Growing Boxwoods: Tips and Tricks

For faster growing, more cold-hardy shrubs, go with the Asian varieties.
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Buxus microphylla var. insularis  (01).jpg Habit

Buxus microphylla var. insularis (01).jpg Habit

Because of their dense foliage, Japanese boxwoods make great hedges and topiary forms. 

Because of their dense foliage, Japanese boxwoods make great hedges and topiary forms. 

Boxwoods have long been considered the most popular shrub in the American landscape and with good reason. Few other shrubs can take both sun and shade, providing both evergreen structure in winter and a backdrop for flowers in summer. 

Yet, when it comes to buying a boxwood at the garden center, be prepared for an array of choices—and pricetags—that can be overwhelming.

There are hundreds of varieties that fall into either the American, English or Japanese families of boxwoods.

American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) tends to be larger and grows faster than English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’). Without pruning, it will become a wide shrub or small tree reaching 15 or more feet and has a more irregular shape than its English cousin with its more compact shape. Also, the American’s leaves are dark green and pointy, while the English boxwood's leaves are more rounded and more dense. The English is often considered more popular because it tends to require little pruning and easily lends itself to hedges and topiary forms.

Then there is the smaller Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphyla). A native of Japan, Japanese boxwood – also called the Little-Leaf Boxwood – grows in both sun and shade but can become brown in winter if sited in full sun. They don’t hold their color as well as the English and American boxwoods, and their leaves are more rounded. But they are perfect for formal gardens, especially parterres.

Japanese boxwoods look very similar to Korean boxwoods (Buxus sinica), and both are extremely popular because they are fast growing and can tolerate heavy frosts much better than English and American ones. They also are more compact and can grow to about 8 feet tall and about 6 feet wide.

Consider these varieties for your garden:

  • ‘Wintergreen’ – great for hedges up to 4 feet tall.
  • ‘Morris Dwarf’ – hedges up to 1 foot tall and 1 foot wide.
  • ‘Morris Midget’ – extremely dwarf, sun tolerant.
  • ‘Green Beauty’ –  good substitute for English boxwood, up to 3 feet tall.
  • ‘Green Mountain’ – offspring of Japanese and English, excellent cold hardiness, good winter color.

The key to growing any boxwood is to avoid planting too deeply. Boxwoods will not tolerate wet soil, which leads to root rot, which in turn causes foliage to turn brown and die. Plant them to a depth so that their crown (the point at which the roots spread out from the trunk) is an inch or so above the soil surface. Give them well-drained soil that is slightly alkaline. When planting, remove half the soil in the hole and replace it with ground pink bark. Mix in remaining soil thoroughly and add a cup of garden lime.

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