Boxwood: The Aristocrat of Northern Virginia Landscaping Plants

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Surrounds Landscape Architect Howard Cohen says that boxwood is probably the most well-known garden ornamental plant, a “timeless classic.” Robert Saunders of Saunders Brothers Nursery goes even further, calling it “the aristocrat” of landscaping plants.

As valuable as the boxwood is in garden design and landscape architecture, it is typically a supporting player in the garden. You’ve probably seen it a thousand times, but wouldn’t be able to name it. It was the backup band for a rock star flowering plant or specimen tree.

boxwood walkway bed border in allee
A low boxwood border guides you through an allee planted with Crape Myrtles

What’s so special about boxwood?

Boxwood wasn’t as hot when we started as it is now. People are looking for that kind of plant now because the deer issues have increased and because the variety selection has sky-rocketed in the last 20 years. What’s available to people is so much better now. Robert Saunders, Saunders Bros Nursery

boxwood hedge of rounded plantsBoxwood may not be a star, but it has a 60-year tradition with Saunders Brothers and is their signature plant. The grower has dedicated one-third of their wholesale nursery production to this plant. There are some practical reasons for this. Boxwoods are characteristically:

  • deer resistant
  • require little pruning because they naturally grow into a customary shape or silhouette
  • most do well in shade or sun.
  • long-lived, so offer permanence in the landscape
  • drought tolerant

Boxwood versatility

Due to the many varieties of shape, size, and growth rate, boxwood fulfills multiple design needs:

Hedge. Boxwood hedges can be used to create a living wall that will vary in height depending on the purpose

Foundation. Planted around the base of a home, boxwoods are used for transition from lawn to home, to soften hard lines at corners or to define an entry.

Edging. Boxwood is used to create a low border along a walkway, lawn edge or flower bed.

Parterre. This is a highly manicured formal garden with symmetrical patterns. The boxwood is kept with tightly clipped edges and is used to frame flower beds or other plantings.

Knot Garden. The boxwood plants are “sculpted” by intricate pruning to create a woven effect.

boxwood knot garden
A boxwood knot garden graces the front walkway to this home

Boxwood variety

According to the American Boxwood Society, there are 90 species and more than 300 cultivars (and counting) of the plant. Three of the most popular boxwood varieties sold in the Maryland-Virginia area are:

Dee Runk grows in a tall pyramid shape. When fully grown it will be about two to three feet wide at the base, tapering as it goes up to a total height of eight to ten feet.

Green Beauty is a round-shaped plant and that will fill out to four feet high and wide. It will take a snow load and maintain good color through all seasons.

Justin Brouwer has been steadily popular for the last 20 years along with the Green Beauty.

Boxwood Blight

boxwood dee runk variety
The Dee Runk boxwood

Sorry, but we would have been remiss had we failed to mention a recent development in the wonderful world of boxwood landscaping. Boxwood blight has affected European plant stock since 1994. It appeared in the U.S. only five years ago but already affects plants in 12 east coast states.

The blight shows itself as brown lesions on the foliage. It doesn’t typically kill the plant but causes the leaves to drop off prematurely. The good news is that, unlike other plant diseases, it is not spread by the wind. It is spread by people. Thus, we can play a role in slowing its movement. The disease may spread if a grower transports affected plants from nurseries to planting sites. Garden workers may unwittingly carry the disease from an affected plant to another on their clothing or tools.

Saunders Brothers have taken a leadership role in distributing information about prevention to contain the spread of blight. They are advising landscape maintenance contractors and nursery owners to take precautions. You can read the details in the Boxwood Blight Fact Sheet published by Saunders Brothers. As for homeowners, Saunders says: “we need to be careful about who works in our gardens and is their equipment being cleaned and where they are getting plants from”.

boxwood justin brouwers variety
The Justin Brouwers boxwood

That last bit of advice is key. As a homeowner, you want to put the care of your garden into the hands of a landscape maintenance firm that stays up to date on best practices and is actively engaged in high-level training of its staff. If you have any questions at all about the blight, please feel free to schedule a consultation with one of our certified horticulturalists. We’d be glad to walk with you through your garden and evaluate the condition of your boxwood plants.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering how to bring out the fullest expression in your landscape and gardens. Our eBook: Choosing the Right Kind of Landscape Maintenance Firm, is full of valuable information to help you understand the fundamental differences between landscape maintenance companies.

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Schedule a landscape maintenance assessment at your home with a Surrounds garden manager