much sun, would ‘Winter Green’ boxwoods be a better choice?
- Apply a new layer of mulch in all planting beds to protect plants and to make the garden look neat and tidy.
- The holidays are right around the corner so now is a good time to gather magnolia and boxwood cuttings to decorate your interior. Soak cut branches in a bucket of water overnight and the leaves will stay fresh for much longer.
- After all of the maintenance is finished in the garden, it’s a good time to attack the garage or gardening shed. Have all tool blades sharpened, clean any containers so they are ready to be planted in the early spring, organize your tools and make a list of any supplies, such as twine, wire and fertilizer that need to be re-stocked.
- Move any remaining houseplants back inside for the coming cold months. Check for bugs first. If there is evidence of bugs, spray with insecticidal soap before taking the plants back into the house.
- Remember to feed the birds.