Learning to Live with Boxwood Blight

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low growing boxwood border
PHOTO: ©Morgan Howarth

New Ways to Prevent the Spread of Boxwood Blight

Since the surprise attack of boxwood blight in our region in 2018, we now have three methods of preventing the spread of this fungal disease.

Blight-resistant Cultivars

Buxus Health Program

Preventive Maintenance

European and American growers have been busy developing boxwood cultivars that show greater resistance to the disease. This is now our first line of defense. Surrounds designers favor cultivars that are bred for blight resistance, and we purchase from growers who maintain the highest standard of preventive protocols at their nurseries.

In a seven-visit boxwood health program from April through October, we treat plants with “Top Buxus,” a fertilizer blend that reduces vulnerability to blight by stimulating the plant’s immune system. In addition, we are offering a twice-per-season systemic insecticide (Acelepryn) treatment to control boxwood leaf miners, psyllid, and scale.

Our crews carefully watch their properties, especially those with mature or heirloom (English) boxwood. These are the most vulnerable. Our people are trained on how to look for and identify the disease. After we complete work at each site, we spray our tools with an alcohol-based solution to sanitize them before driving to the next site.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for boxwood blight. If a plant becomes infected, we must pull it, collect all the leaf litter in the area around it, and treat nearby plants preventively if they had not already been treated.

How does boxwood blight spread?

The disease typically originates in leaf debris and becomes active in April and early May. Fungal spores can travel on the wind or be carried from one location to another by birds and pollinators. It may be introduced by new boxwood plants delivered to a property from the nursery. Blight spores can also travel on equipment that garden management crews use to prune plants. That’s why we sanitize tools in between job sites.

Blight moves rapidly so it is imperative that your landscape crews are vigilant for the first signs of it. It can destroy a plant in less than three weeks. Plus, the blight is highly transferable and can quickly spread from one plant to another.

The most important preventive step we can take is to purchase new boxwood varieties that have been bred for resistance to the blight. This significantly reduces the risk of introducing it into a landscape.   

When Boxwood blight first appeared in Europe during the 1990s, growers there, led by Belgium grower Didier Hermans, began experimentation and testing to develop blight-resistant cultivars. We now have access to four varieties which are currently being marketed as “The Better Boxwood” series. Here in Virginia, Saunder Brothers Nursery has developed its own blight-resistant cultivars which they call the NewGen Boxwood.

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Designing with Boxwood

With well over 100 cultivars bred for a range of unique characteristics, boxwood has been and continues to be one of the most popular shrubs in landscape design. Why? Versatility. It can play so many useful roles in a landscape. It grows in a variety of shapes and sizes, can be used for borders and hedges, and can be heavily pruned to create topiary. It maintains rich green foliage year-round and is able to grow in both full sun and partial shade conditions. In winter, boxwoods provide color and structure, while in summer they serve as a backdrop for flowering plants. 

Boxwood is a basic functional component of many landscape designs. And, here in Virginia, we cannot overlook the importance of the fact that boxwood is deer resistant! Unless they are really desperate, deer don’t care for the bitter taste of the foliage.

boxwood accents at entry gate
PHOTO: ©Morgan Howarth

Some of the functional roles boxwood play in landscape design are:

  • Foundation. Compact-sized, low-growing individual plants can be used to soften the transition between a built structure and the surrounding landscape. 
  • Privacy. Tall growing boxwood can be pruned into screening hedges along property boundaries.
  • Accenture. A potted boxwood on either side of a doorway or garden gate makes a welcoming statement. 
  • Definition. Low-growing boxwood can be employed as a low border along a raised planting bed, to outline a terrace or walkway, or to define separate use areas without blocking the view from one to the other. 
  • Layering.  Boxwood may be used to provide tall background or low foreground to offset other plantings.

Boxwood blight is here to stay, but so is boxwood

It’s true. The boxwood blight is here to stay. It is also true that most garden plants play host to one type of pest or another. The blight is just one more that we have to manage as part of tending a garden. And evidence shows that new boxwood cultivars used in combination with immune support treatments are successfully preventing and slowing down the spread of the disease. So that classic landscape plant, the boxwood, is here to stay, too.

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